This is the center of central China, the rich flat lands through which the Yangtze River flows. It is almost totally tree-less. I guess this is because over the centuries just about every tree has been chopped down for firewood.
I walked through the harsh sunlight, and watched the peasants cutting the rice and wheat, and picking cotton. Nowhere did I see a machine in the fields helping them, and over a distance of 80 kilometers I saw only two old clapped-out threshing machines processing rice stalks.
Everything is still done by hand. The grain is cut using long poles to which home-made blades have been lashed, the stalks are tied up into bundles and humped to the roads. There they are spread out for cars, trucks and people to trample, breaking the grain free.
The straw is shaken and lifted off, leaving millions of grains scattered over the road. They are swept into piles, then winnowed. Such lovely old English words, which I have never before had a chance to use. But the agricultural process here is as it was in the European Middle Ages and in the school books that I read as a boy.
I spent half an hour with a group of farmers, shaking and lifting the straw to separate the grain, using a pitchfork – in fact, simply a forked branch stripped of bark. The farmers thought it was hilarious. I enjoyed it immensely.
Later in the afternoon, I came upon a farmer with a pile of grain in front of him. He was using a shovel to throw the grain up into the air. The grain seeds fell into a neat pile close by, and the wind carried off the chaff, leaves and other stuff mixed in with the seeds. It looked pretty easy. "Can I have a go?" I asked. He nodded, and as some barefoot village kids watched, I took up the wooden shovel, as light as a feather, dug into the pile and slung the stuff up into the air.
"No, no, no!" he cried. "You have to wait for the wind! And you have to aim at that pile!"
I tried one more time, and he grabbed the shovel off me in disgust.
"Like this," he said.
I watched him closely for a while. The grain goes up maybe three or four meters into the air, and up there, above our heads, the wind flows are different. Apart from the slight mess I had made, the grain pile was almost pure, and the road beyond was sprinkled with the bits and pieces that the wind had carried away.
He asked me my name; I asked his.
"So do you have a religion?" Mr Liu asked me.
"But what religion do most people in England believe in?"
"Christianity is the most common religion in England," I replied. "How about here?"
"We have a lot of Christians here, also Buddhists."
"Are you a Christian?" I asked.
Liu lightly wafted some leaves off the grain pile. "No. I don't believe in any religion." He wafted some more. "But I have a conscience, which I think is enough." I nodded in agreement.
I was walking towards the town of Sanlifan, on Highway 318, and on the way met up with a man named Zhu Wenhua (Culture Zhu). "How old are you?" I asked, although I already had a pretty good idea from his name. "Forty years old," he said. Precisely. The year 1966 was when the Cultural Revolution began.
He was dressed in dirty ragged shorts, was bare from the waist up, and one of his eyes was staring in the wrong direction. I asked if he was a farmer.
"No. I dig iron-sand, sand that is sold to the iron plants. There it is used to make pig iron."
The road was sloping gently downwards, and beyond us there was a long, long bridge over a wide, wide river flat. On the other side of the bridge was Sanlifan.
"England is much better than here," he said.
"In what way and how do you know?"
"There is no corruption like there is here," he said.
"There's corruption everywhere," I said. "What is the situation here?"
"They want to stop us ordinary people from mining the sand because they have sold the concession to big mining companies. I have been fined more than RMB10,000 (US$1,250), and detained for several months."
"But you still do it?"
"What else am I going to do?"
We got to the bridge and he pointed to a little boat in a pond in the middle of sandy hillocks. "That's my boat," he said. So it wouldn't be difficult for the authorities to catch him in the act. Beyond in the distance was a large industrial sand mining craft.
I invited Culture Zhu to dine with me that evening, but he took a rain check, saying he had another appointment. Who would have thought? The busy social whirl of sand diggers in rural Hubei.
I walked on into the town, and spent a few minutes watching some kids playing billiards on a table set up on the pavement. A man in black slacks and a black leisure shirt walked over. Public Security Officer Chen. He asked me who I was and what I was doing, and then asked me to accompany him to the police station. I declined, saying I was just walking along the road, and he was welcome to join me for a stroll.
"You are from England, and England is a place with the rule of law, just like here," he said sternly.
"Absolutely," I replied. "Come on, let's keep walking, no time to waste."
He was unsure of how to handle this. People were supposed to just get into the police car when he told them to.
"So what are you doing here?" he asked, falling into step beside me.
"Just walking through, having a look. This place is really beautiful. Actually, I am walking from Shanghai to Tibet."
He tried to get me to stop again, but stopped short of physically restraining me. He asked for my passport, and I showed it to him without giving it to him. I knew he wanted to hold it hostage. I offered him my name card in its place and he refused it.
Before long, he dropped back and disappeared. Fifteen minutes later, on the outskirts of town, a police car was cruising up just as I was saying goodbye to two young guys on a motor scooter with whom I had been chatting. I walked on, but instead of following me, the police car stopped at the scooter. Officer Chen and a man in a white shirt got out and started questioning the two young men. I walked back to them. I didn't want anyone getting into trouble because of me.
"Hello, officer," I said. "This is Xiao Li. Computer technician, and very smart. And his friend Xiao Xu."
Total puzzlement. "How long have you known them?" asked the man in the white shirt, Officer Chen's commander, Officer Zhang. Officer Zhang had been drinking – nothing wrong with that. It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon, after all.
"I just met them," I said breezily. "Xiao Li here also speaks some English. He would make a good official." I offered Officer Zhang my name card and he took it.
"Thank you," I said. "I also offered one to Officer Chen earlier, but he declined." I grinned at Chen, and he looked sheepish, then took the re-offered card.
I said goodbye and walked out of town, back into the countryside. Another half hour went by, and then three police cars passed me and stopped up ahead. Out stepped Officers Chen and Zhang, plus a senior police official in uniform and a lady in her 30s with short-ish dyed hair.
The officer led the delegation towards me and saluted smartly. "Good afternoon, here is my ID card." He handed me a credit card-sized piece of plastic with the police logo, his photo and his name.
"Officer Tu," I said. "Good afternoon."
"May I see your passport?" he asked.
"Will you immediately give it back to me?"
"No problem," he said politely.
I gave him my passport. He examined if briefly then handed it to the lady, who gave it the full treatment. Someone said something which indicated the lady could speak English. She must be the designated person to deal with English-related issues.
"Your Chinese is very good," she said.
"Thank you, I am sure your English is good too."
But she stuck to Chinese as she asked me questions about what I was doing walking through the countryside. Later, my driver told me that the police had told him they were suspicious of me because the area contains several military bases, something I was completely unaware of until they told him and he told me. Smart move, guys. But I stuck to the truth, which is that I am walking from Shanghai to Tibet.
She kept examining the passport, trying to find some clue to back up this or some other explanation.
"I think it's like this," I said gently. "Things are changing quickly. The 21st century is here."
She nodded, head still down in the visa stamps. "The world is turning," she murmured.
I gave Officer Tu a name card.
"You have a Chinese name," he said.
"Sure!" I said. "And I would imagine the lady has an English name?"
"Yes, I do," she said, but didn't tell me what it was.
"You could also have an English name, if you like, Officer Tu," I said.
"Because English is now the international language."
"Chinese is becoming very popular too," he said.
"Definitely," I agreed vigorously. "Many foreigners are learning it and taking Chinese names."
The lady finally looked up from the passport.
"So it doesn't appear I have committed any crimes, right?" I said with a smile.
She smiled back.
I invited her and Officer Tu and Officers Chen and Zhang to dinner, but they all politely indicated non availability. The social life of Sanlifan is clearly totally frenetic. She handed me my passport, we all said goodbye, they drove off and I continued my walk.
It was only afterwards that I realized what Officer Tu's English name should be. Peter. And he should also have a middle name beginning with O. Maybe Orville, or Oswald. Then his full English name would be ? Peter O. Tu.