5 Insane Facts Of Life In Rural China
Every single location on Earth has two faces: There's the one you see on the postcards, and the one that actually exists. For example, when you say "Las Vegas" everyone pictures the strip, not the trailer parks. The real city has both. Well, if you travel the world -- and we mean really travel, not just visit resorts and tourist destinations -- the reality can be shocking.
Just ask Jacek Mokujin Adamus, who spent a year backpacking through rural China, exploring an amazing -- and often unsettling -- side of the country you're not going to see on the news. He told us ...
The Roads Are Like Something Out Of Mad Max
This is a picture I took of a truck during a bus ride through central China:
They couldn't take two trips. That would be bad for the environment!
And this is a picture I took of the truck a couple of minutes later:
Dear truck: Duh. Sincerely, Gravity.
You've probably seen plenty of similar pictures from China and wondered: How the hell is that stuff allowed on the roads? Short answer: bribes. Long answer: It's because Chinese roads are basically their own lawless nation where all giveable fucks have been outlawed. That's why I've actually seen taxis that got around traffic by driving on the sidewalk and yelling at the pedestrians to get out of their way. And when I say "seen" I really mean "ridden in."
And when I say "ridden," I really mean "screamed in terror."
And don't think you will be safer in rural China, because a large part of their traffic is trucks passing through on their way to bigger cities and blindly charging into groups of people foolish enough to set foot on their asphalt domain. You can probably guess that that wasn't a hypothetical. I've once witnessed a group of bar patrons spill out of a bar one night and suddenly part like the Red Sea when a cement truck sped past them without ever slowing down.
But there was also a lot of traffic from cars, motorcycles, and scooters seemingly built out of spare parts that the drivers found on the street. That and duct tape. Oh my god, so much duct tape.
No need for a helmet. Duct tape seals all head cracks.
Some Of The Trains Resemble Rolling Slums
China has the longest network of high-class, high-speed trains in the world, measuring around 10,000 miles. And that's awesome, but in a country the size of the European continent, it means that there are still many areas where the high-speed rail doesn't reach, and those places have to be serviced by local trains. And those trains, servicing often impoverished rural villages, were horrifying.
Obviously things weren't as bad in first class.
Some of the local trains I rode on actually resembled slums on wheels. Trash was everywhere and seemingly in unlimited supply. Occasionally a member of the cleaning staff would try to sweep up, only for the floor to be covered in even more trash a second later.
Also? Human shit. Granted, these were small babies we're talking about, but their parents still let them take a dump on the mother-loving floor of the train.
And that's where people were trying to sleep, dammit.
However, all the trash and shit (oh, and spit, I forgot about the spit) won't seem like such a big deal after you spend a few hours choking on the cigarette smoke filling up the upper levels. The Chinese are notoriously heavy smokers, and with nobody on the trains observing the "no smoking" rules, I had to spend most of my train ride wearing a face mask and staring at the smoke-free, garbage/feces-covered floor as it grew more and more inviting in my irritated eyes with each passing hour.
The Police Could Not Give Less Of A Fuck About Their Jobs
You may have this image of Chinese police officers as heartless tools of the communist regime whose only job is to arrest journalists and stymie free speech. In contrast, this is a photo of a policeman I took in the small town of Irathernotsay:
Located in northern Forhisownsafety Province.
When you leave the hustle and bustle of a large city, you'd be surprised how friendly and relaxed Chinese police officers become. Perhaps a bit too relaxed, even. I had a friend who liked to take trips to Tibet, and in China that requires extensive paperwork. You'd almost think that Tibet was a totally different country or something. Anyway, one day that friend decided to not bother with the permits and just sneaked into Tibet. He stuck to rural areas, but he eventually ran into a police patrol that wanted to see his papers, so he led them to his hotel room ... where he jumped out of the window, and made a break for it on his motorbike.
In response, the police started issuing actual wanted posters for him. Two days later, he was finally caught, but, luckily for him, all the rural cops wanted was a bribe of 2,000 yuan, or about $300. Not exactly peanuts, but a million times better than time in a Chinese jail. Here's the insane part: My friend tried to haggle with them, constantly bringing the price down until the cops felt that all this talking was cutting into their smoking time, so they agreed on a $55 fine, and offered to buy my friend breakfast.
I used a similar tactic while backpacking outside of Chengdu when the police tried to take me in for questioning for vagrancy. Instead of going with them, I just sat there repeating: "It's OK, we don't need to go anywhere" until they just ... gave up and let me go. Maybe if I held off longer, I could have gotten a sandwich out of them.
Maps Can Be Useless
For some reason I can't begin to understand, a lot of the made-in-China maps that I bought were hilariously wrong. On one map, an inch could correspond to anywhere between 500 yards and 2 freaking miles. That is not an acceptable margin of error for an atomic blast, least of all a thing I rely on to not get lost in a foreign country. Because of that, I rarely knew how long it would take me to get from point A to point B, and that's a surefire recipe for finding yourself out alone at night, getting attacked by werepandas.
Still, that wasn't as bad as the mirrored maps. These are maps where for some reason, everything was reversed (except the text), like if you had a map of the USA that showed California on the East Coast. That's exactly like the actual shitty map I ran into that got me lost in Shanghai.
Maybe I should have gotten directions from what appears to be the most badass family in the Eastern Hemisphere.
I have no idea why anyone would do something like that, but I know it wasn't a once-in-a-lifetime misprint because I found the same kind of messed-up map a second time while traveling through Kunming. Thankfully, in times of great frustration, I could always cheer myself up by looking for Chinese maps where people had crossed out the word "Sea of Japan" and replaced it with the much more China-friendly "East Sea." Glad to see that the two countries are working out their differences in the most adult ways possible.
Still better than their original idea to name it the "Sea of I'm With Stupid."
Foreigners Are Greeted With Everything From Curiosity To Open Threats
Once, I entered a tiny village shop in rural China and the lady shopkeepers started screaming at the sight of me. They then ran out from behind the counter, ignoring all the waiting customers, and basically started groping me while saying something to the extent of "Wow, is this real?!"
Now, that's not the typical reaction in a city -- there, non-Asians are considered just exotic enough that strangers want to take pictures with us or maybe give us free drinks. But when a foreigner finds themselves in a tiny village where cabbages outnumber people, their status quickly changes from "hot girl at a bar" to "a bizarre hybrid of a rock star and some barely-humanoid, mythical cryptid."
"Sorry, we all thought you were Mark Wahlberg."
On one occasion, I was backpacking through the countryside around Suzhou in the east of China, and came across an old lady on the road. As we got closer, she looked at me, made a face like she'd just seen a ghost, and then straight-up bolted in the opposite direction. As far as I can tell, I wasn't doing anything that could have scared her, but I did exist in her general vicinity without having been born there. I quickly learned that in some parts of rural China, that sort of thing can pass for witchcraft. I've lost count of how many times even young Chinese people ran up to me and then just silently stood there with amazed looks on their faces.
One of the strangest experiences I've ever had was the time I backpacked through Tiger Leaping Gorge in the south of China. On the one hand, the scenery was absolutely breathtaking, but I unfortunately witnessed many acts of domestic violence in some of the hamlets I passed along the way. People yelling at their cowering spouses, pushing them against walls. ... It was incredibly uncomfortable to watch, particularly because all the aggressors were women.
Tiger Leaping Gorge is mainly inhabited by the Naxi people, a Chinese ethnic group where women call all the shots. Most guidebooks will tell you that only one subgroup of the Naxi people do this, but that's not what I saw. What I saw was a widespread mafia of elderly women keeping their husbands in check with the backs of their hands, and extorting money from tourists.
I learned about the latter when I took a picture of the gorge near a Naxi woman. She then turned to me and demanded payment for the picture because her people "take care of the trail." When I refused to pay, the old woman grabbed me by the shirt and threatened to brain me with a huge rock. I could've easily fought her off, but I also knew that there were outposts of Naxi women throughout the gorge, and that if I messed with one of them, I would just bring their wrath (and presumably more huge rocks) on myself. So in lieu of payment, I bought some overpriced Snickers off the woman, and was allowed to leave.
This spared me a death by rocks and one dozen goats.
Things have gone significantly smoother with the nearby Bai people, another lesser-known ethnic group whom I've first encountered while their women were sacrificing a pig's head to their agricultural deity. That's it in the white bowl there:
Between this and the rock-bashing, the whole experience had a really weird Lord Of The Flies vibe.
Unlike the Naxi, the Bai folks were super nice to me, and insisted I try the roasted pig head. And you know what? The snout and cheeks weren't half-bad.
Jacek Mokujin Adamus has written a book about his experiences in China, which you can buy here (only available in Polish). Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more insider perspectives, check out 5 Things You Learn From Camping (If You Hate the Outdoors) and 7 Things No One Tells You About Being Homeless.
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