An Adventure in Rural China

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There’s nothing quite like getting stuck in the mud . . . in rural China.  Just outside Changchun in northern China there are large stretches of cornfields and grazing livestock.  In some respects, it looks a lot like the Midwest in the United States, but there are definite reminders that this isn’t Kansas.

After spending a lot of time in large, crowded cities, I was delighted to head out to the countryside and explore a small village in the middle of nowhere.  The plan was to have a dinner with a local farming family and attend a traditional bonfire show put on by the locals.

The drive was long, but relatively easy until paved roads started to give way to dirt. The first challenge was a small herd of cows intent on taking over all lanes of traffic.  We had to stop and wait for the very slow moving cattle to clear the road.  While waiting for the cows to move, I took in my surroundings and was very surprised to see so much corn growing in vast fields.  And the further we went, the more cornfields I saw.  I never thought of China as a huge corn-growing mecca, but I was wrong!

As we traveled down the rutted road, simple homes made of mud brick and woven plant fibers dot the landscape.  Some served as a family home, while others were in disrepair.  It’s a hard life and not everyone can make ends meet.  The same is true most everywhere.

Cow blockage turned out to be far less of a worry when the dirt roads went from sand to mud. As we moved deeper into the heart of the rural community, the mud got increasingly deep and thick thanks to a recent rainstorm. The road got really bumpy and it felt more like an off-road adventure than leisurely drive in the country.  After one big bump, we came to a screeching halt.  The bus was stuck in a huge rut and we couldn’t go any further.  Everyone was told to get off and to start walking.  What a perfect day to wear sandals! Luckily, we aren’t too far off from our destination.  By some miracle, my practically bare foot did not land in mud pile.

Along the way, I got to meet some locals, who were incredibly nice and very curious about us.  One woman in particular was very excited to show us how she calls her chickens when its time to feed them.  When she grabbed a wooden spoon and beat a metal bowl the chickens came flying towards her from all directions.

The woman’s husband was a proud man who was intent on showing us his home and bragging about the success of his son who lived right next door.  It’s a big deal for a son to move away and establish his own homestead in this region.  Farming doesn’t exactly bring in the big money, so multi-generational homes are the norm, (three generations of one family often live under the same roof).  For his son to be successful enough to strike out on his own, is a huge source of pride for his parents.

While poverty is apparent throughout the village, there were indicators of progress peeking out from unexpected corners.  Technology is relatively low in this region as rural communities are not usually able afford modern conveniences, but there are always exceptions to the rule.  At one point, I spotted a brand new Volkswagen parked next to a well-built brick house.  The disparity of wealth and poverty is quite extreme everywhere in China, even in the boondocks.

I spent the evening enjoying a large dinner prepared by a local family.  All the food was grown in the fields of the surrounding farms and it was absolutely delicious.  It was here where I indulged in the delicacy of the “thousand year old” egg.  Essentially, an egg is buried in a mixture of clay, ash, salt, lime, and rice hulls for several weeks to several months.  It looked disgusting on the plate as it had the unappetizing color of greenish gray, but the taste more than made up for the icky appearance.  I was the only one brave enough to try it and I ate the whole thing.  No one believed me when I said it tastes like a hard-boiled Easter egg with a lot of salt and a few extra spices.

After dinner we went outside and enjoyed a lesson in traditional folk dancing.  Once again, I confirmed I have no rhythm, but I enjoyed the experience of bonding with people despite a language barrier.  Music and dance really do bring people together in ways that can’t be explained.

It was dark by the time we started heading back to the bus.  Street lights are non-existent, so it was pitch black once we left the home of our host.  I had a small flashlight, but it barely cut through the darkness.  Mud was still everywhere and it threatened to swallow any misplaced foot.  My sandles eventually became caked in mud chunks, but thankfully my foot never sunk below ground level, (which is more than I can say for a few friends of mine).  Before boarding the bus, I remembered to look to up at the sky.  With no city lights, the Chinese sky lit up with millions of stars. I smiled at such a  fitting end to an adventure I’ll never forget.

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c.b. 2012

One Morning in Changchun

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The sun is barely awake when people in Changchun, China welcome the day by gathering in Culture Square, (also known as Changchun Cultural Square).  The clock has barely struck seven o’clock, and this large city park is already bursting with life and color.

Soothing music plays from a corner near the park entrance, where a small group engages in the ancient practice of Tai Chi. Both physically demanding and soul-quieting, this martial art is a common sight across China. Wearing t-shirts and track pants, the group transitions from one form to the next in total unison.

Tai Chi in Culture Square, Changchun, China, c.b.w.

Across the grass, soccer teams occupy several fields where drills and games send black and white balls flying in all directions.  Several basketball courts flank the fields, all of which are filled with dueling players.  Up in the sky, dozens of brightly colored kites dart and spin.  Laughing children hold tightly to strings with the same enthusiasm as the adults behind them.

Kite Flying in Culture Square, Changchun, China, c.b.w.

Wide sidewalks hold a steady stream of walkers plugged into headphones or chatting away with a friend.  Some groups of walkers like to make things interesting by walking backwards! They never look back, always trusting their path and believing people will move out of the way.  Yet, a third group of walkers, hold their arms above their heads or straight out to the side.  Sometimes they take it step further by rotating each arm in small circular motions.  Either way, it’s best to get out of the way when you see one coming!

The backdrop to all of this activity is quite striking.  An enormous television screen broadcasts the morning news just loud enough to be heard without being obnoxious.  Bright flower gardens surround elegant stone sculptures, while the Sun Bird Monument towers high above everything.

  

Sun Bird Monument, Culture Square, Changchun, China, c.b.w

A large fountain sits near the center at the base of the Sun Bird Monument.  It’s here that I meet a man who spends his mornings practicing calligraphy on the sidewalk.  In his hand, he holds a long stick with a wet sponge attached to the end.  He dips the sponge in the fountain water and then “paints” graceful Chinese characters on the pavement.  His artwork remains visible for only a few minutes, but each is a masterpiece.

The Calligrapher-Poet, Culture Square, Changchun, China, c.b.w.

He calls himself a “calligrapher-poet” and passes on a bit of wisdom that has remained with me, even years later.  In a low voice tinged with kindness he tells me, “The foundation of writing is art.” Whether it be in reference to flowing strokes or storytelling, this man knows a beautiful secret and I am honored he shared it with me.

That wise calligrapher, with his curious and open-minded nature gave yet another gift.  He reached out to a perfect stranger and embraced me as a friend before he even knew my name.  The same can be said of a little girl on roller skates.  She came right up to me and smiled with her wishes for peace. I’ve never experienced a more beautiful morning.

All Smiles in Culture Square, Changchun, China, c.b.w.

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c.b. 2012