The fields of Anhui continue to sleep through the winter. The range of browns in the freezing landscape probably matches the shades of green during the summer, and while the summer scene of brilliant emeralds is more popular, the winter scene is just as attractive once the eye is adjusted. It's just a pity about the temperature.
The old farmhouses in the villages along the way are the same colors as the winter fields. Newer structures do not meld in, and new farmhouses and shop fronts are going up almost everywhere I pass. Which means prosperity. People do not spend money on new homes unless they are feeling comfortable and confident.
I ended 2005 in Tongling county, near the ex-village of Shun'an (smooth peace), about 20 kilometers east of the Yangtze River. I have been walking west from Nanling over the hills that define the Yangtze River valley's course. The hills are sparsely populated. In the old days, there would have been little traffic along this road – anyone heading for Tongling would have gone by boat up the river. But the river and canal culture of east China is dying and the road culture is growing, so Highway 320 has a fair amount of bus and truck traffic, but almost no villages.
The walk, therefore, has been solitary. And not many people are out in winter anyway, except for some women washing clothes in the freezing streams. But even along these lonely stretches of road, there are constant phallic reminders of the modern world – smokestacks from the sixties, electricity pylons from the nineties and mobile network relay towers from the noughties.
The tall chimneys were an important symbol of progress for China in the early years of communist rule. The propaganda posters of the time often featured them playing the role once taken by pagodas. Some are still in use in brickworks, but most now appear abandoned as the economy shifts.
But it is the 21st-century towers of the mobile networks that dominate. They don't pollute and they really work. I have with me a China Mobile GSM PDA phone and a China Unicom CDMA wireless card for my laptop, so I am plugged into the two biggest wireless networks in China. I have yet to be in a location where either signal is inaccessible. The towers quietly provide stable linkage through to the world from even the most remote of the Anhui valleys that I have so far traversed. The implication of that for the land is incalculable.
But one puzzling thing is that the towers are not marked in any way. It is impossible to know which towers are China Mobile and which are China Unicom, and I wonder why they are missing this opportunity to brand themselves. It is certainly a benefit in terms of the scenery, but a marketing oversight. I wonder if some of the towers are for another military/security network and the lack of branding makes it unclear which is which.
As I descended towards the Yangtze, the land became more lived-in again, more people around, more houses, and a clear sign of an urban area up ahead – the plastic tubes of industrial strength market gardening with peasants sitting by the roadside selling confused strawberries who thought it was summer already.
Tongling city is ahead, and so is the river, and beyond that, many more kilometers through western Anhui, Hubei and beyond.
The avian flu scare of November touched on Anhui. Several people have died in villages in the province, and the national authorities announced that every single chicken in China was being inoculated to ensure the problem did not get out of control and become another SARS nightmare.
As I walk along the roads and see the chickens running through the ditches and pecking at the ground in front of farmhouse doorways, I have to smile at the concept that all these birds have been inoculated. It is the age-old problem for the centralized Beijing administration – easy to issue a directive, hard to get it implemented. The sky is high and the emperor is far away.
No one I have come across in Anhui has expressed any fears over avian flu. The birds I see are all free-range, and they are considered to be far tastier than the factory-raised birds sold in Shanghai. No one seems concerned, and the tables of Tongling, Xuancheng and truck stop restaurants in between are loaded as always with chicken, goose and duck dishes.
Meanwhile, I stick to the beancurd and vegetables.