Ireached Yuexi, the last significant town in southwest Anhui and left Highway 209 facing the prospect of a return to Highway 318. I had last seen this road the previous December when I left it at Nanling in order to stay as close as possible to the 31st parallel north.
After the delightful ramble along mountain roads, my memories of Highway 318 were a collage of trucks, dust and noise, and I was concerned about returning to that. But to my relief, the section of Highway 318 from Yuexi westwards was far more like a country lane than a highway.
It winds picturesquely up and down mountains and valleys, a narrow macadamized strip fading at the edges into paddies, chickens, pine and bamboo forests, kids and farmers. One of the reasons Highway 318 is so quiet is that there is now an expressway from Anqing running directly west to the city of Wuhan. This raises a pleasant prospect: the construction of China's national expressway network is simultaneously creating a national network of backwater country lanes.
At the edge of town, I stopped at a small "doctor's surgery", a simple hut with "Doctor" Wang in attendance. There was a woman of about 30 lying on a sofa with a drip stand beside her. I asked why she was on a drip, and she said she had not been feeling too good. The way she said it indicated to me that she was not sick at all, so the drip was just a pick-me-up. I asked her how much for the bottle, the answer was "a few kuai". A doctor I met the following day had two drip stations in his small country clinic. It is all a bit ominous – are Chinese people becoming addicted to indiscriminately prescribed and administered intravenous drips?
Highway 318 follows a broad valley northwest of Yuexi, and on the left is a rank of magnificent peaks. The road tended gradually higher. I passed through one village where two men virtually accosted me in the mistaken belief that I was a news reporter, wanting me to write an article about outrageous conduct on the part of the government. They said the authorities had promised to pay compensation cash for flood damage and then had never handed over the money. "We are poor," said one of the men, just as his mobile phone rang.
"You don't look so poor to me," I said.
"There are people a lot poorer in the mountains," said a woman in the group listening, undercutting the man's argument.
I met an old peasant as he stepped out of the fields, holding a basket full of rice and seedlings he had just picked for replanting later in the day. He had a pair of rubber boots and heelless socks in his other hand and I offered to help him carry the seedlings basket. He shook his head, and we walked along, chatting. His name was Chu Nansheng, 71 years old with five children.
It became clear to me as we walked along that he was somewhat drunk. Not so much drunk, perhaps, as floating in a mild alcoholic haze. It's quite possible that many of the males in rural China are drunk much of the time. I don't blame them. The days must be fairly monotonous, and having a baijiu buzz is unlikely to ruin a day's work in the paddy fields. Baijiu is an acquired taste, but these guys acquire it in their teens – it is the true opiate of the masses.
So peasant Chu Nansheng – slightly drunk and very hospitable – led me off the road down a dirt path, over a little brook, past two houses and into his courtyard. He invited me into his room, sat me down by the door and brought me an enamel cup inscribed with the name of some state factory far away in 1992. He rinsed it out, threw the water out the door, then offered me a tin of tea leaves. "You pick some, my hands are filthy," he said.
I made myself a cup of tea while he squatted down outside the door and sorted the seedlings as we talked. He has lived in the village all his life, and was admitted to the Communist Party in the 1980s. He said he had three sons and two daughters. Against the regulations, I said.
"Not by so much," he replied. "Premier Zhou Enlai said 'one is too few, two is good and three is a little too many'. Plus if you have daughters there is more flexibility." He came in and showed me faded photographs of his children in a small photo album. One photo showed a son posing with a pretty wife and a little girl well on the way to being pudgy. The inevitable result of city living. The village kids I meet are all in pretty good shape, and in terms of a healthy balanced diet, it could be the average Anhui village kid is now ahead of his cousins in the coastal cities.
The road wound up steeply towards the head of the valley, hairpins twisting back and forth and back again, as it edged up the steep mountain side. Pine trees became more prevalent, but the rice terraces were still packed into every inch of land with terrace walls sometimes two meters in height due to the steepness of the slope.
It was a tough climb, but the views back down the valley, all the way to Yuexi in the far distance were not only beautiful, but also interesting. For the first time in my travels, I could look across an entire day's walk, from start to finish, and spot the places I had been from a 3-D elevation.
The next day started early. I wanted to see the scene at the top of the valley I had viewed the previous late afternoon from the perspective of an early morning, and I was hoping for some of that "cloud-sea" action that stirs photographers' blood. And there it was, the long valley blanketed with clearly differentiated layers of mist.
After the long walk uphill the day before, the morning was all downhill. I spent some time sitting with Doctor Han Jixin, who has manned his simple country clinic since 1970. He and the clinic, the whole scene, were like a little piece of the Cultural Revolution captured in a China Reconstructs magazine article and preserved in a time warp. On the wall of the main room of the clinic was a massive poster of a very healthy-looking Chairman Mao. Doctor Han administers both Chinese and Western medicines, and has a large apothecary next to the main clinic room – each drawer carefully marked with its contents.
He said his patients – the local peasantry – pay RMB2 per visit plus medicine costs. He showed me the bill on the top of the pile and it was for RMB2 plus RMB21.50 for medicine. I asked him what his patients usually wanted, Western or Chinese medicine, and he said increasingly Western medicine. He had the two intravenous drip stations set up, but all was quiet this Sunday morning – no peasants with needles in their arms.
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