West of Shuangtu township, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,250 km
I walked up one valley, following a river almost to its source, watching the stream get gradually smaller and cleaner, then crossed a ridge and tracked downhill through another valley, following a different stream, watching it get bigger and dirtier with every kilometer.
I walked in two days from about 350 meters above sea level to 1,020m at the ridge, then back down to 350m. Which meant that in addition to around 18 horizontal kilometers a day, I also did around 650 vertical meters per day. For comparison, the Jinmao Tower in Shanghai is 430m in height.
The downhill stream, heading westward, was crystal clear up to a point where a landslip had brought half a hillside down onto the road, with the dirt and rubble having been bulldozed into the stream by the roadside.
From that point, the waters were muddy, and I watched with interest to see how long the mud would stay suspended in this stream, which consisted of a series of quiet pools and rocky rapids. The answer was about 4km, but just as the water had become clear once more, the stream hit its first little town. The first building on the outskirts was a small fertilizer factory, which of course was feeding gunk into the stream.
Walking in the mountains of China in winter has its own pleasures. The silence is thicker, and the colors more varied. On this walk, I was still on the long road between the towns of Fengjie and Yunyang to the north of the Yangtze River, enjoying the bracing air and the pale sunshine.
On this two-day walk, I encountered more religious shrines than I had seen since Anhui. On the eastern side of the ridge, I came upon one of them under a cliff by the road, dedicated to the Lord Buddha in one of his more garishly Chinese forms. There was a plaque outside that said the shrine had been in existence for hundreds of years, and had been set up originally by a Taoist priest who happened by and was enchanted by the vista before him.
It was tiny – the shrine itself was a grotto up a dozen steep steps, and occupying a space of maybe 2m square. There was a flame burning in a small oil holder in front of the image, with a small round kneeling cushion on the ground. There was no fresh incense to be had, so I took a half-burned stick and re-lit it, then did the usual obeisance to Buddha, kneeling on the cushion, holding the incense stick between my hands and waving it up and down three times. A woman and a boy had accompanied me up to see what the foreigner would do, and I asked them if they were believers. The woman said no, but the boy surprisingly said yes.
I met a girl on the road named Peng Jingjing, who overtook me and asked if she could talk to me. I, of course, said yes. She was 15 years old, and clearly extraordinary in that she was a farm girl taking the initiative to get to know a strange man walking through the village.
I asked her about the terraced fields on the hillsides around us, many of which had fallen into disuse.
"People have stopped farming them, it is not worth it," she said. She explained that people planted enough for themselves to eat, and then maybe some cash crop depending on what has a good market price at the time.
We walked together for a few kilometers and I learned more about her. She had spent almost her entire life apart from her parents. She lives with her grandfather and spends most of the year at the junior high dormitory. Her father is a driver in Shenzhen and her mother, who does not work, has lived in Shenzhen with him for many years.
"When did you last see them?"
"More than a year ago."
"Do you stay in touch?"
"Yes, they call me, maybe once or twice a month."
"Could you not go and live with them?" I asked.
"I went to Shenzhen once, but I hated it there." There seemed to be more to the story, but I did not press her.
Her dream is to get into a good senior high school, then a place in university to study Korean or Japanese to become an interpreter.
"What do you think of the Nanjing massacre?" she asked, in a strange segue from future to past.
"Hmmm, it was bad, but it was also a long time ago, and has little or nothing to do with the Japanese people of today, just as I had nothing to do with the opium wars," I said.
She changed the subject again and said she was very proud of the Communist Party’s leaders and glad they had everything under control.
"But the corruption is terrible," she added in another weird juxtaposition. "All the money for improving schools in Yunyang, for instance, gets siphoned off, so our school gets none of it. We have no computers and there is no library."
I asked her if she ever read novels, and she shook her head.
"They are not allowed, and we are not allowed to use computers either. There is an internet café near my school, but the teachers come over every evening and get any students there to leave." But she gave me her QQ number and said she managed to get online once a month.
The big question for her and others in her generation right now is employment. At 15, Ms Peng could still say "I don’t want to think about it just yet." But slightly off topic, I was in Beijing recently speaking at the China University of Communications, and the 100-or-so students in attendance had basically only one question to ask in a variety of ways: How will I find a job when I graduate?
My answer to them was the same as to Ms Peng – learn what the school requires of you so you can pass the exams, then put as much time as possible into creating added-value for yourself. Do things which make you stand out, make you more than ordinary. But the pressure on the next few years of graduates, annoyed no doubt that they have just missed the boom, will be immense.
Which leads partly to drugs. I overnighted in Yunyang, and the taxi drivers said that while the law and order situation had improved somewhat, knife fights were still something to be wary of. As I was heading out for dinner, a young guy with a cool hairstyle got into the elevator, and I asked him about the top floor from which he had emerged.
"Entertainment," he said. "Later on."
When I got back to the hotel, there was a police van outside, and a crowd of people watching the cops march a line of young guys out of the hotel. Including my elevator acquaintance.
"Drugs?" I asked the policeman next to me. He nodded. But the police did not look particularly stern, and the guys did not look overly worried as they were being loaded into the paddy wagon. It was just another night in Yunyang.