A Walk Through Rural Zhangjiajie, China (PHOTOS)

Jessica Peterson

A Walk Through Rural Zhanghjiajie, China

It’s not every day you see a man lying face down in a ditch with blood trickling down his head. Next to him an old woman wailed in despair. Three or four men crowded around but didn’t touch the man whom I could see was still breathing.

We were being driven in a car past this scene in rural Zhangjiajie, China. The single-lane road was steep and narrow and I was just inches from the commotion outside my window which was rolled down. Our driver honked to clear the road and continued up the hill.

Zhangjiajie, China

Fear gripped me and suddenly I felt isolated and in danger. My happy tourist bubble was replaced with the cold hard realization that I was a foreigner in Communist China and not a soul would save me if I got into trouble here.

Turns out my feelings were misinformed. When I arrived at my B&B about a mile from the scene I related the event to a worker there. The driver had also told her about the incident. What I failed to see was the overturned motorbike in the ditch. The whole thing was a traffic accident, not a gruesome murder and a mother grieving her son in some gang war which might catch me in the crossfire.

I was relieved beyond belief to have sized up the scene wrongly. It taught me a lesson — do not overreact; stay calm and get all the facts.

My fear led me down a path of negative thoughts about the village and my personal safety. We were only two days into our two-week stay where I was eager to wander around taking photographs.

Eventually, I did just that. This village in scenic Yangjiajie turned out to be filled with friendly and intriguing faces — old men and woman playing games in the street, mothers fussing over their only child, butchers torching meat, and women selling street food.

I find it awkward to photograph people on the street, but also incredibly rewarding so I forced myself to approach people, although I always respectfully and mindful not to overstay my welcome. A big smile goes a long way and one of three things would happen: 1) A few older people waved me away; 2) Proud mothers pushed their awe-struck children in front of my camera; 3) People turned the tables and took selfies with me.

Yangjiajie in the Hunan Province sits at the foot of the mountains that reportedly inspired “Avatar” and though the national park brims with tourists (mostly Chinese), we were the only foreigners wandering the streets. The weather that October morning was chilly but humid as the fog has not lifted for days. The air smelled alternately green (farmland) and sooty (trash burning). The village had a quiet ease so different from our jolt into city life when we arrived in Shanghai.

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Woman sifting flour in Zhangjiajie, ChinaDuck swimming in rice paddy in Zhangjiajie, ChinaMen playing game on street in Zhangjiajie, ChinaChild in Zhangjiajie, ChinaOld woman smiling in Zhangjiajie, ChinaMan playing cards in Zhangjiajie, ChinaWoman cooking street food in Zhangjiajie, ChinaMan sifting trash in Zhangjiajie, ChinaStreet game of checkers in Zhangjiajie, ChinaOld woman smiling in Zhangjiajie, ChinaButcher torching meat in Zhangjiajie, ChinaStreet with broken glass in Zhangjiajie, ChinaFlowers in Zhangjiajie, ChinaMan carving bamboo in Zhangjiajie, ChinaMother carrying child on back in Zhangjiajie, ChinaStreet game of checkers in Zhangjiajie, ChinaChild in Zhangjiajie, China

Planning a China trip? Already been? Share your experience below.

Jessica Peterson
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Jessica Peterson

Jessica Peterson is a travel filmmaker, photographer, and journalist. She released her first documentary film about indigenous culture on Guam in 2016, after having lived nearly 7 years on the Pacific island. Jessica is currently on the Great American Roadtrip in her Airstream trailer.
Jessica Peterson
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  • I have read a few of your posts and am always impressed with the quality of your pictures. The scenery in Zhangjiajie is lovely, and I like all the people pics too. I also like to photograph the locals whenever I am traveling and have some great ‘people pictures’ that I shot in Nepal. Good post as usual. Thanks for sharing.

  • Cassandra D’Alessandro

    Wow! your photos are beautiful! China is a place I have dreamed of travelling to. The culture looks so fascinating to me. I love how honest you were about the fear you experienced on your journey. So glad that you were safe though. lovely post, Im excited to read more of your stuff and maybe check out a film.

  • Really great photos of the people. Definitely genuinely capture of what daily life looks like. I think most people that go to China get surprised what it’s actually like, despite being a Communist nation. I know some people that thought it would be more in the lines of like North Korea. I’ve seen your previous posts of YangJiaJie and I’m definitely hoping to go there someday.

  • Julianne

    Your post makes me fondly recall the time I spent in China back in 2010. Your photos are fabulous again, as usual! I like the point you made about how to approach people to take their pictures. I usually err on the side of not doing it, because I’m afraid it will make them angry or annoyed. Just reading your post makes me think I’ll try it one day — respectfully, of course!

  • Samantha Lorenz

    I love all your pictures of locals! It captures so much more of the culture than just the sights. We were in China in 2015 and I completely resonate with your feelings, it was a huge step out of my comfort zone!

  • Lauren West

    This is wonderful! I love discovering off the beaten track places like this, in a country as huge as China there’s so many great places to be found. Everyone (or most) looks happy in your pictures! Your photos show what life is like for people who live there.

  • Lynne Sarao

    Wow! Talk about off the beaten path. It looks like you discovered a true hidden gem here. Your photography is stunning. I love how you captured the true essence of the place and the people. Really well done.

  • Clare

    I would love to go to this part of China. I didn’t get chance when I was in China 2 years ago. It looks like a stunning area to visit from your photos 🙂

  • Sonia Sahni

    My favourite pic is that of the duck….so cute! What game are the locals playing…I havent seen anything like it in Inida. I would have gone only to Beijing in China but your pics have inspired me to visit the interiors as well.