Popping the ‘Beijing bubble’
On the first day of the Spring Festival in 2017, I joined a studentorganized trip to Nuanquan, an old village in Hebei Province. I thought it was a perfect jaunt, given that I had wanted to see how locals celebrate this important holiday. The trip was cheap – 320 yuan ($50). It afforded me a one-night stay in a decent local hotel, travel insurance and a ticket to a traditional performance called dashuhua.
There were about 30 adults, mostly foreign exchange students or students studying Chinese. On the bus, I heard some of them were excited to see the village and others asked their partners to take “Instagrammable” photos and Moments-worthy videos.
A good four-hour drive took us to Nuanquan, and when we arrived around noontime, the excitement turned into disappointment. “This place is horrible,” I heard one woman telling her companion. The parking lot that overlooked the plain countryside was simply full of trash.
Our student guide tried to appease the dismayed couple, but even she couldn’t explain why the place was dirty. While walking toward the town center, more rubbish welcomed us. There were no decent toilets, and even the “great” restaurants our guide recommended pale in comparison to the local dining places in a regular Beijing hutong.
In short, the town lacked the luxury many of my fellow travelers were accustomed to in their Beijing bubble. Their frustration soon turned into frequent swearing.
While I was eating with some tourists, the WeChat thread of our tour group swelled with angry messages from several students, with one woman saying that she wanted to be taken to a train station right away to go back to Beijing.
Yes, the town might be unattractive and the guide might have failed to properly organize the tour, but I always believe that tourists should be prepared for anything. In this case, their vanity and capriciousness made me so livid that I wanted to respond to the group chat. But I realized they were just a nuisance and they shouldn’t affect my travel experience.
Until the evening before the dashuhua performance, all I could hear were complaints from the foreign students. I guess it was only me and a few others who enjoyed the rawness of the countryside. Nuanquan showed me the rural China that not many bother to see. After all, the town has yet to experience the urbanization happening in major cities in the country. Until then, we need to settle for open toilets and outdoor diners.
At the town theater, our tour group had a vantage point to see dashuhua, in which leatherclad performers sprinkle molten iron to mimic a fireworks display. People in ancient times melted cheap iron because they couldn’t afford gunpowder to celebrate the Spring Festival and to ward off evil spirits.
I thought the show was spectacular. But what wowed me the most was that most of my fellow travelers looked amazed and happy. No complaints at all. Maybe they were dazzled by the shining display? But maybe the show made them realize that there’s still something amazing left in a village otherwise not suitable for social media posting.