China's Southwest Mountainous Region in Eastern Himalaya is a ‘biodiversity hotspot’ of global interest for conservation. Yet little is known about what has driven this unique diversity. The dramatic topography of the Southwest Mountainous Region resulting from the tectonic uplift during the late Pliocene leads to dramatic ecological stratification, which creates physical barriers to migration and isolates organisms into different subregions and mountain systems. This agrees with the observation that the phylogeographical patterns found in four species of birds (Alcippe morrisonia, Stachyridopsis ruficeps, Parus monticolus and Aegithalos concinnus) distributed in this region are characterized by deep splits between lineages that coalesce between 0.8 and 2.1 Ma. Unlike other regions at this latitude, the Southwest Mountainous Region was largely unaffected by the Pleistocene glaciations. Genetically isolated populations of these birds could thus be maintained throughout the Pleistocene in these rather stable montane environments. In comparison, we found radically different phylogeographical patterns in populations of the same four species distributed in the adjacent lowland, the Central China region. This region has a distinctly different geological history with dramatic, climate-induced shifts in vegetation during the Pleistocene. Here, we found a considerably less geographical structure in the genetic variation and a much younger coalescence time (0.3–0.7 Ma). We also found evidence of genetic bottlenecks during the glacial periods and gene flow during the interglacial expansions. We conclude that the high genetic diversity in the Southwest Mountainous Region results from a long-term in situ diversification within these evolutionary isolated and environment stable montane habitats.