When planning for a vacation to mainland China, metropolitan cities frequently crop up first in our minds, such as Beijing and Shanghai, and maybe even Hangzhou or Guilin for the seasoned traveller. However, other than these glamorous places, there are many overlooked destinations that are also worth a trip, even if they are not as developed and urbanised.
A few years ago, I travelled to Hebei for a charitable project with World Vision to visit a small village that houses 70 families. It was my first time exploring a rural area in China, and the journey was extremely memorable in its own rights.
A three-hour drive from Beijing takes us to Pingquan (平泉) and we very soon settled down at the Ke Guan International Hotel (客官國際酒店), which offers spacious rooms and complimentary breakfast. Our stay was next to Pingquan Central Square (平泉中心廣場), where locals gather at night to socialise. Laughter filled the air as a group of people danced along to loud music while others strolled around with their families and friends.
Our dinner was at a nearby restaurant called Tianhe Ju (天河聚酒樓). We ordered braised pork, dumplings, chilli fish, and more. Compared to the hectic and aloof crowd in Hong Kong, everything here seems to be more at ease and connected. As we were heading back to the hotel with salted-egg-flavoured popsicles in our hands, we spotted residents playing chess and cards around the neighbourhood, a handful of stalls selling handmade accessories, and children running around freely with toys. After a tiring day of travelling around, we retired early to wake up for our trip to Maozi Shan (帽子山).
Driving up the hill away from Pingquan, we arrived at Maozi Shan in just 20 minutes. We treaded ground that was unpaved and dusty, and the hot summer air clung to our skin stubbornly throughout the whole morning. Walking further into the village, we found brick houses built by the residents themselves, with Chinese calligraphy displayed prominently outside the gates wishing for good luck and harmony.
Isolated from the outside world, people in Maozi Shan village live simple lives. Locals plant and cook their own food, share properties, and take care of each other on a daily basis, while wild cats and dogs chill leisurely under the shade. Although a mere community of 70 families, they also put a lot of effort into farming cornfields and raising livestock.
Since the area is undeveloped, the villagers could only attain contaminated groundwater to drink and shower with. World Vision, the project I joined, had the goal to install a clean water system for the locals, so they no longer suffered from stomach diseases from consuming unsafe water. At the time of our trip, the construction of a clean water system was already completed and the villagers now have a safe water source.
We also visited the only school in the area, where all the local children study. It was a humble building—only two classrooms and an outdoor playground, and the bathrooms did not have running water until the implementation of the water system. The school lacked developed facilities compared to modern ones, but the courses are not as rigorous since students are not learning to prepare for exams. The children we met enjoyed coming to school and meeting their peers, and the learning atmosphere was relaxing and fun.
We passed a daycare centre that was under construction and spent half an hour helping the workers. It was a workout that was especially tiring in the summer heat, prompting thoughts of how tough it is for locals to do heavy labour like this every day.
Later, when I asked one of the villagers if she had ever left Maozi Shan, she answered that she would only occasionally go down the hill to the small town if needed. Nonetheless, even when living with minimal equipment, she is content with her home and treasures the tight bond she has with other community members. It is the simplicity of their lives that brings them joy, the ordinary things we often neglect when living in big and busy cities.
An eye-opening experience does not need to happen in a glittering metropolis. If we take a step back, we can easily find meaning in things we take for granted. My trip to Pingquan and Maozi Shan taught me more than any other travel could. While there exists a kind of joy in exploring our usual lifestyles in modern locales, spending a holiday in unconventional locations like rural villages and animal conservations can be equally as memorable.