Invisible China: A Journey Through Ethnic Borderlands by Colin Legerton and Jacob Rawson is a really pleasant book. I randomly found it on Amazon. I'd never heard about it from the Chinese blogosphere or anywhere else.
The two authors - Legerton and Rawson - went on two epic backpacking trips in the summer of 2006 and spring of 2007 that covered a ridiculously large swath of China's territory:
Legerton and Rawson, who were already proficient with Mandarin before their big trips, studied up on Korean and Uyghur before they embarked on their gargantuan journeys.
Their rigorous study of minority languages says a lot about the duo. They have immense respect for the cultures that they saw and made the most of their great opportunity to see cultures that, for many of them, are on the brink of extinction. The authors handled the people and situations they encountered with great care and painted very delicate pictures of the individuals and landscapes they witnessed.
Invisible China introduced me to a wide range of ethnic minorities in China I wasn't familiar with before: the rustic hunting cultures of the Ewenki, Oroqen, and Daur of the northeast, the fishermen Kinh of the southwest, and the central Asian-influenced Tajiks of the far west.
I particularly liked that two-thirds of the book is focused on China's southwest and far west. I've said it many times, but for me, China gets more interesting the further west one goes. The jungles and Himalayas of the southwest and the deserts and plateaus of the far west made for great settings.
My only real complaint about the book is that it is too short. There is so much covered in only about 230 pages. I wish that the authors had laid out more facts and history about each ethnic minority they were profiling. Brief histories of each group were given, but not much more than the basics and then the duo's experiences visiting their homelands. Seeing that they profiled fifteen different peoples and had thirteen different chapters, 230 pages felt squeezed. It easily could've been twice as long and I'd have been happy.
Invisible China is a great primer to the surprisingly diverse peoples on the fringes of the People's Republic.