If you are planning a trip to the popular sites of China- Beijing with its Great Wall and Imperial Palace, the incredible port and commercial center of Shanghai, Guilin and its limestone cliffs and misty landscape, Xian, the site of the buried army of the Han Empire, and the other most well known sites - you are in for a series of historical, aesthetic, and cultural wonders. As I write this blog, China is probably completing the construction of some new road or office building or apartment complex and the face of the country is changing stone by stone. But there is another China for those with interest in diversity and history and tradition, a China which requires perhaps a good number of additional miles and a bit more time and effort to experience. It is the China of minority life, a colorful look at age old traditions, dress, music, architecture, and customs.
The visitor could start in the mountain kingdom of Tibet which most travelers are quite familiar with. The political dilemma of a sojourn in that province are personal. Like some other areas in China, it is a place seeking independence and experiencing oppression. Yet it is clearly a different culture. The ethnic background of the people, the religious practices and many other aspects of the province are distinct. For an even more dramatic encounter with unexpected minority life, one might wish to travel to China's far western province of Xinjiang, a massive area bordering Central Asia, Pakistan, India and Tibet. This is Muslim China. The majority of the people who live there are of Turkic or Persian descent and fair-skinned much like their Central Asian neighbors although China is encouraging hundreds of thousands of Han Chinese to move into the province to establish a working majority (a common Chinese maneuver). There are Uyghurs, Tajiks, Khyrgiz and other peoples in the area who speak their own language, dress in their own style, worship in mosques, have a distinct history and art and music and clearly oppose the rulers in Beijing. Present among them are Hui people who are ethnically Han Chinese yet practice Islam. One can see the unusual architecture of the Hui homes and mausoleums, the yurts of the nomadic Kyrghyz and other mountain dwellers, historic mosques and amazing Buddhist caves decorated more than a thousand years ago. It is an unsettled area which includes a long leg of the famous Silk Road dotted with scattered market towns and isolated farms as it runs between great deserts and high mountains .
While there are several other sections of China where distinct subcultures exist, the largest concentration of these lie in the South in Yunnan, the part of China neighboring the Indo-Chinese Peninsula. A few hours south of Kunming where the Stone Forest is a tourist attraction live the Yi (ee) people, one of the most colorful of the minority groups. You can visit their small villages and see the unique and colorful dress that is distinctive to their group. Even further south, the mountain groups that live near Xishangbanna, home to the Dai people, share many of the customs of their neighbors in Burma and Laos. North of Kunming minority life is even more in evidence. The Bai minority group are quite a sight at their weekly markets all of them in traditional, unfamiliar dress. A walk through these markets is a photographer's dream. The ancient pagodas just outside the city of Dali are worth traveling to alone. A bit further north still is Lijiang, home of the fascinating matriarchal Naxi who have single handedly retained ancient music of the countryside in spite of repression of their musicians during Mao's tenure. They also maintain the only known Dongba Cultural hieroglyphs and lead their own singular life in the beautiful city. Past Lijiang is the fascinating road to Shangri La, the area made famous in Lost Horizons, a spectacular mountain area inhabited mostly by Tibetans. One other characteristic of Yunnan that should be mentioned is its eternal spring-like weather. A great place for sunshine, beauty and wonder.
There are 56 recognized minority groups in China although they constitute only a small portion of the total population. If the tourist is interested, he or she can visit the Manchu in the far north and the Zhuang in the South or any of the many places where traditional peoples are concentrated. In any event, such a voyage offers the tourist a substantially different China than one might ever imagine. When we Westerners think of exotic countries on other continents, we imagine that each cultural area is homogeneous but such is not the case. Travel almost anywhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, or southern Asia or many sections of South America and Meso-America or even islands like Borneo or Papua New Guinea and you are in for the delightful experience of visiting people who live considerably differently from their nearby neighbors and who take pride in their membership in a group, usually more than their citizenship in a nation.