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How provincial has your China experience been?


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@ZhangKaiRong, summer is the worst time to be in Beidaihe. Sooooo many people, and half the roads and beaches are closed off because of visiting officials.

Winter on the other hand has much fewer people and the beach looks cool when frozen over :-)

It's also all completely different now from when I was first there (so many new buildings in what used to be cornfields) and that was only 12-13 years ago.

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My first long-term China experience was from 2004 to 2005 in Dalian. I hadn't been to Dalian before committing myself to the 13.5 month stay, but I had travelled a fair bit around other parts of China, so I knew more or less what to expect. There were a fair number of foreigners (mainly russian) in Dalian even in those days, but tended to be concentrated around the city centre. I was in an area where there were hardly any foreigners except for the other teachers in the school at which I worked.


I think Dalian was a good choice, and I definitely look back at the experience with fondness, even if at the time there were some downsides - the long cold winter being one. I was housed on top of a hill, so had an overview of the entire city from my apartment. However, things change quickly in China, and just when I was leaving, construction on a huge raised highway through the area had just started. I went back a couple of years ago, and the environment near where I lived has changed somewhat - it doesn't have the same homely feel anymore - so I'm glad I had that experience when I did.


At the end of 2006 I moved to Shanghai. I had never really contemplated living in Shanghai previously. In fact, I wasn't particularly keen on the city, but came here because that's where the job was, and I've been here ever since. I have ambivalent feelings towards Shanghai. On the one hand, it's a convenient city to live in, with a superb transport network (although that wasn't the case when I arrived - there were only three metro lines in operation then, compared to the fifteen or so now). I have learnt Shanghainese to a certain extent, and I enjoy being able to use it when I can. On the other hand, the excitement of being in China is subdued. This may not be just due to the city - it may partly be because the novelty after having spent a year in Dalian has worn off - but undeniably Shanghai is very internationalised, and doesn't feel vastly different from any other large modern city. In addition, the number of foreigners here is huge. This doesn't bother me directly - I don't tend to spend much time where foreigners congregate anyway - but it does mean that the locals are a lot less curious about foreigners, and one doesn't have as many opportunities to have random conversations with strangers as one would in a smaller city. I had a lot of that in Dalian, but my Chinese was only elementary in those days.


So turning to the question of whether it's better to start in a second/third-tier city and move to a first-tier city later, or the other way round, I really don't think it makes a big difference to one's experience of the country. But I think there is a natural progression to going from small city to big city because most foreigners staying in China for the first time will not be too choosy over what they are doing (usually teaching English or learning Chinese) and therefore have many options available. However, after having spent some time in China, most people will want to do something more productive (ie. anything but teaching English, or moving onto a proper job after having learnt Chinese) and these opportunities are concentrated in Beijing and Shanghai. At least that's how it worked out for me. I'd have nothing in principle against going back to a small city - in fact I'd be really keen to - but I'd find it hard to justify going back to being an English teacher from my current position.

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  • 1 year later...

I'm not sure if this counts because I've never really lived in China. I've only travelled through. But I once spent a week living on a farm on the mountains between Henan/Shanxi (north of 焦作) and three weeks living in a small Hakka village on the Jiangxi/Guangdong border (north of 河源).


My Mandarin is garbage (I can only understand Taiwanese children's television) but that's okay because in all the above places no one actually spoke Mandarin anyway! I did however learn a few lines of local dialect. I'm not sure how to describe them but in Henan you can say something like zhong4 for "yes" and 壞人 is something like lai4ren2 (which was mainly used to describe everyone from Shanxi haha). The Hakka was a bit more difficult. Something like "moi2" means no. No alcohol was "moi2 jiu3", "I dont like" was something like "mmmm foyen xi" with some curvy tones I don't know how to describe, and I'm full was something like "si4 bao3 liao3".


I got to do a bunch of stuff I've never done in Australia. I killed some chickens, cows, mountain rats. Ate all sorts of body parts I've never eaten before (duck heads, rat paws). Some weird arse yellow eggs with the strongest taste I've ever experienced. I got to shit in holes, piss in buckets, throw rubbish into beautiful mountain rivers. I also started collecting photos of anything "communism" - which is everywhere in the countryside. I also noticed every single house I went into has a big Mao Zedong portrait. That was pretty cool. You can see that CCP still has a massive support base amongst the rural population.


Also spent some time living in a 城中村 (that's not at provincial as the farms, but still an interesting place)


I've attached a few photos. I hope not too many.


Oh and here is a video of me getting a lift down a highway on the back of a small tricycle truck thing















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There's heaps of 驢遊 blogs around that mention farmers who are willing to put people up for a night (or more) + food etc. After that it's simply a matter of trying to get all the right trains and buses to the remote villages and roads. If you're a foreigner it can even be a bit easier to get a lift to where you are going (sometimes, a lot of people in the countryside are also deeply afraid and hostile towards outsiders).


Everyone throws their rubbish in the river because, of course, there is no garbage disposal service in the remoter villages. Once upon a time throwing everything in the river was probably okay because it was just bio-matter: food, cloth, etc. But now with so much plastic, and zero new infrastructure since they rolled out electricity 50 years ago it leads to rubbish piled up everywhere. If I didn't throw the rubbish into the river, someone else would have. So I took up the opportunity to do something that would normally not be allowed.


A few more photos too, if you're interested









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That place definitely seems provincial enough to satisfy anyone's desire to get off the beaten path. Hope that meal tasted better than it looked.


There's heaps of 驢遊 blogs around that mention farmers who are willing to put people up for a night (or more) + food etc.


Skylee is probably off globetrotting somewhere or she would have already pointed out this little "donkey tour" mistake.


旅游 is probably what you meant to type.

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Sorry, I meant 驢友 - travel buddies. The first time I saw these kinds of people was in the mountains in western Sichuan. There was a group of 5 people. One was a high school drop out, another a university graduate, and another 3 who were just plain old unemployed. They were trekking to Lasa. Anyway, it seems lots of the more adventurous Chinese really get to some amazing places and write about it on blogs. Often they are travelling to famous landmarks but they often also mention other cool local places near by - "off the beaten track". This is how I found out about the farmer who lives in an old house on top of the mountains in Henan.


The farmers place I stayed at in Henan was near 雲台山 national park. Getting there was actually pretty hard. Had to travel a long way down a road, then some dirt roads through a bunch of mountains with signs saying "don't go further, no more civilisation here" etc. Luckily I bumped into some local hikers from a nearby city who knew the farmers house I wanted to go to. The last two pictures attached below are the road to the farm house and the hikers I bumped into it.


After spending two days hiking around the mountains on the Shanxi border (absolutely beautiful. And never ran into other people) I told 老董 (the farmer) that I was gunna go to the national park. He told me not to worry about paying and just take this secret mountain road which goes around to the back of the park. Which was good because it cost something like 300RMB to get in! So I ended up walking around a small mountain which lead to back of the national park. It took a few hours. Had some amazing views. Just me and the birds like before too. The national park itself was an overcrowded hell and after a few days alone it was strange to see so many people again. Anyway, I ended up around the back of the national park. There was first a big cement wall built to stop people coming in through the back mountain pass, and then a wire hence. It seems the farmer had knocked a hole in the wall then cut through the wire fence so all his friends could get to the mountain peak. I still have a fond memory of all the Chinese aunties watching the crazy Xinjiang person (me) climbing the fence at the top of the mountain to break into the park. Was hilarious.


In the photos below: the first photo is the temple at the top of national park. I walked around to the back of that mountain to avoid paying to go in. The second photo is the old mountain pass. The third is where I jumped over. The others are in the national park itself. Last two are on the road to the farmer's house.








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As I mentioned before, this isn't really "provincial" but I think it's pretty cool nonetheless. I once stayed in a 城中村 - a "village within a city". This time it was much easier than the rural places. I stayed with a friend of a friend from Australia in 贛州 so I didn't have to spend a day trying to find the place using a combo of drawings, writing, and hand signs. Instead I got picked up straight from the train station yay! 


These 城中村's are really cool (although I guess for all you guys who live in China this isn't particularly interesting and have probably seen it before). They're basically places that were once villages, but have been swallowed up by expanding city suburbs. Now their residents are mainly migrants from the countryside, the destitute, and students. My friend in this village pays 250RMB a month, including all bills!! It's great value. The place I stayed in was pretty small. Just a few square metres. The kitchen was funny. We had to use this small fold out table (see picture below) to eat. Despite outward appearances I felt the place was much cleaner and nicer than the dingy shitholes I'm use to staying in cities.


Living in the 城中村's is a lot like being in the villages in that everyone has their own vege patches, and you can buy "fresh" meat and vege on the street. Often it can get very dusty because of all the empty apartment blocks that are shooting out from the city. What I find truly incredible however is this juxtaposition of the farm patches built right next to sprawling new suburbs. I guess this kind of thing once existed in Hong Kong. It's great to catch a glimpse of a world that is about to disappear.









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Interesting experience with the 成中村。 We have them in Kunming but I've been cautioned by friends in the know that they are not a great place to live because they often have high crime. What has happened here is that they attracted drug trade. Kunming has been trying to eradicate them.


No argument, however, about their being cheap and about their furnishing a glimpse of life not often seen by foreign visitors or expats. Both colorful and squalid.


Seems you have definitely been adventurous!

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Your travels sound really cool, but your skimping a national park of 300 yuan doesn't, in my opinion. What with people dumping trash in mountain streams they probably already have a hard enough time to keep the park running. If you're too poor to pay 300 yuan, then just don't visit the park. Rangers and fences protecting the wildlife and nature that you enjoyed are not free.


Thanks for the pictures though, these views are amazing, especially the one with the platform above the clouds.

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  • 5 months later...

I started out in Chengdu from 2000 to 2003 and I ended up traveling all around Sichuan for work then. Those were heady times, tough but rewarding.


I went to New York City and then Japan for 8 years from 2004 to 2012, but all along, all I really wanted to do was come back to China. I got my chance and returned to Chengdu from 2012 to 2014. That return was a good move and I handled 21st century Chengdu with relative ease after dealing with Chengdu immediately after the turn of the century/millennium.


Those five years in Chengdu were great but I started to feel it and I needed something more ("it's time") so I moved to Beijing last year, in September of 2014. I haven't looked back and I am glad to be in the capital. I learned an awful lot about myself and China in those five years in Sichuan. Going from the provinces to the capital was an order that worked best for me. For now, I am not interested in returning to the provinces long term. I have become a first-tier city snob.  :-? Whenever I am on a business trip to Hohhot, Guiyang, Changchun, Ulaan Bataar, or wherever, I do enjoy having the chance to visit those places, but I am always glad to get back to Beijing.


On the other hand I feel I have one more big trip in me of slogging it out for several weeks on ramshackle buses and slow trains; I am looking into making that happen in the next year or so.


As the beginning of my "China experience" has been very provincial, I would say it has given me a solid base and allowed me to move up to the capital pretty smoothly (touch wood).


Warm regards,

Chris Two Times

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Interesting story, Chris. Sounds like you took a good path.


On the other hand I feel I have one more big trip in me of slogging it out for several weeks on ramshackle buses and slow trains...


I know what you mean about that kind of travel! I've done a ton of it here in China, and it's my favorite kind.


But as I get older and lazier, I find myself less and less willing to take this kind of "close to the earth, inch-by-inch" trip, and these days I tend to look for easier, more efficient means. That's not always the best decision, and I wind up missing a lot of the flavor of the places visited. My time and my money are sufficient, but what happens is that I just run out of juice after 10 days or 2 weeks. At that point I yearn to be back home in Kunming, sleeping in my own familiar bed. The wanderlust gets quenched sooner than it did 5 or 10 years ago.


Last month in Taiwan I had a car and a driver/guide for most of my week (8 days) there. It got awfully frustrating to always have a "handler" and an "interface" and I wound up resenting the constraints of that method, wishing I had just stumbled around on my own. Would doubtless have seen fewer things, but there would have been less "schedule pressure." Would not have had those annoying reminders, "Hurry up now, we have an appointment at Mr. Chen's Tea Farm at 2:45 p.m. sharp." Had forgotten how much I dislike that mode of travel.

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The Peace Corps originally brought me to the Middle Kingdom back in 2000. Living on a Peace Corps Volunteer salary definitely made such travel the only option. My means have greatly improved since then and I do appreciate staying in five-star hotels and purchasing the 商务座 in the high-speed train, but I look to revisit that travel at a slower pace and getting off the beaten path once again with a particular longing.


I hear you though. I did Peace Corps in my late 20s and am now in my early 40s. Even only now, I do like the easier, more efficient way, but I am usually on a tight schedule with a solid professional agenda to meet. Getting back to that "close to the earth, inch-by-inch" kind of travel would be done during a sabbatical year when I would have several weeks of no agenda other than a personal one of just getting off the beaten path and re-connecting with China (whatever that really means).


So, here's to traveling in the Middle Kingdom, however the means and whatever the purpose!  :clap


To be continued...


Warm regards,

Chris Two Times

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  • 6 months later...

That's a wonderful account, Stapler. Thanks for taking the time to write it up. I also enjoyed the photos. It reminds me a lot of the times I have 过年 at the rural 老家 of some of my Kunming friends. In these remote villages and hamlets it seems like I wound up eating my weight in strange pig parts and drinking way too much 白酒 even when trying to be moderate.


I thought this was an interesting observation:


I've noticed this time an increasing amount of hostility towards foreigners. Originally it was just people in the cities who often seem to think I'm a wealthy and immoral playboy coming to take all of China's women. I can see how this perception is widespread in cities like Beijing or Shanghai. But this attitude I see now has come down to the countryside. People were constantly asking me if I was in China to find a Chinese wife. Indeed quite often it was the first question I was asked.


I haven't noticed the hostility you mention, but have been asked marriage questions every now and then. Never, however, as the opener for a conversation. Perhaps they think it would not be polite because I'm older now; beyond "prime marriage age." But courtesy never seems to prevent other odd opening questions like, "How much did your shoes cost?"


Agree entirely with your comment about the train being a great place to strike up conversations and get to know strangers a bit more than you might in a bus or a restaurant where the contact is for a shorter duration. But the biggest enemy of casual conversation, in my opinion, is the way everyone constantly keeps their nose buried in their mobile phone here. The 手机 disease.

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Great post, stapler! I really loved the photos and your write up was not only descriptive, but entertaining (had to link a friend!). 


I was never able to spend a prolonged period of time in the rural parts of China, but even with my short stay you could see the contradictions rising to the surface. Look one direction and be stunned by fields of purple flowers, look the other and see burning pits of trash. Modernity marches on in ways both good and bad, I suppose. On that note, I will copy abcd and quote a part I liked!



Some of the old houses around the villages are quite old and beautiful. They're almost forts designed to keep bandits away. But now most people are moving out of them into new houses, leaving just a few old ladies who can't afford new houses. While the old houses are interesting to look at the new ones are much better for the villagers. They have more light, are far less damp, require less maintenance, and the villagers themselves feel proud to have new houses. As many of them have lived and worked in city factories they're acutely aware of how much city dwellers look down on them.

I think this is a pretty loaded sentence that could really be teased out into a whole paper (or is this just because I'm a philosophy major in the midst of writing my final papers!?). Foreigners (or tourists more generally) often idealize the situation of the rural poor in the sense that was so common to Rousseau's writings: "look at the quaint homes, the 'authentic' lifestyle, the regionalism apparent in manner and dress." I hear this often when talking to people who are going to China and searching for "the real China," by which they often mean the older, poorer China. The next sentence will often imply that those times were better. Indeed, I've increasingly felt myself lapsing into this mindset when staring at the urban blight lying across both China and the States. I don't think there is anything wrong with admiring the style of housing, etc, present in these less privileged places, nor is there anything wrong with a certain disdain for the side effects of modernity (it just had to be McDonalds that spread everywhere, didn't it?), yet it's always important to be aware of the residents' own agency, and the fact that we can leave whenever we want. 


Carrying that point on modernity forward a bit, quite agree both with abcd on cell phones. Unfortunately, I don't think it's really a Chinese thing. I'm 22 and I remember seeing memes or watching shows a few years ago where they'd mock 香港 culture for its obsessive use of cellular devices. I doubt that those jokes would make sense to anybody currently under 20 since they've similarly given up on meeting people at the coffee house or on the train. Perhaps cell phones will mark the end of mankind, as we slowly lose any ability to communicate with each other and rely solely on virtual avatars?

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