It was on a day of drizzle and mist that I walked westward into Anhui province, leaving behind the watery world of Zhejiang. It was not more than three or four hours of walking later that the people's constabulary came to pay their respects.
I made it quite easy for them. I was a few kilometers east of the town of Guangde and had stopped for a few minutes outside a police station to chat with a truck driver, so they had a good chance to see there was a foreign guest around.
I walked on and 15 minutes later, a police car pulled up and three policemen jumped out, two in uniform and one in plain clothes, the ranking officer. He asked me politely where I came from and where I was going. I explained that I am walking from Shanghai to Tibet and had crossed the previous afternoon from Zhejiang.
This is pretty hard for many people to believe, although they don't get too many foreigners walking along country roads in southern Anhui. We all shook hands, and they jumped back in the car and drove off. Five minutes later, they were back. The officer, Mr Zhong, had a pitch to make, and it came out in a bit of a rush.
"I admire you so much for what you are doing, and my son spends all his time in front of the TV, and I try to tell him to go out and do something else, and he doesn't listen to me and I would like to stay in touch with you, and I wonder if you could give me your mobile phone number."
He wanted the mobile number. I gave it to him, and, what's more, I gave him the real one with no numbers changed. Why not? I am not doing anything illegal, I am just walking through the countryside. I got his number in return, and he asked me to contact him next time I passed this way. I smiled and nodded.
There was nothing negative about the exchange, but my experiences in China over nearly 30 years, including being thoroughly tailed and wiretapped in the Democracy Wall era and restricted for years to a radius of 20 km from the center of Beijing, have left me with a healthy level of skepticism about the motives of the people's constabulary.
My mobile number had presumably been run through a computer in Shanghai within an hour or so of my conversation with Mr. Zhong. It was the reason he came back to talk to me. But my friend and colleague, Mr. Chen, who accompanies me on some of my walks, told me not to be so suspicious. "China has changed," he said. "The police are no longer able to do just what they like. There are rights and regulations."
China's highway system is growing supersonically. Huge tracts of macadam roads are being laid in all corners of the nation. I bumped into one of the crews making this network a reality on Highway 318, just east of the Anhui border.
It was a beehive, or a circus, of maybe 50 people, with all sorts of devices from brooms to huge machines, laying the asphalt at a creeping pace. I talked to the workers, who were from all over China, but the company for which they are working is based in Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province.
First comes the marker, laying a white line on each of side of the road marking the limits to be asphalted. Then come the sweepers, maybe 10 of them wielding big brooms, sweeping the dusty pebble-strewn underlayer ahead of the machines. Then come the trucks that need to keep moving as they tip the asphalt into the hopper of the asphalt laying machine which grinds on and on all day long, slow but inexorable. Behind that comes a a team of four or five rollers, flattening and smoothing the tarmac. The surface was still warm hundreds of meters behind the advancing tarmac front. "We do a kilometer a day," said one worker.
At the provincial border, I stopped for a cup of tea at a Muslim food restaurant run by Mr. Ma, a Hui man who brought his entire clan from Gansu province in northwest China to run this truck-stop cafe, which operates 24 hours a day.
He rents the restaurant for RMB 50,000 a year, and it is full at least twice a day for lunch and dinner. Dinner for two, RMB 25, for three, RMB 35. "The people here seem to like our food,"said Mr. Ma. "Is it profitable?" I asked.
He eyed me suspiciously. "We make enough to get by," he replied. An understandable reply, even though I clearly do not work for the Zhejiang Provincial Tax Bureau.
"So that is Anhui," I said, pointing. "The land is Anhui, yes," he replied, "but the road is Zhejiang. Anhui couldn't afford to build the road, so it is Zhejiang's road."