Guiyang doesn’t usually appear on tourist itineraries, and when I arrived there late last month I began to see why. It felt like China of the 1990s, before Starbucks and McDonald’s and Louis Vuitton infiltrated every major city. I was traveling with two childhood friends—one who had lived in China, one who was visiting for the first time—and we began suggesting tourist slogans for the places we visited. It goes back to my friends’ contest for the best alternative slogan for our home state—“Iowa: Empty, Promises.” Kunming was the “City of Crazy Lights.” (Take that, Paris!) Guiyang, the capital of southwestern Guizhou province, was “China’s Grim City.”
It has the hazy air of Beijing without the historic or ultramodern architecture. On one street corner we saw a salesman surrounded by a small crowd. The product he was pitching? A safety razor. A famous local dish, changwang noodles, is made from intestines and blood sausage. It’s tasty in a spicy organ meat sort of way. From a culinary perspective it represents where Guizhou stands in China’s economic pecking order.
Around Guiyang’s central square, near the towering statue of Chairman Mao, the products and services on offer seemed transported from a different era. A man squatted next to a rag where he displayed medicinal plants. A street-side dentist reached into a woman’s mouth with a pair of pliers. Nearby a woman with what looked like a serious case of varicose veins was being cupped, and the doctor swabbed up blood with a towel. In the river nearby, men and women floated past on single trunks of thick bamboo, a traditional sport in Guizhou.
Around the corner we walked through a shop front and into an enclosed courtyard filled with dozens of tables of old folks playing mahjong, high stakes mahjong by the looks of the cash piles. Near the center of the courtyard a crowd four or five deep surrounded a table. They were playing some sort of baccarat game. The crowd was festive, and there were fat piles of 100 kuai (or about $15) notes on the table. I asked what the game was. A menacingly smiling man kept repeating in my ear, “For fun! For fun!” I noticed that he had several colleagues dressed in white nearby. They talked on cell phones while monitoring the punters, the money and the doors. I thought about taking a photo, then thought better of it.
We headed off. Outside we bought corn fritters from a woman who had a charcoal brazier strapped to her waist. It occurred to me that I had just seen more amazing sites in those few hours than I do in an average week or two in Beijing. After we left, Guiyang still went by the moniker of China’s Grim City, but we all realized that its haze concealed something fantastic.