Most visitors to China see but only a small portion of this massive country; treading well inside the confine of the beaten paths established by travelers who came before them. Granted there are amazing cultural, historical and natural sights: the Great Wall, Zhangjiajie, the Terracotta Warriors, Panda, etc. just to name a few.
However, traveling well within the confine of the established trails can be challenging. You’ll have to content with the millions of Chinese tourists who come in the bus loads, who can try your patience and bring out the devil in you. Language barrier has also deterred many travelers from venturing off the beaten tracks.
Before I left for China, I found out that the priest who baptized me was living in Anshun, Guizhou. So I decided to pay him a visit. There are 2 reasons why I wanted to do so. Firstly, I hadn’t seen Fr. Carpenter for almost 2 decades. Secondly it gave me a reason to go off the beaten track, to see a part of China that isn’t dolled up for tourists.
Anshun is not a pretty city. There were no atmospheric cobblestone streets, no world-class historical sites, no luxury hotels, etc. Like most cities in China there are constructions going on everywhere. What it is a living and working city. People went about their daily lives without the intrusion of foreigners poking their cameras at their faces, no constant flow of buses of Chinese tourists. And being a small city, the people were kinder and friendlier.
Fr. Carpenter picked me up from the train station and we took the local bus back to his home. On the bus ride, the housewives on their way to the market looked at me strangely and the children in school uniform eyed curiously. I guess they weren’t used to seeing someone carrying a backpack, instead of a suitcase.
I caught up with Fr. Carpenter, and he told me how he resigned from his priestly duty so that he could put more time and effort into his humanitarian work. He founded an NGO to bring clean water and build schools for the poor villages around Anshun. I spent 3 days wandering around the main streets; through dilapidated back lanes selling antiques and junks; through noisy and crowded shopping streets; and sipped coffee at makeshift stalls by the roadside; had my meals at home-turned-eateries. I spoke to vendors, played with children who are more comfortable with dirt than gadgets. For a while, I forgot about my traveler’s identity. I even forgot that I was in China.
On Sunday I woke up to a lot of noise from the street. Going to the street I saw that people from the nearby villages came into the city to sell their goods and produce. Many of them still wore their traditional clothes. And their faces reflected the hard life they led; a huge contrast to the gadget-wielding city dwellers. I fell in step with the local people, some came with their family, to enjoy the crowded atmosphere.
Observing the villagers, I saw that they could sit still for a longer period of time than urbanites. We are so used to always having something to stimulate us; smartphones, tablets, banners, neon lights, etc. so we become uncomfortable with silence and stillness. While these villagers seemed really at peace with non-activity. They looked so relax just sitting there and waiting for customers and watching the world went by.
On my last day, I met an NGO worker who worked with children with mental disability. She asked me if I’d like to visit the children’s home and I readily agreed. The facility was huge and but there were only a handful of trained teachers/carers to look after 40+ children. My new friend told me that these children were abandoned as soon as the parents realized that they were “not normal”. The China’s ‘one child policy’ has created an undue pressure on parents; parents would dump children with any signs of ‘defect’ so that they could try again for a ‘normal’ child.
The teachers taught me how to carry them and let me help them with their exercises. A 3-year-old girl kept running to hug my leg every few minutes, the teacher told me that’s how she showed her affection. The next time she ran to me I picked her up and she squealed with delight; that brought an unknown joy to my heart. In this way, I spent my last morning in Anshun, playing with these beautiful children. It was the most fulfilling moment in my trip to China. When it was time for me to leave, the 3-year-old girl burst out crying and I left with my eyes wet with uncontrolled tears. As I walked out the gate, I said a silent prayer for all the children that they will live a full and beautiful life.