West of Guojiagou, Chongqing municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,205km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,729km
The road from Fengjie to Yunyang follows a valley to the north of the Yangtze River that is probably the most beautiful stretch of scenery I have seen in central China. The vistas include the classic gorge cliffs and steep terraced hillsides, and while it was on a slightly smaller scan than the classic Yangtze Gorges, it was more remote and secluded. My own valley, as opposed to having to share it with hordes of tourists.
The river running through this gorge was at its natural level, as it was higher than the 165m-above-sea-level line of the Yangtze reservoir. I was told that the original plan was to raise the level to 175m during 2008, but the implementation of this had been put off several times. One guy speculated the reason for the delay was concerns of the possible impact in terms of landslips and other problems.
Anyway, this valley looked something like the Yangtze Valley had done prior to 2001, and in the future it will get better yet. The freeway that is being built through the region is scheduled for completion in 2009. I would put my money on 2010, but never mind.
When the freeway opens for business, all the long-distance buses and trucks will leave the road linking the two river towns, allowing the road to revert to a greater level of peace and safety for the kids and chickens along the way. Once this happens, I would highly recommend a walk eastward through the valley toward the town of Guojiagou – East because then you have the sun mostly at your back during the afternoon.
I am heading west on my walk, which means I usually have the sun in my eyes as I walk longest during the afternoons. But the scenery was beautiful, enhanced by recent heavy rains that made the river race noisily down its steep gradient. Waterfalls cascaded off the cliffs at every turn.
This portion of the walk started close to Fengjie town, which is the largest of the towns in the Yangtze Gorges region. It is disjointed, with several unconnected sections strung along the steep shores of the lake. Most sections have been rebuilt in the past 15 years to house the residents of the old Fengjie, mostly though not wholly submerged, and also farmer families whose houses and fields were submerged.
Like Wushan, there is a slightly wild feeling about Fengjie. I asked a taxi driver about the law and order situation and he said: "Not so good." In what way? "There are a lot of fights." Fist fights? "No, knives and guns." Hmmm.
I asked if there was gambling available for the rich coal mine bosses and the answer, of course, was yes. I asked where and was told the biggest gambling place is the Green Sea Palace, in the center of town. One taxi driver told me he had been into this, um, casino, and declared it to be "huge."
This information appears to have escaped the attention of the Fengjie people’s constabulary.
This part of China contributes a lot of soldiers to the People’s Liberation Army. Many of the people I spoke to along the way had spent two or three years in the military, before returning to the villages to get on with their lives. It provides an opportunity, albeit a restrictve one, to see something of the rest of the country.
Enroling in the army is probably a safer bet than getting on the bus and looking for work in Shenzhen, although I was puzzled by what they get out of the military experience, which appears to be little or nothing.
The road beyond Fengjie was wet with rain. A spur of the Yangtze lake was visible below, the fields were largely oranges and vegetables. With the roads slick with rain, I passed several accidents involving private cars. The middle-class car owners from the cities are traveling more and more widely and finding that driving along the mountain roads is not the same as city streets.
I walked through the little town of Guojiagou, which is pretty crappy, with a main street that is dominated by truck repair places and small stores selling noodles and candy. I asked at various places, but could find no milk powder on sale, nor anyone who was aware there was a problem with the stuff.
Outside one store stood an awful pool table and a bunch of kids pushing balls around, mostly with the wrong end of the cue. They paid RMB1 (US$0.14) per rack, and I was told there really were rules, but I could not figure them out. Many of the kids have little packets in their hands from which they drip feed sugar and various processed chemicals into their systems all day long.
As I was walking back into the mountains from Guojiagou, a police car pulled up beside me and the officers inside asked me what I was doing. They wanted to see my passport, so I gave it to them. I asked to see their credentials, in return, but neither of them was carrying any. They said they would shadow me as I walked.
"Why?" I protested. "I just want to walk in peace, and enjoy the scenery."
"We want to be sure you are safe," said one.
"Is there a law and order problem around here?" I asked.
They handed back the passport and I walked on to the next village where their commander was waiting for me outside the traffic police office. "Come in and have a chat," he said.
I sighed. "It is getting late in the day and I would like to keep walking," I said, and walked on. He didn’t challenge me. But after a while, I started to regret turning down his invitation, so I returned to the police station and found the front shuttered. I asked at the shop next door, and the shopkeeper told me the policemen were upstairs. I asked him to go and tell them I would like to invite them for dinner, and the commander, in his mid-30s, came out just as I was taking a photograph of a child.
"No photos!" he shouted.
"Of kids?" I asked incredulously.
"No, of me."
I invited him and his colleagues to dinner – there was a restaurant just a few steps away. He declined. How about a cup of tea, then? He said no.
"But a while ago, you wanted to talk to me. Let’s talk," I urged. He hesitated. "How about I go upstairs and we can chat?" He agreed. Maybe he didn’t want to be seen in public talking to a foreigner. So we went upstairs and he took me to a formal meeting room and provided some tea in a paper cup. I asked him about traffic and the village. He had only one question for me.
"What do you think of China?"
"I think … it is moving in the right direction. In the late 1970s, it came close to collapse, but then came Deng and now we have all this. There are many changes yet to be made, but the direction is the right one."
I wanted to add that the current system was seriously flawed in that neither the leaders nor the ordinary people know what is going on in the middle. No transparency to uncover in good time the shenanigans in the milk industry, for instance, or whatever will cause next week’s crisis. But I kept my mouth shut.
As he walked me out, I asked what the biggest law and order problem was in the area. "No problems, really," he said.
"How about gambling?"
"Chinese people don’t gamble much."