There was still a lot of cotton action. The last of the picked crop was being dried and packed in bags and the roads were filled with trucks and three-wheel putt-putts to take the cotton to town for sale.
"It ends up in England where you come from!" said one cotton trader busily stacking bags onto a trailer. Maybe it does, but as finished garments, not as raw materials.
I walked towards Xinzhou, the main town in this part of eastern Hubei, through the cotton fields. To while away the time, I composed a Hubei negro spiritual.
The road was long and straight, the country flat and featureless but Xinzhou is a booming little town, and my main impression of it was the chaos outside a primary school gate. School had just finished and the entrance was a cluttered mess of taxis, motorbikes for hire and private cars, all there to pick up the kids.
The town is expanding fast, but the country had not yet given up. There was a cow in the main street, and there were little country touches visible along the roadsides. Come back in two years and it will, of course, be totally urbanized.
I walked westwards along a shaded back street of the city, and noticed quite a number of little medical clinics along the way. In each one, I could see people sitting quietly hooked up to intravenous drips. And then the town came to an end, stopped by a river, now an unused waterway except for some sand diggers in the distance.
Over the bridge and I was back in the countryside. Cotton and more cotton laid out on the road to bake. The country lane was an old thoroughfare, straight as a dye, lined with trees and houses.
I stopped at a small store and sat beside a tabby cat that within a couple of minutes was licking the sweat off my fingers. I talked to the people sitting around, enjoying the sunshine. The man sitting next to me turned out to be a "doctor" whose clinic was next door. I asked him about the intravenous drip situation.
"I administer probably a dozen or so a day," he said. How much for one? "One note." I looked puzzled. "Ten yuan," he explained. Ah. Up to the early 1990s, the RMB10 note had been the largest denomination and must have been referred to as "notes" (yizhang). So doing some quick math, he’s bringing in around RMB3,000 (US$380) a month from drips alone. Add on other medicines and services and it’s not a bad little business.
For what ailments do you prescribe a drip? "All sort of things," he said with a shrug. "Colds?"
I went with him to the clinic which consisted of two rooms, one with a desk, the other with two bed spaces and drip stands. An old man was lying on one bed with a drip attached to his arm. "So you’re taking a drip," I said as I shot some photos at a high ISO rate to overcome the gloom of the room. "Yes," he said, his eyes gleaming slightly.
"What’s the problem?"
"I have a cold."
Basically, this drip thing is a money-making scam by country doctors, and the peasants are completely convinced that if they are feeling even a little out of sorts that a pick-me-up intravenous drip will solve the problem.
Further along the road, another clinic. Sitting by the door were two girls with their young children passively sitting on their laps, intravenous drip needles attached to the wrist of one child and to the forehead of the other.
I asked one mother what the problem was. Same answer: a cold. Does the child regularly have intravenous drips? Not so often, although this was the second day in a row for her daughter. Why stick the needle in the forehead? Answer: it is less likely to fall out if the child moves about.
I wanted to whisper to the mothers: all children get colds, it’s okay, don’t give them drips, it’s bad in lots of ways – possible infection, needle dependency, increased passivity? But I didn’t feel it was my place do more than ask some pretty direct questions, forcing them to justify their approach to child-rearing, which is: when in doubt stick in a needle.
The next morning, I passed through the little town of Liji, at which point I left the country lanes and rejoined Highway 318, my first return to the road since my discussions with the police outside of Sanlifan.
At the corner, as at many intersections in rural China, there was a clump of motorcycles and three-wheelers, the local equivalent of taxis, waiting to ferry people arriving on the little minibuses that ply the routes between the towns off into the fields. I said "ni hao", and the drivers gathered round. One in wraparound sunglasses said in English: Hello. I said hello back. He said "Good Morning", I said "Good morning". He said "police", a wicked smile on his face. That stopped me.
"Police!" he hissed. "Jingcha!"
The others laughed. Ah, a joke. "Please sir, don’t arrest me!" I pleaded.
One of his friends had a military or police-style helmet as his motorcycle helmet. He pointed at the camera, and asked me if I would take his photo. I did, then pointed to his helmet. "Can I borrow that?" He handed it over and I put it on, then handed the camera to him, and asked him to take the photo.
Several drivers clustered round to be in the shot, and a slightly crazy woman who couldn’t talk but grunted a lot, busily tidied up my shirt and patted my pockets straight before the shutter clicked.
A driver asked where I was from, I said England, and another driver with a useless left hand said: "Blair".
"Right, but not for much longer," I replied.
"You can vote," he said. I nodded. The implication was clear: we can’t. Who said ordinary Chinese people are apolitical?
Highway 318 is the only way westwards at this point. There were no small lanes, no older sleepy version of the highway in parallel. The countryside was bleak, even in the rich autumn. Virtually no trees – there is a strong connection between trees and civilization, I realized.
I trudged along briskly over the Liji bridge and spotted a little run-down house on the side of the road with a sign saying "Xinhua Restaurant". I was taking a photograph of it when several men came up and enquired as to what I was doing.
"Taking a photo of the Xinhua Restaurant," I said. "Is it related to Xinhua News Agency?"
No, they replied.
"There is a big difference between the Xinhua restaurant and Xinhua News Agency," I said.
They were good enough to wait for the punch line, bless them. "The Xinhua Restaurant makes money."
They looked at each other, then laughed.