It starts with a holler. The crowd answers by leaping from the path and sprinting, splashing through the paddy fields as two fighting dogs fly off their chains. Within seconds, the animals disappear into an O of spectators that forms but then shifts fluidly to accommodate the dogs' random movements as they snarl and tumble in the muck, the oohs and aahs providing anyone who didn't dash for a front-row spot with a vivid commentary.

When it's over, there's a sense that it could have been far worse. Neither animal looks badly mauled. More to the point, most of the other dogs at this event are being cooked and eaten. When you order a hot dog at a party in Guizhou province, you get what you ask for.

It's early November, and the Miao people are celebrating their New Year. The Miao are all about festivals - they have 158 of them a year, it's said - but the New Year festival in Chongan, a small town in eastern Guizhou, has a reputation for being one of the best. Two-thousand people have come, the men in shabby work clothes and the women in spectacular traditional costume, all rainbow colours and flamboyant silver jewellery.

The dog fights are only the prelude: the buffalo fights draw the big crowds. These encounters start slowly, as the lumbering beasts size each other up and lazily butt heads. Onlookers stand-ing recklessly close savour the moment of tension. Hundreds of others have found much more sensible vantage points, on the surrounding ridges. Then comes the explosion: the buffalo suddenly stampede, horns flailing and hooves thudding, towards one doomed corner of the crowd. Panic sets in. People fall over each other, slipping in the mud, desperate to avoid being crushed by the charging bulls. At the last second, a gap opens in the floundering human wall and the beasts - one fleeing, the other pursuing - tear off across the fields.

Shaken, I ask a fellow spectator - an old peasant who smokes a black cigar inserted vertically into the bowl of a worn brass pipe - how this dangerous spectacle compares with past festivals.

"Oh, it's always like this," he shrugs. And do people ever die? "Not recently they haven't."

It's a party that befits this tough, no-nonsense part of China. Not that the Chongan festival is just about violence and thrill-seeking: there's singing and dancing, traditional musical troupes, a bouncy castle for the children and other funfair-style attractions. But as you enjoy these gentler diversions, just keep an eye on your surroundings: young men are staging impromptu horse races, blowing whistles to warn the strolling partygoers that they're galloping along the footpaths. And there's always the risk of being bulldozed by half a tonne of bovine fury that's just burst clear of the fighting pen.

Chongan is part of a patchwork of villages spread across eastern Guizhou that is home to a variety of ethnic groups. With a little forward planning you can be part of the celebrations at almost any time of the year.

Individual villages are also calibrated, if unintentionally, to appeal to different types of visitor. Xijiang, the biggest and most famous of all the Miao villages, is the most developed. The 100 yuan (HK$123) entrance fee and karaoke joints lining the main street are depressing innovations, but Xijiang still has a lot to offer. Turn off the main drag and you can quickly lose yourself in the winding lanes of what remains a real village community. The Xijiang vista - hundreds of tightly packed homes jumbling the local hillsides - is one of China's most arresting sights. Just be careful which guesthouse you stay in (tip: the one next to the butcher's shop, where they start slaughtering pigs at dawn, is not the most restful).

The smaller, less touristy villages - such as Langde and Matang - offer a more bucolic experience, and home-stays are recommended. Here, the pace of life is slow, and nature - banished from much of China - has been allowed to stay. The streets are alive with smells, sounds and colours. From the villagers' dark pinewood homes, roofed with slate, hang burnt-yellow sheaves of drying corn, or flame-red bunches of chillies. Flooded rice terraces notched into the steep slopes of Guizhou's karst valleys glow green on one side and shine like mirrors as they catch the light on the other. In the markets, women in traditional dress - whose style denotes their ethnic identity - carry chickens trussed up with string much like women in Central tote designer handbags, and shoppers can find beautiful works of traditional art, notably embroidery or batik, costing far less than the imitations you'll find on city shelves.

When you've had your fill of village life, eastern Guizhou has one more hidden gem up its sleeve: the ancient river town of Zhenyuan. Off the radar of most tourists - Lonely Planet writers, for example, missed it completely - Zhenyuan boasts beautifully preserved classical architecture and a maze of atmospheric backstreets in which you can lose yourself for hours. Implausibly, given just how far from China's old northern borders we are at this point, a little-known section of the Great Wall runs along the hilltops that tower above the town.

If the crumbling remnants of the wall aren't enough to inspire you to make the climb, the bird's-eye view of Zhenyuan and the blue-green Wuyang river that curves through it certainly make the steep ascent worthwhile. Boat trips along the Wuyang and through Guizhou's dramatic saw-tooth landscape are also highly recommended.

This pleasant, lazy river town is even easier to savour if you have come fresh from a raucous Miao festival, where your life - reflected in the eyes of a charging water buffalo - has flashed before you.


Getting there: numerous airlines fly from Hong Kong and Shenzhen to Guiyang, Guizhou's capital. The town of Kaili, a good springboard for trips to the surrounding villages, is several hours east of Guiyang by bus or train. Zhenyuan is one hour's train journey east of Kaili.