A plant salesman with his cart in Hengyang downtown, Hunan province.[Photos by D J Clark / China Daily]
Raising pigs offers another source of livelihood for farmers in Shimen village, Gansu province.
Yangtuo digs a hole in the iced river to get water for her livestock in Duowa village, Qinghai province.
Though most of China has experienced blistering growth and improved living standards in the past three decades, pockets of poverty still remain. D J Clark reports in Hunan, Gansu and Qinghai provinces.
As Chinese New Year approached I had driven into the center of the country for the last stage of my trip around rural China.
Up until this point I had been slowly following the coast south, and it was time to head inland into some of China's more remote and poorer provinces.
Official figures estimate there are 230 million migrant workers in China, most of whom try to return to their homes during the Spring Festival travel season. Over 2 billion journeys are made, making it the world's largest human migration. I was following the crowds.
In Hengdong county, Hunan province, the usually quiet villages and towns were beginning to wake up as swarms of migrants returned for their annual family gathering.
I stopped the car in Xinyang village and walked along a narrow concrete road. Liu Changhua invited me into his home.
"The Spring Festival makes me happy because all my sons and daughters come back," he told me as he took a seat on a small wooden stool in a spacious hallway.
Liu's three children left him to seek better lives outside the village. His eldest son, Liu Fenxiang, who's married and has two children, left the village in 1993 to work in Guangdong province.
Leaving his son behind under the grandparents' care, Liu Fenxiang became emotional as he started to justify his move away from the village.
"I go out to work as I must earn money to feed the family. Otherwise it would be very difficult for the family because we only have a little land," Liu said. "When I am working outside I always dream about home."
As the Liu family gathers each year to celebrate the festival, so they also weigh up the benefits of finding new wealth in China's distant cities.
When I asked Liu Fenxiang if he was happy with his life as a migrant worker, he fixed me an empty stare.
"You can't use money to buy happiness. Thirty years ago I thought money can do everything but now I know it can't. Now I think relationships are more important than money."
Leaving Xinyang village I continued inland through Chongqing, Sichuan and into Gansu province.
I was picked up in the provincial capital, Lanzhou, by Huo Mingde, a farmer who had prospered by renting farmland from migrant workers and growing potatoes on a grand scale.
We stopped at Shimen village, sitting between muddy brown mountains, partly frosted by the winter cold. Its remote geography meant many of the rural developments seen in central China had yet to be fully implemented in Shimen - the situation worsened by recent droughts.
Sitting in the courtyard of his newly built house, pig farmer Zhang Wanzhong greeted us and offered to explain how the new developments had affected the village.
"I think there really isn't much that has changed in our village in the past 30 years," he said.
"If there is any change, we now have enough to eat and wear. When I was a boy, starvation was a problem.
"Now we have water pumped from the mountain into our home. If there is a lot of rain this year the amount of water we will have here is just enough for both people and livestock. If there isn't plenty of rain here the taps stop working. Other than this not much has changed."
As I walked around and met other villagers, I found similar responses, which led me to ask how they foresaw their future and whether the newly introduced government pension, was sufficient for them to survive after they retired.
"It's totally not enough. I would have to buy medicine," a middle-aged woman told me, admitting it would be a while before she could draw a pension.
An elderly group gathered in the village square were more optimistic concluding the 55 yuan ($8.70) a month they each had recently started claiming was not enough to live off but an improvement on having nothing before.
A total of 199 million Chinese rural residents had joined the country's rural pension insurance program by the middle of 2011, according to the Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security.
As I continued my walk around the village I found everyone over 60 had recently started getting basic payments for the first time.
The small statutory payment varies from province to province and can be topped up by paying higher rates into the scheme during their working years. The basic payment, although small, is a first step at providing a pension to all rural residents after they reach 60, reducing their dependency on their families to support them.
I left Shimen and drove back to Lanzhou to take an evening train to Qinghai's provincial capital, Xining, for the last stage of my journey.
I took a bus from Xining into the mountains, to the village of Duowa. The smallest and poorest community I had visited, on the slopes of a deep dusty gorge.
As I crossed the frozen river that joins the community together, I met local villager Yangtuo who was descending onto the ice with two large pails.
Following her down the iced river I came to a hole where she dipped a cup into the freezing water and began to fill her pails.
"It takes about one hour to go back and forth to fetch drinking water. I go twice a day to fill up my containers," she told me.
Running water taps had been installed in the village but they were frozen. Until spring, Yangtuo and all the other villagers had to continue to rely on the river water for feeding their livestock and a spring about 2 km away for drinking water.
Walking around the village I went through the list of promised developments: a new road, access to new schools in the county town, health insurance, and pensions and support for new agricultural technologies - all were present in the village but like the frozen taps, not all working as well as they might.
Local farmer Niangjia sat down with me to explain.
"When I was in my teens we did not have electricity and running water at home like now. Now I am 56 and compared to those days there is a huge difference," he started optimistically.
"Before, we had the school in the village and children used to run home all the time. Now the children go to the county town school so they can't run away. The government supports them with their food so the students can focus on their studies. I think it is very positive."
But not everyone agreed all the developments had been successful. The closing of the village school, one of around 280,000 that were closed in the last 10 years to allow the education authorities to concentrate on better centralized schools was the most contentious. It meant children started later and had to board at the school as it was too far away to return every day.
I met Wangmaotai whose son was physically handicapped and was neither able to attend school nor afford to get the medical operations he needed because the new insurance was still not enough to reduce the costs to an affordable level.
"With medical insurance it's cheaper now. But if we go to hospital we still need a lot of money," she told me.
For the coming years the government is increasing spending in rural areas and intends to concentrate on finishing the tasks set out in the previous plans while at the same time improving on the new services provided, according to Fan Xiaojian, head of the Leading Group Office of Poverty Alleviation and Development under the State Council.
The widening wealth gaps between urban and rural areas were the driving force behind the new policies, Fan explained.
The average income of China's urban residents was more than three times that of rural residents in 2010.
In Duowa things were clearly improving though there was still much to be done to match the living conditions of people living in cities.
Niangjia, however, preferred to reflect on the achievements to date than look to the future. In his last words he summed up the general impression I had gained from my nine-week journey.
"The living conditions have changed year-by-year, day-by-day. We have support from the government and also people have left the village to work in the construction industry. Both these things have improved our living standards. It really is like comparing the sky and the earth."