China Beyond the Wall and Behind the Walls of Locals.
There are places where tourists go. All tourists. Those traveling independently and those traveling in groups.
In China I was traveling in a small group with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) and such places, like the panda sanctuary and on the Yangtze river cruise, I would see independent solo travelers and slip away from the group to talk with them. I wanted to compare notes. I wanted to see how they were experiencing China compared to my experience of it.
In the end I drew a surprising conclusion. As one who, with the exception of a couple of trips in my teens, always traveled independently, I determined that there are countries, like China, where taking a tour makes sense.
Traveling with OAT, I spent less energy on logistics and more on trying to understand this amazing country. And one of the big benefits of OAT, which specializes in small groups, is that we got to go beyond the usual sights like the Great Wall and behind residential walls to meet people in their homes.
Life in a Beijing Hutong home.
Our small group got a glimpse of ordinary Chinese life on a tour to a Beijing Hutong. Hutongs are old, residential neighborhoods with low, flat-roofed buildings crisscrossed by narrow lanes. For lunch, we went into the home of the woman above, where we had wide a variety of foods including lotus flower root and the best vegetarian dumplings I had in China. They were delicate in flavor and absolutely wonderful.
The home had been in her family, whose members had been artists and intellectuals, for over 100 years, surviving different monarchies and regimes. Seeing the model of the original home and comparing it to what she lives in today (just 400 sq ft. or so) was fascinating.
A rural school visit.
Exploring the countryside and villages is not something that either of the independent solo travelers whom I’d met had done. With enough time in China I’m sure it would be possible but with only three weeks, getting into a small community was a great benefit of being with the group. We went to the village of Donghan where we visited Guang Ming Primary School which is supported in part by donations from Grand Circle Foundation (connected with OAT) and stayed in a guest house overnight.
When we arrived at the school, the children came up to us confidently and small groups of them each took an adult by the hand and led us to their classroom. There they gave us gifts they had made, practiced English and performed a few songs. When they went out for recess we did too and watched the children at play. Table tennis was popular with the boys.
Day and night in the village
Donghan is known as the village where the colorful “peasant” painting style originated in the 1950′s. Artists were sent to live with farmers for re-education in the 1950s by the Mao Zedong government as a means of neutralizing political opponents. The result – the artists taught art classes and the the “peasant” painting style emerged.
That evening we stayed in a guest house and joined our hostess in making the meal. Later, we went out to the community park and line danced. Yes, line dancing is very popular with the Chinese. We saw it in many parks on the trip. It was fun to have our hostess bring us there and teach us the steps. It was a great evening.
The relocated (or displaced) in the Three Gorges Dam area.
After one night on the Yangtze river cruise, we docked in Fengdu where we visited a farmer who had been relocated to make the Three Gorges dam possible. Alex, our tour leader, translated a question-and-answer session with the family elder who was 73 years old. According to this man, he was happy to have been relocated. His previous house was 2000 sq. ft made of mud and clay. Located near the river, it was susceptible to flooding. When being relocated, he had a choice – to accept the land he was offered or select his own location and get it approved by the government. He did the latter. He was given 100,000 yuan for the move. Buying his land and building his home cost 150,000 yuan. He borrowed the difference from friends and family and now he is not affected by flooding and has a 5,000 sq. ft. house of cement that is dry. It all seemed a bit rosy but it is also plausible given that it has been five years since the relocation. Perspectives change.
While it was wonderful to be able to ask this man anything, he is only a sample of one. Numbers of those relocated range from 2 to 4 million. Not everyone was happy. Watch Up the Yangtze (a film recommended by the Yangtze River guide) to get another perspective. The conundrum that is the Three Gorges Dam project also makes me think about Japan and the nuclear disaster following the tsunami there in 2011. How does one weigh the disruption of millions of lives against avoiding eleven nuclear power plants (which the dam is supposed to have done) and the risk they represent. Without doubt, the building of the dam and the relocation of millions is a very complex subject.
These are just a few of the opportunities that Overseas Adventure Travel offered that allowed us get off the beaten path in China. Every day our local guide (we always had a local guide in addition to Alex, our trip leader) shared his or her personal life with us as well as information on their home city.
Every day, we caught another glimpse of real life in China.
My thanks to Overseas Adventure Travel for making this trip possible. While they supplied the trip, all opinions are my own.