Immediately to the west of the great Tongling Bridge crossing the Yangtze River in southern Anhui is a flat plain of paddy fields stretching for perhaps 25 kilometers towards the mountains. It was the first flat land I had seen since western Zhejiang, but, this being the depths of a bitter Anhui winter, the paddy and the scenery were bleak and brown.
I trudged through it, stopping to say hello to the occasional farmer and some women harvesting pearls from oysters in massive fish ponds, and pondering the garbage sprinkled over the landscape. But eventually hills reared up, and a new landscape presented itself, an area I will call the Lake District.
The Yangtze River, heading east, loops south after Wuhan, then finally heads up north past the industrial river cities of Anqing and Tongling. In the loop, to the north of Anqing, there is a delightful series of lakes amongst rolling hills interspersed with paddy fields and vegetables. But no tea.
Some of the lakes have interesting names – Small Vegetable Lake (Caizi Hu) is one of the largest as is only right and proper, this being China. Also Baidang Hu – bai means white and this particular dang character can mean surging or debauched. I choose to select the latter.
The whole area is poor, although far from desperate, and the scenery is such that the tourist potential of the area should seriously be investigated.
On my walk, I keep my eye out for locations where I would consider buying a piece of land and building a house in the fields – the landed gentry dream. There have been two that stand out so far. One is in southeast Anhui, a valley in the tea country west of Xuancheng where the pearly quality of the light completely enchanted me.
The second was on a lonely hillside above a village overlooking Baidang Lake, with an airy southern aspect, mountains to the west and a long causeway stretching away to the southwest across the lake, the broad lake foreshores providing a sense of space.
I could see a future of villas and water sports, plus plenty of opportunities for China's coastal urban middle class to commune with their rural past. But all that would of course destroy the uniqueness of my lakeside village hideout, so I will not be making any proposals to property magnates.
In the village of Jinshe (Golden Estate) at the western edge of the paddy plain, I stopped to talk to some people at the local transport depot. One man, drunk on baijiu, was very complimentary about my clothes. "Just ordinary clothes like ours," he said. "Good for you."
A boy was at the front of the group I was talking to, but he said nothing, although his eyes showed active interest. I said "ni hao" to him, and he nodded enthusiastically. The conversation with the group petered out, and I continued on my way.
On the outskirts of Jinshe, I heard a noise behind me and turned to find the boy walking quickly towards me. He made another noise, sort of like a cow, and I stopped so he could catch up.
"Hi, what's your name?" I said.
He pointed to his mouth and his ears and shook his head. Deaf and dumb. He could not hear what I said and he could not reply. I tried to ask if he could lip read, and he seemed to say no. So I pulled out some paper, and wrote: "How old are you?" in Chinese. He wrote back "25".
Excellent, he can read and write.
Name? "Wu Qilong." Mouth-sky Wu. Lot of people with that surname in Anhui.
"Where are you from?" he wrote.
"I was born in England." My standard reply to this question.
"Why did you come here today?" he asked me.
"To talk to you." I smiled.
"Great!" he wrote. "And where are you going?"
"I am walking from Shanghai to Tibet."
"You must be careful on the road," he cautioned me.
A couple of guys came out from a nearby shop to see what was going on.
"You know this boy?" I asked them.
"Yes, he's a deaf-mute."
"How come he can read and write?"
"He went to a special school."
My deaf-mute friend was getting agitated. He grabbed the pen and paper.
"They are bad people!"
I gave him my name card, and he took the paper again and wrote out his mobile number. Which, him being a deaf-mute, puzzled me.
Then he wrote: "Can you lend me RMB50?" I shook my head. "RMB10?" No.
We said goodbye and I walked off. A few minutes later, my mobile beeped as it received a text message: "Hello. This is Wu Qilong, nice to meet you." I sent him a message back, saying: "I wish you health and success."
How about that – technology really can change lives.
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