By: Adrian Smith
I had long considered travelling to China, for work or for travel, and therefore, had plenty of time and many years to prepare. However, no amount of preparation could prepare oneself for the experience of life in a country of 1.3 billion people.The Chinese Statesman Deng Xiaoping once said “One must grope for stones to cross the stream”, and that very phrase epitomizes my entire tenure in China. If one expects a country regimented, with clear rules, universal standards, my advice would be to travel to Belgium. However, if one wants to experience a place with uncountable cultures and civilizations contained in a country that is less akin to a different country, but rather, a different world, then go to China. The process of groping for stones to cross the stream was at first a simple by the numbers approach of ticking off sites on one’s bucket list, Great Wall, check, Terracotta Army, check, however, life is far more interesting when one is taken off the beaten track to places no Lonely Planet guide could possibly prepare you for.
Places I have called home have included a Northeastern town named Lushuihe, which lacked a modern road connecting the school with the town center, and even running water after 9pm, the impossible, overloaded metropolis of Beijing, it’s far more tranquil neighbor Baoding, the far Western city of Xining, nestled between mountains on the Tibetan Plateau, to Changsha, a city that is really 2 cities pretending to be 1, wherein one must cross the huge Xiang River as basic mobility. No room for groping for stones there. China can be for all people, including those who prefer their comfort zone, and those who don’t. Few who know me would dispute placing me in the latter category, and as such, my China travel has been bent on feeling and experiencing places as much as simply ticking boxes on a travel itinerary.
To get a feeling of the vast expanse of the country, one should travel by train rather than plane. Perhaps no greater feeling for the vastness of China came when I visited the far western autonomous region of Xinjiang, travelling 35 hours from Beijing to Urumqi, the furthest inland city in the world. Despite 35 hours of rail travel, this was not my final destination, I needed a further 19 hours to reach Kashgar, the mostly Uyghur populated city near the border of Pakistan. Long distance travel is difficult at times, especially when one can sleep one night on the train, and realize there is still another night and a full day before reaching one’s destination. If the distance did not give one a sufficient appreciation for the vastness of China, the cultural difference would. Arriving in Kashgar, built around the 14th Century Id Kah Mosque, one sees men with Prayer Caps, women with headscarves, markets selling roast lamb, a cultural feeling more akin to nearby Pakistan than China.
All this could be experienced by travelling by rail, some places are not so conveniently connected to the rail network. One such place was Xiahe in Gansu province, a Tibetan monastery town nestled between snowcapped mountains, reached by treacherous mountain passes. Here one can walk Kora (circumambulation of the monastery), or indeed crawl Kora (as many pilgrims do) for the best part of a day, as the monastery is like a town in of itself, just walking a few feet out of town and one is met with beautiful fields and long narrow roads that disappear into a lost horizon, accompanied by an ear-splitting silence, as though one truly wandered beyond civilization itself. This is just 2 of the 56 ethnic groups that compose China (1 of those 56 being Han, totalling 91%) and it is impossible to get a full and adequate sample of the diversity of China, and it is impossible to do even the smallest justice to such diversity within a small travel piece. So this is where this article ends, but with the small piece of advice, leave your comfort zone behind, and don’t be afraid to grope for stones to cross the stream.