Israeli writer Rachel Beitarie gave up trying to "figure out" China long ago, opting instead to sit back and enjoy the ride—a ride that has seen her metamorphosis from backpacker to journalist since arriving back in 2002. Delving beneath the glossy, slick skin of China's own transformation into a nation of netizens, she asked "Yeah OK, but what about the other billion?" And so her blog, Bendilaowai 本地老外, was born. She recently took to the road to explore China's villages, towns and people, in search of China's "other billion," and she has graciously taken some time out of her busy schedule to talk to China Travel about what she found along the way. >>>China Travel: You've had quite an interesting journey to get to where you are today, having been backpacker, teacher, volunteer, tour guide and now journalist—can you break it down a little for us? What first brought you to China and what was it that made you stay?
Rachel: What brought me to China in the first place was pure chance: I was laid off from the small technology company I was working for after graduation, got some compensation, and since I missed out on the backpacking experience earlier in my life I decided to use the money to go sample few Asian countries, starting in Nepal then going through Tibet and China. I didn't know much about either of those places but they sounded interesting so thought I might give it a try....
China was fascinating and inspiring from the very first day and I ended up traveling around the country for a year. I didn't speak the language at the time and was always a bit frustrated by my inability to actually talk to people. It was kind of like watching a great film with the sound turned off so that you see a series of great images but can't really grasp their meaning. At the end of that year I wanted to know more about it, study the language, get deeper than the surface and really understand China. Of course, I did not know back then this is a mission impossible: you can never really understand China to the full. I did what most people who become interested in China do, that is, found a job as an English teacher (in Harbin), and started learning Chinese.
[pullquote]It was kind of like watching a great film with the sound turned off so that you see a series of great images but can't really grasp their meaning.[/pullquote]During a winter vacation from my school I traveled again in Yunnan and fell in love with the region so when my contract ended I moved there to work as a volunteer teacher in a rural school in a little village called Baoshan Shitoucheng (宝山石头城) near Lijiang because it seemed like a good way to get to know a community and an interesting experience in general. I've always nurtured some writing inspirations so when in Lijiang I started writing some stories for online magazines and also did some tour guiding to support myself financially.
At the end of four years in China I went back to Israel, where I'm originally from. Well, at that time I was already regarded as a sort of "China expert" (which is a totally false title but anyway, this is how people saw me) and got a job with a newspaper reporting and editing international news with a focus on China. In 2008 my newspaper, Calcalist, decided to better their China reporting and sent me back to Beijing to be their regular China correspondent, so that's the story in a nutshell.
What made me stay was always that feeling that something really big is happening here that I want to be a witness to, plus a passion for Chinese food…. Seriously though, I truly feel for a writer or for anyone trying to think about where the world is going there is no place more stimulating or more exciting to be. Throughout the years I've gained some fantastic friends in China who became a big factor in my decision to stay here.
China Travel: You've recently returned from four months traveling around rural China, reporting back on the events, people and places you encounter. What inspired the idea for the trip?
Rachel: Boredom with Beijing, the routine of a regular correspondent job and the foreign correspondent crowd atmosphere basically. When I started my blog Bendilaowai early last year I really only had one post in mind, which was the first I posted there. It was titled "Yeah ok but what about the other billion." There was a lot of talk in the international media back then about China's growing middle class, about the (then) 300+ million netizens and how they are changing China etc. Of course, those are worthy topics for reporting and what is happening with the internet in China is by no means insignificant but still it only encompasses about a third of the population whereas the other billion gets very little attention unless they become victims of some abuse or natural disaster. Everyday life of rural people has always been the aspect of China that interested me most and I found it hard to learn about it while living in Beijing and only coming in to report when there is a big story, so decided to take an extended period traveling through some less known areas and talking to people about their lives.
China Travel: How did you decide on the route you would take and how you would travel?
Rachel: Quite randomly. I started in Sichuan and Yunnan because I'm most familiar with that region, already had some contacts there and a pile of stories I wanted to do, then made my way east and north back to Beijing. Some friends suggested interesting sites, some people invited me to come see their native places, but the best stories sometimes came from just opening a map and deciding on a whim where to go next, depending on buses schedules.
China Travel: Were you traveling alone throughout and if so, how did that make you feel? Was it an important part of the experience?
Rachel: I traveled alone for most of the time though I met some great travel companions along the way. You can say it was part of the experience because being alone forces you to go out of your comfort zone and talk to locals, in the absence of anyone else you can talk to. It also makes people open up to you more. It made me feel quite lonely at times though, and on one occasion, rather scared. But it all turned out well.
China Travel: The series is a fascinating look at what is all too often an invisible side of China. What were some of the most surprising/shocking things you came across?
Rachel: Thanks. There were literally surprises at every turn, from an old rural teacher talking about gay rights to an "open government" village turning out to be wretched and hostile. Maybe most shocking was how difficult life is for some people and how quietly many bear their burden or accept injustices being done to them. I kind of knew all this before but reading statistics on inequality is one thing and seeing it up close is quite another. Hearing "Mei banfa" again and again from people who've been poisoned, screwed off their land or raped was something that was quite hard for me to accept.
China Travel: You've seen China from many different angles and through many different lenses, traveling as a backpacker, tour guide and now as a journalist. What impact has each role had on the way you perceive China and the Chinese people as a whole?
Rachel: Well as a backpacker your aim is mainly to enjoy yourself, seeing spectacular scenery and having a good time. It's a lot of fun but you don't learn that much about how people really live. As a tour guide your job is to show people the pretty side of things (though dealing with service-givers teaches you some). As a journalist you're after the story so you often see the less than pretty side. There is really nothing I can say about China or Chinese people as a whole as every place, every story, has many different angles and they all keep changing as you try to make sense of them.
China Travel: What kind of response did you get from the local people when you explained what your trip was about?
Sometimes excitement but more often incomprehension as for why I'd be interested in something like that. With some exceptions, people were usually really generous and hospitable for no reason at all.
China Travel: You say at the beginning of your journey that you hoped to learn something. What have these encounters taught you, and what do you hope others will learn from them?
That "China" is actually many very different countries combined in one and that every person has a story to tell.
China Travel: Of all the places you visited, are there any that you would return to as a tourist or recommend to others as an off-the-beaten-path destination?
Rachel: Here are three: The Liangshan area of south Sichuan, a Yi minority autonomous prefecture with spectacular scenery and very interesting culture; Baoshan in Lijiang prefecture of Yunnan which is my real home in China and is unsurpassed scenery-wise with forests, dramatic mountain scenery, rivers, terraces and some of the nicest people I know; Lingyun county in Western Guangxi province because of the scenery that resembles Guilin only much more wild and with a fraction of the number of tourists.
You can also add Jinggangshan in Jiangxi, the birthplace of the Chinese army. This one can't really be regarded as off the beaten path because it lives on tourism but very few foreign tourists get there and besides being historically interesting, it offers really beautiful rides and walks through mountains and bamboo forests.
China Travel: Now that journey has come to an end, what is your next move?
Rachel: I'm back in Yunnan now for the winter to spend some time in a quiet village and work on an idea I have for a novel. Then back to Beijing and to writing China news I suppose, unless someone reads this and has a more exciting offer for me.
For more of Rachel's stories, reports and interviews with China's other billion, head to her blog Bendilaowai.