Living off a backpack in rural China

Time flies in Beijing and we are already preparing for our midterms, which makes me miss being on the road even more. I recently returned from traveling for two weeks during the Chinese New Year in the Southwestern province of Yunnan, and I haven’t had much time to reflect on all that we’ve seen and done. Together with my classmates and professors, I visited some of the most remote villages in the province and got to experience rural life in China.

Saying this trip was intense would be an understatement. 50 hours on buses, 6 village visits, 3 flights, one overnight train and infinite amounts of rice in such a short time could drive anyone crazy, but once I adjusted to the pace, this trip became one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had in China. Living in Beijing was a challenge at first, but this excursion was a whole new level of culture shock. Dealing with constant discomfort due to changes in altitude, different cuisines, below-freezing temperatures at night, and lack of heating were only a few of our daily struggles.

However, it was all worth it. Among many memorable moments, some of the highlights were learning the Dragon dance at the Yi village, attending a street banquet at the Hani village, learning the ancient Dongba pictograph script from the Naxi village’s shaman, talking to a Buddhist monk in the Dai village about the impact of tourism on his temple, enjoying a traditional three-course tea ceremony and hiking the rice terraces under heavy fog. The six different ethnic groups we’ve met had such different cultures, lifestyles, traditional outfits, cuisines and religious practices. The only common thing was their hospitable and curious nature.

Very few families were used to having foreigners stay at their house, but for most of them, it was the first time seeing a foreigner. Every night we would have the opportunity to attend a community party where our hosts would share tunes, dances or stories that passed through generations, and we would reciprocate with our own “American” dance (which for lack of better options ended up being the Macarena and the Cupid Shuffle). These cultural exchange dinners were our time to play with the kids, talk to the village’s elders and tell them a bit about what life is like on the other side of the globe.

I celebrated the Chinese New Year Eve in the Dai village on the border of Myanmar watching the fireworks from our balcony, and sharing a bag of banana chips with my adorable five-year-old host brother. I never would have imagined feeling so at home in a place so far away from anything I’ve known. All I could think about at that moment was how grateful I was for the people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen and the memories I’ve shared with our hosts. It might not have been the easiest way of experiencing China, but it was definitely the most worthwhile.

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