Chinese Countryside - Version 1
There are many different versions of the Chinese countryside. Some folks have idyllic conceptions of agrarian utopia outside the grasps of huge Chinese cities. Others imagine destitution and pollution choking small farmers out of their way of life. Both versions exist - as do many versions in between.
The area around Erhai Lake is relatively prosperous and seemingly clean. Although the water in the lake is still polluted, efforts to clean up the area are underway and the skies are still blue with little air pollution.
So this beautiful version of the countryside does, indeed, exist.
Chinese Countryside - Version 2
Sadly, as beautiful as the landscape in Yunnan is, there are plenty of areas in the countryside which are littered with garbage, riddled with water that is unclean and full of destitution.
The Good and the Sad
Given both of these versions of China's countryside and all the in-betweens, you can indeed escape China's big cities and enjoy visiting villages and smaller towns. It's important to be cognizant that beyond the glitz and glamor of many of China's big cities, and the monumental infrastructure you'll find upon visiting many parts of China (shiny new airports and train stations, smooth new super-highways, high-speed rail connections), there are millions of extremely poor communities all over the country and especially in the countryside. But this doesn't mean you shouldn't or can't seek out the countryside and visit it.
How to See the Countryside
It is really worth trying to visit some of these places since it will give you a memorable and completely different perspective on China. There are tour operators that specialize in taking people off the beaten path and into the countryside. Wild China is one that specializes in sustainable tourism and prides itself on taking folks to some of the most beautiful, unvisited countryside in China. Discovery Tours is an operator in China that specializes in tours in Sichuan Province, a place that has some of the most beautiful mountains and national parks in China.
What It's Like
Being a tourist in the countryside will not be the same as in the city. You won't find the same amenities as you will find in big cities, obviously. Depending on where you go, you may be more of an attraction yourself if you're traveling to a place that doesn't receive a lot of visitors. In any event, you should tread lightly, but you needn't be shy. Ask questions, talk to people, enjoy the interaction with locals that you may not have access to in other parts of the country. Eat the local specialties, visit the local markets. Enjoy a slower pace of life in China's countryside.
The Yangtze River Delta, the region that surrounds Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Shanghai, is dotted with "water towns". These are towns and villages built using the canal system that has been in place for hundreds of years used for transportation and trade. Many of these water towns are famous and receive hoards of tourists. Nanxun has not yet been discovered and sits, quietly, as it must have sat a hundred years ago. There is evidence of tourists in the vendors along the main canal in the old city renting gudai period costumes for visitors to dress up in and pose along the stone bridges. But if you go on an ordinary day, you won't find tourist buses and crowds.
Nanxun is accessible as a day trip from Hangzhou, Suzhou, and Shanghai and is a nice way to see how life moves in a small town.
Longjing Tea Villages
Just thirty minutes away from the tourist bustle of Hangzhou's West Lake are small villages that dot the hills around Hangzhou and are famous for their Longjing green tea, considered some of the best green tea in China. Some of the villages are so close you can even rent bicycles and ride to them. You can park your bike, walk around the tea plantations and have lunch at a local farmhouse restaurant.
Guangxi Autonomous Region is home to some spectacular scenery. The famous mountains even grace the 20rmb note. Notably, the Li River runs through the countryside and you can take boat trips along it. Yangshuo used to be a sleepy backpacker's town with few tourists. That's not the case these days but it is still a nice place to base yourself to explore the countryside around the Li River Valley and do some nice bike rides and hikes. You don't have to stay in Yangshuo anymore. There are hotels and guesthouses in the surrounding countryside, like the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, that allow you to enjoy the scenery without the crowds.
Xizhou is one of the most beautiful places in China and to visit during the rice harvest is an added bonus. The deep green of the Cangshan mountains is on one side and the undulating patterns of green and gold from the rice paddies on the other with the azure sky above. It's a perfect illustration of that idyllic countryside landscape you yearn for in China.