Many Chinese villagers have never met a foreigner and will be extremely curious about any foreign visitors. It is not uncommon for villagers to invite people into their home for a cup of tea or even a home-cooked meal. Don’t worry about the language barrier – communicating through sign language and smiles is part of the fun. Chinese villagers are down to earth and usually very warm and welcoming to visitors who show a true curiosity about their lifestyle. Bring some small tokens for village children – stickers, pencils, erasers – and you will have new friends for life; friends who will eagerly show you the best climbing trees and swimming holes in the village.
Rural China is the China we know from pictures and movies – farmers in rice hats driving water buffalo across misty rice paddies, mud-brick buildings with ceramic tiles, lazy rivers snaking through imposing mountains. China’s cities, with their skyscrapers and rows of block apartment buildings, are often indistinguishable from one another, but rural China is unique and picturesque.
In rural China every dish is farm-to-table. Vegetables are seasonal and locally grown, so rest assured everything is fresh. Even meat will, for the most part, be from local cows and pigs, which means no preservatives or additives. In many locales you will even be able to sample some of the wild edible plants that grow nearby, such as wild mushrooms, ferns, and various types of flowers.
It goes without saying that China’s best hiking and biking trails are not in the cities. However, in a country with a population the size of China’s, you won’t ever go too long without seeing another soul, and its rural villages can make great stopping points on a long and tiring journey – whether you’re exploring one of the national parks, taking a day trip outside of Beijing, or embarking on an epic cycle across the old Silk Road. Stock up on clean water and allow the locals to fill your backpack with treats for the road as you rest up for the next leg. Many villagers will be happy to host travelers, providing a bed and a meal, even if there is not an official guesthouse or hotel in that area. Be sure to pay them for their hospitality, and decide on a price beforehand so that there are no misunderstandings. Typically between 50-100 RMB will cover you for the night.
While China’s big cities are largely globalized and traditional Chinese culture is watered down by modern influence there, rural China has preserved many aspects of it. You may happen upon a traditional wedding, that looks to be straight out of the movies, in which the bride leaves her familial home in a sedan-chair. Or perhaps you’ll see locals burning paper money in order to honor their ancestors. Festivals in particular are more exciting to celebrate in rural China, where you’ll likely experience the festival’s unique traditions, than in the cities, where festivals are often just another day.
While most older buildings in China’s cities were torn down in the mid-90s to make way for large, modern construction projects, in China’s villages many centuries-old structures are still standing. Almost every village will have a local temple – some modern, some ancient. Other structures to look out for are old bridges and the old market square, the familial home of the old village heads. Every building has a story so, if you speak Chinese or are traveling with a translator, be sure to ask the locals to tell you about the histories of these structures.
Horrified by Beijing smog? Rural China largely avoids the environmental problems that plague the cities and, while the streets may not always be exactly clean, the skies are usually blue. If you’re far away enough from the city, you should also be able to stargaze on clear nights. Depending on the location, there may even be forests surrounding the village, providing fresh, clean, country air, which is just what the doctor ordered for the smog-clogged lungs of city-dwellers.
Many travelers don’t realize that China is actually a very diverse place, with 56 different ethnic minorities living all over the country. From the Miao in the southwest to the Mongols in the north, China has an astounding array of cultures and traditions for a traveler to explore. However, most ethnic minorities living in the cities have been somewhat assimilated into the dominant Han culture, whereas in rural villages you will find these cultures have maintained their traditional cultures and practices a lot more. In the more remote villages, many people – especially of the older generation – still wear their traditional ethnic clothing, speak their minority language, and practice festivals and rituals that the rest of the Han Chinese population does not.
While it is true that the rooster crows even before dawn, and during Chinese New Year firecrackers constantly boom and bang, overall rural China is a good escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. During the day farmers, take to the fields, leaving only the elders and small children behind and, to a casual observer, the village might seem almost empty. For writers and artists, the quiet of the village can be the perfect place to get those creative juices flowing. Sit down on the riverbank with your sketchpad or doze in a sunny spot under a tree – chances are you can spend a whole afternoon in relative solitude.
Getting off the beaten trail and having unique Chinese experiences is one of the main reasons to visit China in the first place. Rural China is where things get weird and wacky – in unforgettable ways. Pile onto a rickety Soviet-era truck and catch a lift up a mountain with a group of workers on their way back to the village for the weekend; let an octogenarian dressed in traditional attire grab you by the hand and lead you to the local temple for prayer; take a dip in the lake along with the village kids. Rural China won’t always be comfortable, but it will never be dull.