The road to Nanling is Highway 318, which starts in Shanghai, 350 kilo-meters to the east. At Nanling it turns southwest, heading for Anqing, and then on westwards to Wuhan. But after months of tracking this highway, I am leaving it behind at Nanling, and heading on westward along smaller roads.
I won't miss it. Highway 318, like so many other highways in China, is in the midst of a massive upgrade, shifting from country lane through to freeway, and the sections that have been upgraded lack the flavor of the old lane sections. The quality of the new road surfaces, from a driving perspective, is excellent, and a significant improvement on the last upgrade that occurred in the late 1990s.
There is a 60-km section of freeway in southeastern Anhui, between Xuancheng and Guangde, which is literally falling apart. The contractors must have made a lot of money on the deal by using substandard materials, my guess would be five years ago, and it would be nice to believe that they are currently in jail, but I doubt it. Meanwhile, work is in progress to correct this holdover from the past.
It is autumn in Anhui, and the fields are brown, the steam rises from road-side stalls in the villages. It's clearly not Shanghai. I wrote a Chinese poem to celebrate this part of the walk, which is displayed here in my so-so Chinese calligraphy. A translation of the poem would be as follows:
In the villages of Anhui The scent of autumn is strong In the city of Shanghai The feel of the seasons is weak.
Chinese traditional poetry usually involves a mirroring of words and concepts. This one meets that requirement at least. Writing Chinese poetry – madness can't be far away.
Over the recent walks, I have met a number of people with unusual occupations and it is always interesting to ask them the basic questions about how much things cost, how much they make.
I met a man making concrete bricks for construction. He used a machine to stamp the bricks out of a mold. He can make 1,000 bricks a day, and can sell them at 10 fen each. That means daily sales of RMB100, of which he takes 50. If he works every day, he can take home RMB1,500 a month, not bad for Anhui.
I met a man selling sugarcane, the tall uncut poles which are shaved then sold in sections so you can suck out the sweet juice, while trying not to swallow any of the fiber. He sells the sugar cane at RMB2 per stick, and makes about RMB60 a day, again not bad for Anhui. "We are poor," he said with a smile. "But how are things compared to before?" "Oh, MUCH better than before!" he exclaimed.
I met a man on a motorbike who said he drives around the villages looking for girls with long hair. If the hair is long enough, he offers them RMB200 for the hair, which he then sells to wig makers. I see very few long-haired girls in Anhui. Maybe he is the reason.
In Nanling town, the street food stalls are busy in the evenings even though the weather is getting decidedly chilly. At one stall, there are a few kids in their late teens, early 20s getting drunk and smoking and generally aspiring to a non-conformist ideal. The owner of the stall, Madame Wang, a lady in her mid-50s, watches them with a practiced eye, and keeps them away from the other customers.
The raw food is laid out in plastic buckets beside the stall for you to choose from. A banquet costs around RMB10-15 a head. River prawns at RMB25 are considered ridiculously overpriced and are turned down. Madame Wang's stall is pretty big, and is right in the middle of the action. She says she has been running it for more than 10 years, and pays RMB6,000 of rent a month. She has 12 staff, including four relatives, and says the main reason she does it now is to provide work for the relatives. She is very proud of the fact that she has a daughter working in a government office in Shenzhen.
Why not upgrade and do a restaurant, I ask. "Because business would not be as good," she said. And it's true. Just down the road, there are indoor seating restaurants, and they are empty. The people looking to eat are after a good deal and the belief is that the street stall provides value for money. At Madame Wang's stall, you also get the added benefit of the food being pretty clean.