Huangguoshu Waterfalls are no stranger to most Chinese. Many learn about the natural wonder during geological classes in middle school.
Situated in Southwest China's inland province of Guizhou, the falls are the largest in Asia. The region is also unique as it is host to a diversified cultural heritage of minority groups which make up 30 per cent of the province's 30 million population.
The water of the Sancha River is made into chains of pearls by shoals and falls into a deep pool, forming the Yinlianzhui Waterfall, which has amazing chain-like appearance.
In Huangguoshu alone, Bouyei, Miao, Gelao and Yi people have live cheek-by-jowl with the Han. And each tribe has kept its tradition alive for generations, ensuring the area remains mysterious and exotic.
"Woooow!" Such screams of excitement echo for a short while before being drowned out by the thundering water of the mighty Huangguoshu. You can feel the mist on your face from nearly a mile away as you wind down a mountain to the base of the falls.
The sight of water free-falling through the air from the escarpment and crashing to earth in a cloud of spray has the "wow-factor."
"See?! Rainbows!" shouts a girl. Two rainbows were hanging in the mist on both sides of the waterfalls. And there they stayed, colourful arches over the roaring water. Water crashing onto rocks created numerous pearl-like drops. They tumbled to the pool below, which is named Xiniu Tan or Rhinoceros Pool.
About 300 years ago, Xu Xiake, a great traveller and geologist of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), wrote a poem after visiting the falls: "Pearl flying, jade bumping, foam dancing, for rising, what a mighty scenery..."
Such a poem, however, cannot fully describe all its grace - only a personal visit will suffice.
Trekking along the narrow path, you enter a cave hidden in the cliff of the waterfall. It is actually a tunnel of karst penetrating the escarpment. It is wet inside and water drips from above. There are six naturally worn holes, like windows, in the cave, and through them you witness the sheets of water which appear like curtains. Stretching your hands out you can scope some of the fresh water for a drink. "It must have a great number of minerals," said a visitor.
The cave is about 12 metres high with five halls, three springs and a small waterfall inside.
"It is believed to be the only waterfall in the world that can be seen from six directions," says Wang Fang, a 20-year-old tour guide of Bouyei ethnic group. We had tried five - from below, left, right, front and back - but has yet to view from the top.
Wang suggested we go to the town the next day, from where we could see the top of the falls.
"Unfortunately, what you see today is not the most spectacular sight," Wang says. She explains that the falls' real power come when the Baishui River is in full flood after heavy rains. The river drops 74 metres over a 81 metres precipices.
There are 18 falls in the scenic Huangguoshu Waterfall system. They include 105-metre-wide Doupotang Waterfall, which is the widest, Luositan Waterfall, which boasts the longest shoal, and Yinlianzhui Waterfall, which has an amazing chain-like appearance. The water of Sancha River is made into chains of pearls by shoals and falls into a deep pool. It is said all the falls pump out more than 700 cubic metres of water per second.
In addition, there are more than 10 caverns and the Tianxinqiao Stone Forest, with stalactites and stalagmites of curious shapes.
To see the top or the upper reach of the Huangguoshu Waterfalls, a friend of mine and I went to the Huangguoshu town the next morning. To my surprise I found more than the charm of the natural beauty - the peaceful life of a small town.
A quiet afternoon at a small village in the Longgong (Dragon Palace Scenic Spot.)
There are two towns around the waterfalls scenic spot with a population over 20,000 of various ethnic groups including Han, Bouyei, Miao and Yi. They have kept their way of living for centuries, though, modernity has somehow invaded the place.
The town at the upper reaches of the falls is also called Huangguoshu and the other called Baishui, which is located near the entrance of the waterfalls.
Strolling upward to the centre of the Huangguoshu town, we saw typical scenes of a small town. Women sat around selecting vegetables while chatting, and men sat or squatted by walls smoking. Motorcycles and bicycles made their ways among people shouldering their goods or belongings. Owners of small grocery stores stood by their counters waiting for customers.
We were accompanied all the way by the roaring waterfalls, which is just several metres away behind the houses. At the turn of the narrow street, we were surprised to find a Catholic church standing quietly by the roadside, facing the roaring waters.
The main entrance was closed with a side door left opened. Entering the courtyard we saw a group of children sit in a small room. "Hello, what are you doing here?" we greeted the children. A woman in her late 30s invited us into the room. "We are having a class," she said, adding that it was a newly open kindergarten sponsored by the church. She is Sister Tang Huiqun, one of the three nuns who take care of the kindergarten. There are now 30 children aged from 2 to 5 years old.
According to Tang, the church was built more than 100 years ago by a French priest. "Nobody knows his name," said Sister Tang.
I guessed it must have been built by one of the Western missioners trying to spread Christianity in the far remote areas of Southwest China, including Tibet, Yunnan and Guizhou, in early 20th century.
Tang said there are more than 100 people in the town and nearby villages practising Catholicism. Every day between 7 and 8 pm, the church fills with worshipers' praying. On Sunday morning, more followers attend mass. Tang said there is not a priest at the church. "Every three or six months we have a clergyman from the city of Anshun visit us," she said. Sister Tang was baptized 18 years ago.
Interesting to see and not far from the church, in a small grocery store, is an old man writing something on several envelop-shaped papers.
"These are for the coming traditional Chinese festival for the ghosts," he said. He wrote down the names of both deceased and their living decedents.
According to tradition, the festival for the ghosts falls on the 15th day of the seventh month on Chinese lunar calendar, which was August 30 this year. It has been the tradition for many people in the town to burn the paper in memory of their ancestors.
Three men in their 50s sat outside the store chatting.
None are practising Catholics. "I am of Bouyei minority," one said. "We Bouyeis believe in ghosts and we respect our deceased ancestors," he added.
The booming tourism has changed people's lives. In the town of Baishui, some local farmers no longer rely on land, instead they run family-inns.
"I started building my inn in 1995," said Zhu Yunhua, of Yi minority. Last year he finished his three-storey construction. "I had to halt my construction whenever I ran out of money," said Zhu in his late 40s.
The small family hotel has an accommodation for 40 people. Last year the Zhu family earned about 30,000 yuan (US$3,600), but this can barely support his three children's education.
"We are expecting more people to come to Huangguoshu," Zhu said.
"But I'm not sure how long I'll stay here since the local government has decided to move the towns to the upper reaches of Baishui River, to give way to the forests for the better protection of the waterfall areas," he said.
After seeing the natural wonders of Huangguoshu, we were told we should not miss the Stone Village of the Buyi people.
Lying some 7 kilometres away from the waterfalls, at the upper reaches of the Baishui River, the village is really a world of stone.
A Bouyei woman gives on the spot demonstration of her unique skills of making wax-print at the Stone Village.
Before approaching, I first saw gray houses lying uphill by a small mountain with a river running at the front. Surrounded by green farmland, the village appears quiet in the afternoon sunshine.
Houses in the village are all made of stones, free of tiles and bricks. Even the roof is piled with stone slabs.
It was said there are 300 households in the village, sharing the same surname, Wu. All are of Bouyei minority.
At the entrance of the village lie stands selling their traditional batik of wax-print. Many Bouyei women gave on the spot demonstrations of their unique skills of making wax-print. It has been the tradition for the Bouyei women to make such items from as young as 11 years old.
With a small cup containing indigo-blue, each woman lined and dotted a piece of white cloth by dipping an iron slice in the indigo-blue. After they finish dyeing the cloth they wash it in the Baishui River, which helps make it an ideal colour and pattern.
Before leaving the Stone Village, I bought a piece of batik for a souvenir at 20 yuan. "This design of circles is particularly for our sleeves," said an woman in her 30s, pointing at her left sleeve. "It symbolizes good luck," she said.