I follow my walk with the Google Earth application, one of the great information software breakthroughs of our age. But most of the images it offers of the Yangtze gorges region appear to be several years old and are of low resolution. They date, I would guess, from the late 1990s, and I wonder why they have not been updated.
There may be a perfectly good reason for this, and I have no idea how this region compares with other remote parts of the globe in terms of updates. But I wonder if this is somehow part of the deal struck between the company that tries not to be evil and the party that can do no wrong.
The result, anyway, is that the current dimensions and extent of the river/reservoir cannot be seen, and the Three Gorges Dam is still shown at an early stage of construction.
I crossed a ridge southwest of Badong town, out of the Yangtze valley and into the valley of the Shennong Stream, a deep gorge with steep sides hundreds of meters high and a wide cross-shaped lake connected to the river by a narrow channel. Beyond the ridge, there was less of a sense of the modern world.
I saw a farmer wearing the traditional straw sandals of China’s past. He had made them himself, he said. It was like seeing an exhibit in a museum. I also saw a lot of goats, quite rare in most of China. There were quite a few young kids, but they were camera shy and quick to bounce away.
A man driving a three-wheeled truck with three pigs in the back stopped next to me and while asking me where I was going, kicked one of the pigs into a more acceptable position. A woman digging sweet potatoes out of the earth offered one to me at 50 fen a kilo. I presume it was a good price.
The next morning, I started out early, and the mountains were coated in a thick mist that lasted until the sun finally burnt it off around 11am.
The road I was on leads from Guandukou, opposite Badong to the town of Huofeng (Fire Peak), about 30 kilometers to the northwest. It is a poorly maintained dirt road, just wide enough to allow two small vehicles to pass each other. Ruts and rocks and potholes make it a rough ride in a car, but it was peaceful and pleasant by foot.
I walked on and came upon the most impressive tomb I’d seen so far on my walk. It was constructed of gray concrete and carved with the most elaborate and traditional Chinese designs. It was shaped like an old China arch with dragons and lions and carved calligraphy everywhere – the written word being a powerful thing in the Chinese world, with the power to ward off evil.
The slabs told a story of two local people, both born in the year 1923 – a boy named Xiang Guocai and a girl named Zhao Shiyin. They married at the age of 20 in 1943, and the next year Xiang left home to join the Chinese army to fight the Japanese. That meant he joined the Nationalist Chinese army, and in 1949, he went with the army to Taiwan as the Communists completed their occupation of the mainland. The couple had two children, and they and their mother stayed in the gorges region.
For decades they were separated and then, in 1986, Xiang came back and was reunited with his wife and children. He started to commute between the two worlds, but in 1997, he made his choice and returned to live permanently in the village of his birth.
He built the tomb for the two of them. The only information missing from the story was the dates of their passing, which meant they were probably still alive.
I walked on through what became a warm summer’s day in late November and entered the town of Huofeng, which is a rather sad collection of houses and a few shops. It is poor, making Badong look positively prosperous.
There was a blackboard showing in detail the marriage and offspring status of couples in the town, giving the names and birth dates of the wife and the husband, the date they were married, the number of their children, birth dates and whether or not the couple is “within or outside the government policy.”
In all thirteen cases, they were “within” – that is, they had only one child, or else two daughters. If your first child is a girl, you are allowed to have a second child. Out of the 16 kids, only four were boys. So Huofeng is doing its bit to even up China’s gender gap.
A little further along, I heard the sound of a brass band coming from behind the row of low shops, and soon arrived at the entrance of the local junior high school. There were a couple of hundred kids milling around the wide open school yard and race track, and some marching going on along a portion of the track. It seemed to be some kind of rehearsal.
I walked through the gate and took a couple of photos. The kids spotted me and some started to walk tentatively towards me. “Hi-i!” one boy shouted. A two-tone up-down “Hi!” which sounded Australian in its intonation. I discovered why several days later when I was told that the basic language tapes now being used in such schools are Australian. Australian English, while strange on vowel sounds, is politically neutral. So we can expect in the years and decades to come that China’s English will move in that direction. G’day comrade!
Anyway, I shouted “Hi-i!” back. I was almost certainly the first foreigner they had ever seen in the flesh, so they were shy. But they edged forward, laughing and pushing each other in embarrassment. Then they ran off, and I turned to find a big guy with a shaved head, standing next to me.
“Can I see your papers?” he said.
“Can I see yours?” I replied.
“I am public security. I need to see your papers. Foreigners need to register, do you know that? That is the law.”
“I know only a little about the law,” I replied. “But may I see your papers first?”
He showed some irritation. This was the local cop and he was used to having his way and his orders followed because he was a cop and a big cop too. There were a number of other people standing near us holding their breaths and listening intently.
He sighed. “I am not on duty, so I don’t have my ID with me.”
“Never mind,” I replied. “Next time.”
“But you know that when you entered the country, you had to be formally registered,” he said sternly.
The image of Pudong International Airport arrivals hall popped into my head. “Absolutely!” I said, and saluted him with a smile, and walked out of the schoolyard and on out of Huofeng.