When you live in another country for an extended period of time, you may often treat it as a wonderland, a travel playground. Every nook, every cranny, every interaction shines a new light on your host country and informs a new reflection of yourself.
When you live in your own country, however, it might not be the same. The joy of travel forces you to explore new places and new people just for the sake of it in foreign lands. In your own home, though, you might be reluctant to check out a new random spot that’s faraway, because it’s too similar to the set of experiences you’ve already undergone. There’s little apparent payoff.
So, why might we not treat travel in our home countries like travel in foreign countries?
Guizhou, China versus West Virginia, USA
These are two seemingly disparate places on opposite sides of our planet. Linguistically, culturally, socially, these places have little in common on the surface.
They eat different foods, have different blood, process the world in different manners, participate in different societies and are engaged with their central governments in different ways.
But as stated, when we travel, it’s a perpetual self-reflection. I view both Guizhou province and West Virginia from a specific perspective: white, male, New Englander. That’s my inborn lens, but luckily I’ve found a few more on my travels and placed them respectfully in my bag for when needed. We can always be learning and readjusting our lens as needed.
Living and Traveling in China
China is a gargantuan country, with a litany of ethnic groups both recognized or otherwise. (White people are unrecognized as it turns out.) The ecology, the geography, the landscapes are as varied as they are show-stopping.
The people are as diverse as the provinces from which they hail. Each experience, each moment is worthy of your time if you’re willing to listen. The problem with this cornucopia in a country of such scale is physically getting there.
While China isn’t a terribly expensive country for the most part, it still requires some cash to zip from place to place. And placing a price tag on these moments that can leave indelible marks on a young traveler is near impossible.
If you live in New York and want to visit Beijing for a week, say, it’s not terribly difficult. You get to JFK, chill on a plane for 15 hours and you’re there. Getting to various parks within the US might take longer and could be more experience, accounting for all the variables in airlines’ algorithms.
However, not all of China’s treasures are located near the urban eastern seaboard. To enjoy China’s natural splendor, you must venture out into the countryside which isn’t always the easiest. Although the central government is accelerating development on what will soon be the world’s largest highway system, rural parts of the country are as of yet underserved.
Small airports built specifically for ecotourism are popping up, but they’re often in precariously placed locations, meaning a long bus ride down a mountain to get where you want. Hotels are being built literally as you’re there, enjoying the spot. This phenomenon is both good and bad, but nonetheless outside the scope of this article.
The benefit to living and working in the Middle Kingdom is that these places become infinitely more accessible. Let’s take the city of Guiyang for instance, the capital of Guizhou province.
I lived in Foshan in Guangdong province. If I wanted to get to Guiyang, I took the subway a dozen stops, and took a high-speed train direct there. In total this might be 6 hours. Admittedly, that’s not a particular short time, but with trains there’s minimal security, few waits and spacious cabins.
Compare that to getting there from New York and it’s obviously more palatable. You must get to JFK, take a 15 hour flight to a hub in China, wait through a long layover, then take a long flight west to the city. In total, it’s a bare minimum of 20 hours. Additionally, you’re dealing with a 12-hour jet lag. Fun.
Moreover, that’s just getting to Guiyang, a city that’s not very interesting on its own. Really you want to get out to the countryside, which requires more buses and trains. Transferring from Guiyang out is simple and doable if you live in the country itself.
I dare you to take a 20 hour total journey across the planet with a layover and muster up the willpower to endure the rickety, green trains in rural China, rife with smoky cabins, littered floors and urine-covered bathrooms. Not happening.
Long story short, living in China grants you the ability to more readily zip to random corners of the country that you wouldn’t otherwise.
Guizhou Province, China
Guizhou is one of the poorest places in China, ranking third to last in GDP per capita. Infrastructure is developing, but later than the rest of the country. As mentioned before, many of the train lines in the province are the older, green trains, which are slower and dirtier. (Much.)
Guiyang, the capital, is more modern than I expected, which in China means it has malls and flashing signs. But outside of the neon-lit facades, the level of wealth is apparent. Many places are run down. The streets are dusty. Apartments are exactly welcoming. In between upscale developments sit numerous down-market abodes. Food is undeniably tasty here, but food safety standards leave a bit to be desired. (Comparing this to the rest of China, that’s saying something.)
The level of smog is poor; again compared to the country as a whole, that’s not great. The roads are eternally congested from poor design. The whole city is simultaneously under construction which only exacerbates the problem. (Obviously, bad traffic isn’t the sign of a terrible place. London, New York, Beijing would all rank low otherwise.)
Quick run through of other characteristics of China:
The food there is unique. It’s spicy and sour, with chilies grown locally and fish caught fresh.
A great number of the people are ethnically non-Han. They Miao (Hmong), Tujia, and Zhuang to name three. Importantly, they are treated as “other.”
The government builds infrastructure there with a huge purpose of making beautiful areas accessible. Often tax dollars help in ways that aren’t commensurate with the most pressing needs.
Rural life among the ethnic groups is rooted in tradition. It is being morphed by modernization, surely, but traditions die hard.
The land is considered frontier, outskirts. It is not central to history, the economy or society in the way that Shanghai and Beijing are. (This is the view of the government.)
But that land is stunning. Deep gorges, expansive bridges, mind-bending waterfalls. It’s still being explored/exploited, but Guizhou begs for a journey.
What about West Virginia?
For a while now, I’ve wanted to take a road trip through West Virginia, Kentucky and Tennessee. If nothing else, the desire stems from having never been to these states.
I have family who moved to Nashville a few years back and I’ve wanted to visit them. One of my best friends from college is doing med school in Louisville. That’s two of three.
As for West Virginia, it’s simply been a place that’s escaped me. I played soccer as a kid and went up and down the east coast, and in college played all over the Midwest. There’s not a whole hell of a lot of quality soccer going on in West Virginia, with all due respect to those who play. I say that not to incriminate, just matter-of-factly why I never traveled there.
I know it’s beautiful, but I’d never had family or reason to visit. But it has called me name in recent times. More high-profile representations have been produced, such as Bourdain’s episode and J.D. Vance’s memoir Hillbilly Elegy. There’s are, one could argue however, from a similar vantage point.
My philosophy on travel is that I always want to see it for myself, personally. Even if trusted sources release something, I want to experience it out my own, parse out meaning from my personal perspective.
And so with West Virginia, I want to go, feel the air, peer down the valleys and sense on my own what a book and TV show cannot convey.
How do Guizhou and West Virginia compare?
Full disclosure, I’ve never been to West Virginia. I will be there in two weeks’ time, and this is an reasonably educated guess. (Maybe.)
Like Guizhou, West Virginia is third from last in GDP per capita. It is not a terribly wealthy place, and this has affected its relationship with the central government.
Like Guizhou, West Virginia doesn’t always get tax dollars to go where they need.
Like Guizhou, West Virginia, the economy has traditionally centered on natural resources, namely coal. And similarly, this is a hackneyed take that is slowly changing daily.
Like Guizhou, West Virginia is naturally appealing. It’s got valleys cut deep from ancient rivers. It’s got copious cascades. It’s got a marvelous single span bridge that beckons comparison.
Like Guizhou, West Virginia is view as “other.” It’s one of the few places in the country where the people define themselves as ethnically American. The Appalachian folk come from Acadia, among other places. The left wing, liberal media, whatever moniker you chose, undeniably views the people here with a certain stereotype.
Like Guizhou, the traditional food is distinct, and hopefully resistant to the tide of McDonalds.
Like Guizhou, in a sense, West Virginia has for a long time been viewed as peripheral.
Its cities are developing, though they are not yet the urban meccas the rest of the Northeast has. (Obviously.)
They are remarkably similar in many ways, so I’ll let some pictures do the talking I suppose.
Both Guizhou and West Virginia are places where one wouldn’t necessarily endure a transpacific flight to experience. It’s hard to advocate for 20+ hour flights, layovers and jet lags for Charleston or Guiyang, Black Water Falls or Huangguoshu Waterfall, salt trout or sour fish soup.
That being said, it’s crazy that I would think to make the journey out to a place like Guizhou when living in China, but not treat my own country the same way.
When I was living in China, I treated a map like a pincushion, trying to explore a new part of the country until there was no more room. No adventure was too menial, no culture too familiar. I was open to long bus rides just to see a small village or an interesting festival.
So, why didn’t I treat my own country the same?
For me, it was because of that sense of familiarity. I’ve been to Ohio; can West Virginia be thaaat different. Yes. Yes it can.
It’s taken me a bit to understand that travel needn’t be international to be eye-opening, not necessarily for its natural beauty but for social reasons. The US is a humongous place. You can spend a lifetime here and not understand all its people or uncover all its secrets.
And in today’s climate, being open-minded, trying on someone else’s moccasins, even if it’s as trivial as camping beneath the stars there, is a good thing. With today’s palpable tensions, it matters less what the ballot box read. We need positive experiences and supportive interactions with the “other.”
I went to Guizhou to enjoy its beauty, learn a bit about the locals and discover a bit about myself.
In this way, the province of Guizhou and the state of West Virginia are unexpectedly similar.
Let me know in the comments below what you think. Agree? Disagree? Think I’m a dimwit?
All photos are my own with the exception of three. They were taken from Wikipedia Creative Commons. They do not endorse my work.
Blackwater Falls – Tim Kiser https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blackwater_Falls.jpg
New River Gorge Bridge – JaGa
Beipan River Shuibai Railway Bridge – Glabb