'Country Driving': Taking the Whole Town to the Great Wall

When I drove more than seven thousand miles across rural northern China, there was only one day in which I had a full car. I was traveling alone, driving a rented Jeep Cherokee, and I often stopped for hitch-hikers -- I had an empty passenger's seat and I liked the company. I picked up travelers waiting for buses, and farmers heading to market, and truckers whose rigs had broken down. But the vast majority of my hitchers were young people in their teens and twenties who were leaving for city jobs in factories or construction crews. Today, an estimated 140 million Chinese have departed the countryside, and to drive across the north is to find yourself in the midst of the largest migration in human history.

Most of the villages I passed through were dying. People of working age had already migrated, and often I saw only the elderly, the disabled, and small children, because migrants often leave their kids at home to be raised by grandparents. One day, I stopped in a village called Temple of Peace, where I had heard about some beautiful ruins of the Great Wall. An old man had trouble explaining the directions; finally he told me to just take his twelve-year-old grandson, who was standing nearby with a bunch of other kids. "He knows the way," the old man said. But the moment the door was open, every kid piled in, and suddenly I had six passengers. The youngest one was a two-year-old baby.

I waited for the grandfather to call them out, but he just smiled and waved goodbye. Probably he was happy to be relieved of childcare duties, and like most northern villagers he was completely trusting. He didn't ask my name, or where I came from, or why I was there. And so I drove off, and after a couple of miles I realized the kids were preternaturally silent -- all at once it had dawned on them that a strange foreigner sat in the driver's seat. I stopped the car and explained who I was. And I couldn't resist taking a snapshot of their little faces; I had never seen such a perfect portrait of suspicion, wariness, and uncertainty, ages two and up.

It occurred to me that this was a situation for chocolate. I always kept a stash of Dove bars, and now I divided and distributed six of them. And so we continued to the Great Wall, where the kids played on the ruins, and the grandfather was still waiting patiently when we returned to Temple of Peace. I'm sure he never had a moment's doubt that we would return.

That was my first long road trip in China, and it gave me a vivid sense of how rapidly the country is changing. I still experienced rural traditions of trust and hospitality, but I also saw all the young people on the road, and I knew that the future of these places was headed elsewhere. That journey became the first part of "Country Driving," and in the second part I continued my research by observing changes in a rural village over the course of seven years. For the last section of the book, I spent two years following development in a new factory town, one of the places where all the migrants were headed. In the book, I've explored this transition from country to city, from farming to business, and I've focused on places where new automobiles and improved roads help drive the change.

In the end, the project spanned eight years. Sometimes I think back to the beginning of the journey, when I rolled through Temple of Peace and met the children. The older ones are now in their teens, and I'm sure that like so many young people from the countryside, they're out on the road, making their way across a new world.