A Journey Through Rural China Riding with a suitcase on your lap

When people think about travel and photography in China, they think about the iconic sites such as Shanghai, the Great Wall or the Three Gorges. However, there are so many well trodden tourist sites in China that it becomes very difficult to capture photographs that are unique, or that haven’t been shot a thousand times before. It is better to get out into the less well travelled routes and try to see parts of China that haven’t been touched by western influences. That, though, is a job in itself. While tourists like myself will be ushered into the depths of China to observe farmers at work, teachers in class, and craftsmen selling their wares on the street; the reality is that we are not pioneers and we are not wandering about in an ancient eastern civilization. However, it’s maybe as close as most will get. The following describes where we went and how it was easy to believe that we were being sold the real Chinese experience.

Having spent time in Hong Kong being whisked about in a Mercedes from, amongst other places, Victoria Peak to lunch in Aberdeen, we found ourselves in the back of a much less luxurious vehicle, with a suitcase each sitting on our laps. We had arrived in Lijiang, Yunnan Province, and were gradually exposed to amenities that were more rudimentary as compared to our experiences in Hong Kong. Lijiang is home to an Old Town district; a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is as picturesque as any lantern-strewn Chinese street scene you can imagine. However, the other face of Lijiang is a bustling city with few obvious attractions; except if you are a westerner who wants photographs of urban Chinese life bereft of western influences, and markets that you wouldn’t dream of eating from. There’s plenty of opportunities to see both, and the locals will generally not get in your way or object to any level of photography.


Just outside of Lijiang, in the shadow of the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, lies the village of Yuhu. Here we did observe a rural village with a façade that outwardly represented an enriching and fascinating peak into rudimentary Chinese life, one with very minimal modern architecture or any real signs of western influence. Indeed, we did also observe several characters who appeared to be the archetypal village elders; elegantly dressed and addressing the younger members of the local population. However, there were several signs that we really hadn’t stepped backward in time, such as the young lad that was sporting a Chelsea F.C. shirt.


As we climbed out of Lijiang, and north of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, we were introduced to another remote and isolated Chinese village. Shigu was home to some very interesting infrastructure, including a still functional bridge that dated back at least 2,000 years. The village sits on the “first turn of the Yangzi”, which provides a spectacular backdrop for those classic juxtapositions of the outwardly ancient Chinese scenes, interlaced with villages that still depend on centuries old agricultural practices, and the spectacular tourists attractions (such as the amazing Tiger Leaping Gorge).


Our journey took us to the some of the remotest parts of China, with our ultimate destination being the Tibetan city of Shangri La, previously known as Zhongdian County: the gateway to Tibet. Ancient agricultural practices are in evidence here also, including observations of local culture practices that extend to all generations; which is rare in western countries. An example is the dancing in the town square every evening, during which even some of the “trendier” youths take part, and with some gusto. Back home my contemporaries would be aghast at such obligations. Shangri La, though, is also home to the Tibetan Ganden Sumtsenling Monastery. This is a grand juxtaposition of ornate gold plated façades, and the slums that house the lower orders of the monastery. We’ve all seen images of Buddhist monks praying and chanting, understanding that they devote their lives to this faith. However, that doesn’t really prepare you to watch them in practice, knowing that their lives and yours are different in every way imaginable.

Such sites are quite sobering, and at some point the rudimentary facilities that you make do with in this part of the country begin to make a person weary. Therefore, it was with great anticipation that we boarded a Boeing 737 back to the metropolis of Chongqing. It is a city that I had never heard of before, but has a population of thirty million people; with a myriad of low-tech high-rise building, neon lights, and a huge mass of humanity. However, it did hold one attraction for us, and that was the Yangzi Explorer. A 300 ft long 5-star cruise vessel that would take us on a journey along the Yangzi River, through some of the most transformative landscapes in China. We sailed downstream in the Yangzi River. Rocking and rolling as we were propelled downstream by the huge currents, it wasn’t a leisurely cruise, though. However, the cabin was luxurious, the beer was cold, and our ten-day trek through western China was done.


By morning, the vessel had slowed to a crawl as we entered the Three Gorges Reservoir area, and berthed in the city of Wanzhou. It was a privilege to be here, even if the circumstances were somewhat controversial. The city of Wanzhou, as were the homes of some 1.3 million people in the region, was in the process of being engulfed by the rising waters behind the Three Gorges Dam. Most of the city was in the process being rebuilt in a series of high rise accommodations on higher ground. Therefore, we were afforded a snapshot of the metamorphosis of a city; viewing city dwellers and markets going about their business in surroundings that were in the process of being torn down. We visited schools and observed classrooms of pupils who were as captivated by us as we were by them. Undoubtedly, our experiences of Wanzhou would be fundamentally different from those that would follow: the lower city would be gone, and the school kids would become used to the sight of western tourists.


We departed Wanhzou for a cruise through a quite amazing landscape. With 150 metres of water, the Three Gorges, including Qutang, Wu, and Xiling were simply jaw dropping. Imagining these crevices in the Chinese landscape without this man-made reservoir place was difficult, except to assume that it would have been spectacular, if not a little intimidating. The cruise captain made sure we saw these landscapes at either dawn or sunset. From a photography perspective, this made for some quite simplistic but very pleasing compositions. The trip afforded us one final experience of the purest of Chinese cultures; the boatmen of the Shannong Xi, who took us on a trip through a series of gorges on a tributary to the Yangzi. I could not help but notice the muscles and brute strength of these boatmen as they propelled us on narrow boats through some quite magnificent steep sided gorges.

As we left the Yangzi Explorer at Yichang, it was with some level of despondence. It would be the last of the luxurious conditions we had experienced on this vessel, but also the last of the warts-and-all Chinese experiences that we come to China to see. Our next stop was Xian (to see the Terracotta Warriors) and Beijing. From the perspective of a tourist worn out by travelling through the western reaches of the country, I can recommend finishing the trip off with a trip to the more well known tourist traps, such as the Olympic Park (which was still functional in late 2008), the Great Wall and the Forbidden Palace. Even for a large city with lots of western influence (including many examples of capitalism), there’s still plenty of opportunities to observe Chinese Culture. After 18 days of travelling, none of it was a chore; and a great stress free way to end such a trip.

Created By
Ray Devlin