Shazhenxi Town, Hubei province
Distance from Shanghai – 1,110 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,795 km
On my walk from Shanghai to Tibet, the rule is that I always start from exactly the last place that I stopped, to the millimeter. Getting to and from that point can involve considerable effort.
On my most recent walk, as an example, I flew at noon from Shanghai to Yichang city where a driver picked me up and drove for two hours to the ferry terminal in the town of Guojiaba in the Yangtze Gorges. However, the last car ferry going upriver had already left so we overnighted in Guojiaba, and got up at 5am to be sure of getting a place on the 6:30am boat.
The ferry – actually a barge pushed by a tug – sailed up the Yangtze for an hour and a half, then hung a left and cruised into a valley and up to the ferry ramp at the town of Shazhenxi.
We drove for an hour towards the town of Wenhua (culture) but the road was blocked by a concrete barrier with a thin passage in the center just wide enough for a motorbike. So I did a deal with a passing motorcyclist, paying him RMB10 (US$1.30) to take me the final eight kilometers to the walk start point, just west of Wenhua, which I reached at 9:30am.
It was raining heavily, but the misty mountain landscape was rich in color. I was tracking the Tongzhuang River and I could hear it below on the left, and occasionally see it too.
Every inch of usable land was under cultivation, and the list of products in this rich region is long. Oranges are the main cash crop, but along the road, I also saw corn, vegetables, potatoes, tea, rice, peanuts, melons, pumpkins, chili peppers and squash. I puzzled over a plant covered in what looked like dozens of tiny green peppers. I broke one open and inside were lots of white seeds. I was later told that I had just opened a sesame.
At the top of the ridge was the barrier. The road was “closed” for repairs for two months, although there had been a constant flow of motorbike traffic. “Closed” in China means closed only up to a point.
Just beyond the barrier was a little house. A woman was sitting outside skinning corn cobs while inside, people were scraping corn off cobs into baskets. I joined them and scraped corn for half an hour, by which time my hands were tired, but my eyes were full of the deep rich yellows of the raw corn. This is put into bags which sell for RMB70 (US$9.30) each before they are processed into all sorts of food including the cornflakes I eat every morning.
The rain had eased and the road was now mostly downhill. A small van stopped by me and three boys peered out. They were all local boys aged around 19 who had graduated from high school the previous year. I asked them about their school, and they said it was just down the hill in Lianghe town.
“Can I visit?” I asked.
“Sure!” said Xiao Wang. “I can arrange that.” He made a call on his mobile and then said, “It’s okay.”
So I walked on down the hill while they went on ahead, and in a few minutes I was at the gates of the One Pen (Yizhibi) High School, where I was met by an English teacher, Mr Zhou.
I asked if I could speak to one of their English classes, and was led to a staff room and spent some time looking through the students’ English exercise books.
“Myself,” one page was headlined. “My name is Wang Ming. I am 14 years old. I like is cat and dog. I was born in 1992. I have is long hair three for the people in my family. I don’t like red. I living is Yue Min Shan. I like every sport. Because is exercise.”
The grammar was pretty awful, but it was great to see them trying to figure it out. Farm kids in the middle of Yangtze Gorges learning English – it would be like… kids in a little school on the North Yorkshire Moors learning Chinese.
“Good afternoon!” I declared as I strode onto the dais. There were probably 40 kids in the classroom, all aged 14 or 15. I talked to them in a mixture of English and Chinese, told them who I was, and what I was doing there – walking to Tibet – and then tried to lead them into a conversation.
“You live in a beautiful place,” I said. “I don’t know if you aware of that. I first arrived in China in 1979, long before you were born. It was a completely different place from today. China today is a place of light, a place of hope and potential. And because of you and the fact you are all studying hard, China will grow strong and be friendly with the rest of the world. You can be a bridge of friendship between China and the outside world, which is also what I want to be.”
I left some name cards on the front desk, and told them all to call me if they ever visited Shanghai in the future. “Yes!” they all said in unison.
And then the class bell rang and it was over. One of teachers said they would like to invite me to dinner, and I of course accepted. But it was a couple of hours away from dinnertime, so I walked on into town with Mr Zhou.
We passed a restaurant called Yulong (prosperity) and Mr Zhou said: “We’ll eat here, 5:30pm.” I said fine and walked on alone to the end of the main street and turned right to cross a bridge over one of two rivers and came upon a small crowd of people looking out at something on an expanse of concrete.
After a few conversations, I figured out what had happened. A young cook from Chongqing had hanged himself the day before in the restaurant kitchen in which he worked. His relatives had arrived and demanded that his body and all his belongings be placed together in the open air. So here they were, the relatives with their dead son, while a couple of hundred people gawked at them from the bridge. I snapped a photo of the scene and walked on. But before I had left the bridge, I heard a shout from behind: “Excuse me! Wait a moment!” Two young policemen were hurrying towards me.
“May I see your documents?” said one.
“Sure. But may I see yours first?”
He and his friend patted their pockets. “I don’t have it, do you?” one said to the other.
“Well, next time then,” I grinned and walked off up the hill. A few minutes later, a car pulled in front of me and out jumped the two constables and a detective who had his ID card hanging from his neck. Hu Xingnong (develop agriculture Hu). He looked at my passport photo and said: “Does this belong to a colleague of yours?”
“No, that’s me.”
“It looks different.”
Well, apart from how awful passport photos always are, I’d been on the road in the rain and sun all that day and was looking pretty wild. After a while, he let me go. Mr Zhou the English teacher called to say the headmaster would be coming to dinner to meet me, and at 5:30pm, I was back at the restaurant waiting for the school delegation.
I sat in the lobby for half an hour. Still no sign of the school people. I called Mr Zhou’s cell phone, but no answer. Then the detective arrived with a man who introduced himself as the mayor of Lianghe, Mr Wu. They sat down next to me and the detective said the family of the deceased cook had seen me take a photograph and wanted me to delete it. I deleted it. I invited them to join me for a drink after my school dinner.
“Ah,” said the mayor, a little flustered. “Something came up at the school and they won’t be able to come to dinner, but let’s have dinner all together!”
It was highly spurious, and I had been looking forward to meeting the headmaster. But nothing to be done about that, so we went upstairs and eventually had 13 people sitting round the table – all either police or officials, plus the son of the local police chief. I felt well protected.
Detective Hu had come from the county seat at Maoping to investigate the suicide, and I asked him what kind issues he generally dealt with.
“The full range,” he said. “But this is a pretty quiet area. Mostly petty theft. Motorbikes.” Earlier in the day, I had seen posters pasted onto farmhouse walls warning of severe penalties for gambling, so I asked him about that.
“No gambling here,” he lied. “Only mahjong for a few renminbi.”
Police chief Ma reported with great pride that not one single crime had been committed in Lianghe since the start of the year.
It was for them a wonderful opportunity to drink baijiu, and they started some intense mutual toasting. I held the line pretty well and only had two glasses, doing almost all my toasting with beer. They all got drunk, and Detective Hu told me he was delighted to have me as a friend.