Wanzhou city, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,282 km
I was on the last stretch of road through the mountains of the Yangtze Gorges. Ahead of me was the city of Wanzhou, occupying an important bend on the Yangtze River, and beyond that the Sichuan basin.
I was eager to reach Wanzhou, and the last section of local highway 103 was cooperating and heading gradually downward. The mountains were less spectacular, the valleys less deep. But there were still only a smattering of human habitations in this corner of central China. I guess it was due to the poor quality of the soil. Nevertheless, the few small slabs of bright green young paddy rice by the road, and terraced vegetables on the hillsides made the scene, as always, easy on the eye.
In two days of walking, I encountered extremes of heat and wetness. The first day, the temperatures were approaching 40 degrees and I walked as fast as I possibly could from one patch of tree shade to the next. It was a slog. Luckily, the road was almost straight and parallel to the lines of latitude, and so every step brought me a good westering benefit.
There being few houses along the way, so there were few opportunities for conversation. The orange pipa fruit that had dominated the scene just a month before had completely disappeared, and so had the peach blossom. The new Wanzhou-Yunyang stretch of highway followed me as I passed out of Yunyang county and into the prefecture of Wanzhou. I saw a road sign for Nanchong, a major town in the center of the Sichuan plain and the first Sichuan town I had seen marked. I would be passing through it in a few more walks.
The sun was so hot, and I wanted to stop and rest out the hottest part of the day between noon and 1 p.m. But as noon arrived, I noticed that my shadow was still tending slightly ahead of me. As the road was heading exactly due west, this didn’t make sense, and I puzzled over it for a little while before realizing that noon in Beijing, 13 or 14 degrees of longitude to the east, was in fact only 11 a.m. or so in real time in Chongqing/Wanzhou. It would therefore be another hour before the sun was directly over my head.
But I did stop around 12:30 p.m. Beijing time at a little storefront open to the road in which four women were playing mahjong on a table that automatically washed the tiles and magically delivered fresh walls of tiles for them to play at the end of each round. It was the first time I had seen such a device in action, and it was both amazing and a little disappointing. The process of manually washing mahjong tiles with all the noise and interaction involved has its own charm.
Sitting on the side was a middle-aged man whose face was distinctive in some way, but I didn’t pay a lot of attention until one of the women pointed to him and said: "He is a foreigner too."
The man was embarrassed and uncomfortable, but this was clearly what he had been dealing with all his life. He had blue eyes, the only blue eyes I had ever seen on a Chinese person. Also his skin and features had a relatively Caucasian or perhaps Turkic feel to them.
I went over and sat next to him and chatted with him. He was both happy and unhappy about this.
"It does look like we are brothers," I said him. "What is your surname?"
"My surname’s Li," he replied with a thick Chongqing accent.
"Some foreigner did the act with one of his ancestors," said one of the women with a laugh. "He’s a foreign bastard."
It was phrased in a friendly enough way, but he had been beaten down by what I imagined had been a constant thread of taunts and derogatory comments since he was a young child. Poor guy. He smiled sheepishly at the woman’s remark.
"Do you have any idea how many generations back?" I asked.
He shook is head.
"How about your father?"
"Did he have blue eyes?"
We took a photo together. I guessed the blue-eyed ancestor who left his seed in this village was more likely to be a Central Asian than European, but who knows.
The next day, it rained continuously. The road was being fitfully repaired and upgraded, but it was basically a mess for kilometer after kilometer. The valley widened out, the mountains became hills. Tiny snails were out in force due to the rains, and I passed a peasant peeling them off walls and dropping them into an enamel mug.
"You eat them?" I asked.
He nodded without even looking at me, continuing his harvest.
And then I entered the outskirts of Wanzhou – bus stops, car repair shops, construction materials stores and slabs of pork on open stalls.
Wanzhou used to be called Wanxian – Wan county. That is generally how it is referred to in the books of Western travelers in a bygone era. And all of those that took the Yangtze trip stopped here.
This port is the place where for many, many years – hundreds and thousands – trade has met the Yangtze River, providing the connection for goods heading from the coast and central China into Sichuan, and goods from Sichuan’s huge and verdant plains heading out to the world. In both directions the primary point of shipment was not Chongqing city to the south, but Wanzhou, and still is to a great extent today, even though its role is challenged by the growth of the highway network.
The city has grown enormously in the past decade due to the Three Gorges Dam and the many farmer families uprooted and resettled in housing blocks in this city. It now has a population, I was told, of close to 2 million. Huge and of course almost unknown to the world at large, like another Yangtze River city I passed through on the walk some years ago, Tongling.
I met a couple of foreigners in a restaurant in the middle of the city, teaching English in a local private school, and very happy to be living in an anonymous third- or fourth-tier metropolis.
But my walk ended on the outskirts of the city, so I would leave further explorations to my next visit.