Borderland travel: The China that defies all stereotypes

Willie Grace | 11/5/2014, 6 a.m. | Updated on 11/5/2014, 6 a.m.
"Most people are unaware of the sheer diversity of China in terms of ethnic minorities," says the former Beijing resident ...

(CNN) -- For a year, journalist and author David Eimer traveled the edges of China exploring a side of the country that obliterates expectations.

"Most people are unaware of the sheer diversity of China in terms of ethnic minorities," says the former Beijing resident and China correspondent for the Sunday Telegraph newspaper. "I met people who have blond hair and blue eyes and look completely European but are 100% Chinese in terms of upbringing and language."

The Chinese government officially classifies 55 ethnic minorities.

During his travels through Yunnan, Tibet, Xinjiang and the Dongbei region, Eimer met many of them.

These are people distinct from the Chinese majority -- the Han -- with their own languages, cultures and histories, who happen to be living within China's national borders.

Eimer has collated their stories in his latest book, "The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China," published in July by Bloomsbury USA.

CNN spoke with Eimer (now based in Bangkok) about his travels and China's ethnic minority communities.

CNN: Why write this book?

David Eimer: There are a hundred million people living in China who aren't Han. I wanted to go to those regions and give them a bit of voice.

CNN: Your favorite place from your travels?

Eimer: Deep south of Yunnan.

It's got great food, it's not a politically sensitive area.

Almost half of Chinese minorities live in the south of Yunnan. If you want, you can see Hakka villages, Dai villages and a fair number of tourists do go there for that.

The Chinese like to think of Xishuangbanna [an autonomous prefecture within Yunnan Province] as their own Thailand. It doesn't have a coastline, but the food, language and climate are all similar to Southeast Asia.

CNN: Any memories stand out from the area?

Eimer: One of my favorite experiences was trekking through villages along the border with Burma and staying with families along the way.

You just arrive and ask around, pay them RMB 50 ($8) and they'll say, "sure," and you can drink rice wine with them.

CNN: Which was the most difficult place to cover?

Eimer: Tibet just because of the controls the government places on foreigners who go there.

As a journalist you're not meant to be there, but it's not a problem for tourists.

It's a stunning part of the world. You'll see scenery that you don't see anywhere else on the planet.

(But) Tibetans are the hardest people to really engage with. You won't want to get them in trouble by asking sensitive questions, and a lot are scared by the heavy PLA and wujing (paramilitary) presence.

The food is really bad. The hotels aren't really hotels, they're just like plain concrete-floor rooms with no showers. There was a space of 10 days where I had one shower.

CNN: What was wrong with the food?

Eimer: They can't grow vegetables so it's all imported.