I believe you can learn a lot about a place from the journey to get there. I've never traveled to a place where this was as true as it is for Zhuhe Township, China.
I recently visited China to witness Mercy Corps' work through local partners, to interview those benefiting from our humanitarian programs, and to get as much of a sense of the country and its myriad cultures as one can in a three-week time span. Soon after arriving in Beijing, China's capital, I began the nearly two-day trek to reach Zhuhe Township, the site of Mercy Corps' Giving Leadership Opportunities to Young Women (GLOW) project.
Zhuhe Township, in the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture of southern China's Sichuan Province, is as isolated a place as I've ever been. Even with China's efficient airline network and vehicles at our disposal, the journey there was nothing short of exhausting. And the change of scenery — not to mention the shift in culture — was dizzying.
From Beijing — a gargantuan city of nearly 17 million people with a prolific skyline that swallows the horizon in all directions — we flew three hours to Chengdu, the capital city of Sichuan Province. While still an enormous city of 11 million people, Chengdu seemed much smaller and less imposing than Beijing.
Our next flight lasted about an hour and took us to Xichang, the capital of the Liangshan Yi Autonomous Prefecture. Xichang is a sprawling and bustling city, yet more subdued and slower-paced than Chengdu. Even with a population of more than 125,000 people, Xichang seems quaint when compared with the massiveness of Beijing: here there are no soaring skyscrapers to block views of the surrounding mountains.
The next leg of our journey took us into those mountains. Within minutes, city life was replaced by the pastoral peace of rice paddies and unassuming rural households. As our car climbed higher in altitude, we passed through fewer villages. Scaling still higher, houses disappeared altogether as we wound above the tree line.
Several thousand feet above sea level in the world's most populous country, we were alone. There were no people or buildings anywhere.
This was a different China.
From Xichang, we drove for three hours to Zhaojue, the area's county seat. Here was Xichang in miniature, a place so far removed from Beijing or Chengdu that it seemed like a different country. Shops displayed the unique alphabet of the region's Yi people alongside ubiquitous Chinese characters. The sound of conversations in the air overwhelmed the din of passing cars and trucks.
But our destination was farther still, over another set of steep hills.
Low-slung apartment blocks gave way to thatched-roof mud houses. Tiny street-side market stalls replaced trinket-laden shop windows. Instead of the determined gaze of quick-moving city dwellers I saw weary sadness, even behind the smiles of friendly-eyed villagers.
Everything changed when we reached Zhuhe Township. It is a place hundreds of miles, and perhaps hundreds of years, away from China's rapidly growing, ultramodern cities. Predominated by the ancient Yi culture and deeply rooted in traditional agriculture, Zhuhe Township somehow seems left behind. Unfortunately, heroin addiction and the resulting spread of HIV/AIDS are hobbling the place — and its people — to limp forward at a much slower pace as other parts of the country surge ahead.
Here, in a part of China that few visitors — whether Western or even Asian — have gazed, was the end of our journey and the beginning of one of Mercy Corps' most critical tasks.