It was now early July, and the rice appeared to be growing well, brilliant carpets of emerald green in all directions. The weather this year was dry and the farmers were all shaking their heads at the prospects for the harvest. But to my useless eyes, the rice plants looked healthy.
I came upon an old and wizened man resting by the road, with a face and costume that could have been from the 18th century. He had a curved machete in his hands, a traditional peasant hat on his head and a brown shirt – that could originally have been any conceivable color – thrown over one side of his skeletal frame. I sat with him for a while. His thick Hubei accent made it difficult to communicate, but I ascertained that he was surnamed Zhang, was "a little short of 80", had lived in this district all his life, had two children, and was interested in how much my camera cost.
I was walking along the old Highway 318, which had been downgraded to a country lane, county highway 309, a couple of years previously with the opening of the new 318 a couple of kilometers to the south. I was approaching the turnoff to the Yingshan county seat when I came upon a large gate and a sign saying "Yingshan Hot Springs Mountain Resort". I walked through the gate and a gatekeeper came out.
"What do you want?" he asked gruffly. Ah, a state-run place, I thought.
"This is a hotel, right?"
"So you take, guests, right?"
He mumbled something unhappily but I ignored him and walked up the shaded drive to a series of modern villas and a main hotel building. It had all the makings of a pleasant place for party leaders to have a quiet and possibly discrete weekend retreat.
There was a sign in the garden which introduced the concept of "red tourism". The idea is that people visit places that have significance in terms of the communist revolution. This part of Yingshan rates. It was one of the places where the communist guerrillas first established their "liberated zones". They were surrounded and attacked by the Nationalists, and eventually forced out. Yingshan was the starting point for the Red Fourth Army on the Long March, the sign told me, and the Red 28th Army fought guerrilla skirmishes here. This hotel was clearly where the Red Pilgrims stayed, taking the hot waters and at least pretending an interest in Red History.
The gatekeeper re-appeared and told me to stop taking photos in the garden. "But this is a hotel and I am a tourist," I protested mildly, continuing to snap away.
"It is not allowed. You just go into the hotel."
I complied. No point getting into a fight.
"Who owns this place?" I asked as he escorted me to the front entrance.
"The Wuhan City Commerce Office."
Okay, a weekend retreat for the Wuhan leadership. Very nice.
I walked into the cool lobby, passed the billiard and ping pong tables and, and got a quote from the receptionist of RMB160 for a standard room. I asked to see it, and it was a good three-star hotel level room, unknown elsewhere in this part of China. I said I'd return later and walked back to the road.
The quiet lane, annoyingly, merged with a newer road, dead straight and uninteresting, and I walked along it for a few kilometers in the growing heat. The clouds had broken and the sun was beating through. Sweat was flowing into my eyes, which is not helpful in terms of photography.
I came to an intersection. On the left, the resumption of the old 318, while straight ahead was a sign pointing to Wudang Shan. This is a place I have never been to, but the name is very familiar to me. I once translated a kung fu novel from Chinese – The Book and the Sword, by the most popular author in Chinese literary history, and most pirated novelist on earth – Louis Cha, known by his penname Jin Yong. The first kung fu hero to appear in the book is Master Lu, a member of the "Wudang kung fu sect" which "stressed the use of Internal Force Kung Fu". Lu was a dab hand at various types of kung fu including Limitless Occult Kung Fu, the Ten Tapestries and the Thirty-two Long-arm Blows. It meant as little to me as it did to breathless Chinese readers, but the sense of magical derring-do was unforgettable. And here I was at the foot of the mountain where Master Lu learned to use the Golden Needles!
With kung fu images dancing in my head, I turned off onto 318, peaceful, winding and shaded and I strolled happily along it. There were hills on the right, and paddy fields to the left. A vehicle passed me maybe once every 10 minutes, so it was just me, the cicadas and the rice. And then Mr Rao.
I came upon him sitting by the road, looking out over the terraced fields, and stopped to chat. He was Rao Xiuxiang, 71 years old, and he had been a farmer all his life except for eight years when he worked as a mechanic in the Chinese air force during the late 1950s and early 1960s, stationed in Harbin. He was a rarity amongst the people I met, in that he had never been married and had no children. I asked why he had not married.
"I couldn't afford it," he said. "When I came back from the air force, I had to look after my parents and my sister and there was not enough money to get a wife." I asked if he regretted not marrying. He shook his head with great certainty.
I asked him about the road we were on, Highway 318. "Construction began in 1965 and it was finished in 1968," he said. So the trees shading us would be around 40 years old.
I asked him about his land, and he pointed to one of the terraces below us. "That is mine," he said. "Each family has a piece of land for themselves. That way, everyone has food to eat. Things are good now. In the old days, there was the collectivization and the Big Pot of Rice, but people didn't have enough to eat. It was not good. Then Deng Xiaoping changed the policy, and now everyone has enough food to eat." He rubbed his stomach.
I asked what he did in the evenings. "I watch television and I read books." What books? "Religious books." He drew out the first of the two characters for religion in the dirt with his stick. What religion?
"Buddhism. There are many temples and shrines near here. There is a Guanyin shrine over that hill," he said, and pointed to the forest beyond the paddy terraces.
I said goodbye to Mr Rao and continued up the gently sloping valley. The cicadas were going crazy and I heard in stereo, but slightly out of phase, two birds singing the high-mid-mid-low song. At the top I came upon an old building from the 1960s with a sign saying "Little father-son Ridge Forestry Check Station", there to try to stop illegal logging in the mountains. I looked through the door into the gloom and was instantly transported back to the Cultural Revolution.
A man in a vest and blue trousers was sitting in a rattan easy chair, a fan blowing on him, and on the wall behind him was a row of pictures. There they all were, lined up: Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin and on the extreme right, Mao.
"What do you want?" he asked suspiciously. But he gradually warmed to the novelty of having a foreigner around, and offered me water and a seat. He said his surname was Jiang – the jiang of Xinjiang, meaning border.
"Why the pictures?" I asked.
He looked at me and said nothing.
"You believe in them?" I asked.
"Yes, I believe in them," he replied.
Mr Rao re-appeared from down the road, and just then I heard the four-note bird call again.
"What kind of bird is that?" I asked.
"You like the sound if it?" he asked.
"Yes, what bird is it?"
"We call it ?" I missed the name. "It is a seasonal bird. When we hear its call, we know it is time to start the rice planting."
Over the ridge, and I was walking downhill, much easier in the heat. I came upon an old man, a woman and a middle aged man with crazy eyes all sitting by the road while three cows belonging to the woman grazed in an empty plot of land beside the road.
"Your land?" Yes.
"Why not grow rice?" Too dry this year.
An old woman joined us, aged 87, short of stature, frail of frame. The cows escaped and crossed the road and had to be brought back. The old lady fell asleep sitting on the roadside. Life was as usual for them, and I walked on past a stone quarry, past a sign saying "girls are descendants too" and past millions of mid-life rice plants, glowing in the sun.
I came to a small field shrine and paid my respects with a lighted incense stick and a few RMB, and then walked on down the hill. There was a substantial bridge up ahead over a river. On the right was a little shop, and I stopped to buy some water. A dozen people gathered to see the foreigner. "Where are you from?" they asked.
"England (Yingguo). You are from Yingshan and I am from Yingguo."
Someone asked what I was doing, and I said I was walking from Shanghai to Tibet.
"I have just crossed the Dabieshan Mountains," I said. "I was looking for the Red Army. But I couldn't find them." That generated some amusement.
"That's because they have all retired," said one guy.
I pulled out my wallet to pay the RMB1 for the water and a man with a big smile said: "Ying bang (pounds sterling)."
"Right," I laughed. "yingguo ren zai yingshan yinggai yong yingbang (an Englishman in Yingshan should use pounds sterling)."
It was the last time I could use the Englishman in Yingshan joke, for the bridge proved to the border between Yingshan county, the home of tea, revolution and moveable type, and Luotian county, home of I knew not what yet.