Penny Watson travels among the Mosuo, the Naxi and the Yi on a 4000-kilometre drive through the south-west.
We're caught in bumper-to-bumper market-day traffic behind motorcycles and car, water buffalo and pedestrian-drawn carts, rusty bicycles and other ancient vehicles that still pass for transport in rural China.
As I look out the window of our four-wheel-drive, I watch scrawny chickens dart about, pecking frantically. Two mangy dogs scrap with each other in mock combat. Amid plumes of sunlit dust, children play. Their mothers and grandmothers, dressed in embroidered skirts and bright headscarves, huddle together, animated in conversation. The men sit by, smoking.
One woman stops suddenly, oblivious to the jostling crowd around her. She is unblinking, transfixed, her jaw ajar in cartoonish shock. Surely I can't be the first Westerner she's laid eyes on? Or maybe I am.
This is my fourth visit to China but the first time I have sidestepped the big cities and main tourist routes for a glimpse at some of the remote and rural parts of this vast and varied country.
There are five of us loaded into a four-wheel-drive on a two-week road trip of about 4000 kilometres: a driver, a local guide, a photographer and our host, Peter Schindler, a Hong Kong-based entrepreneur and former formula two driver who has turned his passion for switchbacks into a self-drive touring business in China.
I'm not on a tour; rather I'm taking a rear seat on a research trip for Schindler's Sichuan-Yunnan itinerary: heading south from Chengdu, the capital of the south-west province of Sichuan, to Yunnan province towards the Laos-Vietnam border, then to the Yunnan capital, Kunming.
Schindler is scouting for good hotels and restaurants, assessing the roads, measuring distances and logging GPS coordinates so his clients can get behind the wheel themselves, albeit with support from a lead car and a guide.
From where I'm sitting, the notion of driving through these provinces seems nearly impossible without such support. Foreigners can travel around China by plane and train and traverse main roads by bus but renting a car is a process dogged by bureaucracy. An antiquated law dating from 1968 stipulates that foreign drivers need a Chinese driver's licence. Schindler says the application process involves reams of red tape, the odd backhander and proficiency in Mandarin.
Once on the road, orientation isn't hassle-free, either. Apart from the language barrier, the national road atlas is a collation of provincial maps not uniformly to scale. Following a road from one page to the next requires the kind of patience even a Buddhist monk might find difficult to muster.
Nor are the maps necessarily accurate. Some highways, marked clearly on the page, might have made the planning stage but are yet to be built. Schindler is trying to overcome such difficulties so travellers can enjoy the freedom and adventure of the road in safety.
And what a ride it is. China's south-west has some of the country's most awe-inspiring scenery, with an equal mix of dirt road and smooth bitumen well suited to touring. Sichuan, on the edge of the Great Tibetan Plateau, is mountainous and green and the roads duck and dive over steep passes, through rocky gorges and along the gushing red rivers from which Sichuan derives its name.
Two famed historical pit-stops punctuate our journey through Sichuan. Just south of Chengdu, Emei Shan is one of China's four sacred Buddhist mountains. Pilgrims journey here to visit dozens of monasteries, including the first Buddhist temple in China, built in the 1st century. Others come to hike the terrain, immersing themselves physically and spiritually in a mystical landscape, home to tea plantations, vast pine forests and feisty monkeys.
Nearby, Leshan's remarkable Dafo Buddha, the world's tallest seated Buddha at 71 metres, has been carved into the cliff face at the confluence of three rivers. Its seven-metre ears and impressive eight-metre big toe are worthy in their own right of pious observation.
The Buddha was constructed to calm the rivers and protect sailors navigating these tumultuous waterways. The story goes that the silt and debris discarded in the river during the work inadvertently calmed the water flow. That it survived the Cultural Revolution is a talking point that occupies hours of our driving time.
Food is another topic that gets a lot of airplay, mostly inspired by the scenery: patches of the famed red Sichuan peppers drying beside dusty roads, bubbling cauldrons of noodle broth in front of blackened kitchens or cobs of corn hanging under the wooden eaves of little homes.
Sichuan cuisine is cooked around the world but there is nothing quite like eating it on home turf, where the main ingredient, Sichuan pepper, grows on trees seemingly as common in this part of China as gum trees in Australia.
Schindler has an aptitude for finding excellent local restaurants and food stalls in the most unlikely places. Vanessa, our guide, is equally adept at choosing adventurous provincial dishes that don't necessarily involve tripe or testicles. At mealtimes at cafes and restaurants, the lazy susan delivers without fail exciting flavours and textures, from twice-cooked suckling pig and marinated mushrooms to fiery chilli beef loaded with Sichuan peppers that detonate in the mouth.
Yunnan cuisine is not as highly lauded but the experience of travelling in the province - touted among the top 10 destinations in Lonely Planet's Best In Travel 2009 - is just as enticing as its neighbour's. In the north, Yunnan shares Sichuan's topography but as we journey further south the banana palms and rice paddies are reminiscent of the more tropical climes of Thailand and Vietnam. Yunnan has at least half of China's native flora species and a large share of the country's parks and reserves.
The most fascinating feature of Yunnan is its cultural diversity, with 26 of the 55 ethnic minorities officially recognised by the Chinese Government. The distinctive traditions of these ethnic groups differ dramatically from those of the nation's dominant Han Chinese culture. In Yunnan towns and villages, their idiosyncratic mix of appearance, dress, food, architecture and way of life makes travelling here unforgettable.
The Mosuo people are perhaps the most intriguing. On the Sichuan-Yunnan border, near cloud-shrouded Lugu Lake, the Mosuo are mainland China's last practising matriarchal society. Children of the Mosuo retain their mother's name and live under the matriarchal roof. Their men "stay over" but ultimately return to live and work in their own mother's household.
Lugu Lake's main village of Luoshui is accustomed to tourists but having a car means we can detour to the little village of Lige on the Sichuan side and walk with the Mosuo along cobbled streets and watch them fish in the lake and work in the old shop-houses. Bedding down for the night in a village home occupied by three generations of Mosuo women is also an option.
Further south, a related minority, the Naxi, have their stronghold in the ancient town of Lijiang where timber-and-earth houses with tiled roofs line a labyrinth of cobbled streets and laneways. In scenery evoking ancient silhouettes immortalised in blue-and-white porcelain, stone bridges span tiny canals fringed by weeping willows. Our fleeting visit allows us a glimpse of the Naxi culture in the souvenir and gift shops and on the walls of its aged buildings are examples of the Naxi language, one of the few still in use today that uses hieroglyphics.
The last leg of our journey is arduous. A cheeky green line on the map should be a highway but it more closely resembles a dirt track. An expected half-hour highway cruise turns into a four-hour pothole expedition, though with excellent scenery. Schindler has to re-jig the entire itinerary to avoid this bit. Not us. After a 12-hour stint we climb the winding road to Yuanyang rice terraces, the last stop before making an early-morning dash to Kunming airport.
Surrounding us are 12,500 hectares of striking rice terraces - steep hillsides ribboned by horizontal furrows. When filled with water the terraces reflect the golden and pink hues of the rising and setting sun, a marvel to behold. Cultivating rice in otherwise impenetrable terrain is an ancient horticultural practice of the Hani minority, who live and work here alongside the Yi, Miao and Yao ethnic groups.
The old town of Xinjie, at the centre of this rice-growing area, is a huddle of concrete buildings clinging desperately to the hillside. The main street is neatly paved but the side streets are chaotic with little market stalls and food stands.
We fall into step behind a line of Yi girls casually decked in ethnic dress: a combination of blue trousers contrasted with shirt sleeves, collars and rear pelmets embroidered heavily in fantastically bright pinks and yellows. Where one might expect handbags, the Yi carry brown chickens by their ankles and woven baskets on their backs.
At dusk we pile into the car again and find one of the handful of terrace-viewing platforms placed strategically to witness the full beauty of the landscape. They are one of the few concessions made to visitors, despite how revered the site is among Chinese tourists.
As usual, the short journey is as enthralling as the destination itself. Along a clumsy strip of shops that passes for a village, an old man in a green Mao jacket inhales smoke from a big bamboo pipe; a bare-chested man hangs strips of meat on hooks in his windowless butcher shop; a young woman dunks a chicken carcass in a tub of boiling water on the roadside. As we drive by, two girls point at us simultaneously, amused, no doubt, by our captivated expressions.
Penny Watson travelled courtesy of On The Road In China.
You will require at least one stop and a change of aircraft on the way to Chengdu, in Sichuan province, China. Thai Airways flies for $960 via Bangkok. Singapore Airlines flies for $1110 via Singapore. Cathay Pacific flies for $760 via Hong Kong. Qantas has a fare for $1200 where you fly to Hong Kong and then a Chinese carrier takes you to Chengdu. Some airlines fly into Chengdu and out of Kunming for the same fare. (Fares are low-season return from Melbourne and Sydney, excluding tax, which varies with itinerary, airline, stops and time of payment.) Australians require a $40 visa for a stay of up to 30 days.
On The Road In China's 15-day Sichuan-Yunnan Explorer tour departs in April and November from Chengdu; maximum group size of 12. It costs EUR3790 ($7426) a person, twin share, and includes all accommodation, meals, one-way car rental with GPS, tour guide, ground transport, internal flights, petrol, insurance, toll fees, temporary Chinese driving licence application fee (if self-driving) and entry fee to major attractions. Flights to and from Chengdu are not included. Phone 8003 5317 or see ontheroadinchina.com.