Chaoyang village, Sichuan Province
Distance from Shanghai – 2,003 km
I crossed the line into Sichuan on a cold and wet day in the middle of the Chinese New Year holiday, the mud heavily laced with the soggy red detritus of deceased fireworks.
The transition from Chongqing municipality to Sichuan province involved little obvious cultural disconnect. The Chongqing region was in fact part of Sichuan for hundreds of years, and only hived off into a separate administrative area in 1996 to meet the requirements of the Three Gorges Dam project. And they all eat unbelievably amounts of chili paste with everything.
But on the other hand, I noticed slight differences in architecture from one side of the line to the other, which could have been a natural geographic shift, but which I decided to attribute to a deeper historical cause – the former kingdoms of Ba and Shu.
In the year 316 BC, the king of the state of Qin, the man who conquered and unified most of the regions now called China, invaded the Sichuan basin. Before then, the region was divided into two kingdoms: the Sichuan plain culture of Shu on the west with its capital at what is today Chengdu, and the Yangtze River valley culture of Ba to the east with its capital at today’s Chongqing.
The Ba kingdom extended from the eastern part of the Sichuan plain, somewhere close to my current location on the walk, eastward through the Yangtze gorges region to the river town of Badong, which means Ba East. Both Shu and Ba were conquered by the Qin armies and the Shu and Ba cultures came under attack, suffering at the least the suffocation of assimilation repeated in so many other parts of China (and the world, it must be said) right through to the modern day.
It could be that some small elements of life, some tiny influences, have survived from more than 2,000 years ago, and it was interesting that officials decided, possibly consciously, to roughly recreate the Ba state in the form of Chongqing municipality.
After having walked through former Ba country, I had some feel for the local culture as filtered through millennia of Han Chinese rule, but I knew nothing of the Shu territories.
In the freezing drizzle, I continued westward, crossing the third of Buddha’s fingers, the mountain ranges running north-south across the plain. I have one more finger to go before hitting the Sichuan basin proper, with Chengdu now only around 350 kilometers away to the west.
Many of the misty hillsides were covered in the remnants of mighty bamboo forests, and they were still impressive "seas" of vegetation. There is a soft, frothy, lacy feel to bamboo vistas which is very pleasing to the eye. The bamboo seemed to come in two colors – light green and dark – with clear dividing lines between the two sectors. Or maybe the lighter bamboo was just younger and growing in areas where harvesting had taken place. Bamboo grows fearsome fast.
Covering the beautiful scene was the mist, combined in certain places with the pollution being belched from several cement factories that I passed in the valleys.
In the villages through which I walked there were little stalls along the road stocked with the things Chinese people give and receive in such huge quantities during the Lunar New Year visits and counter visits – fruit, cookies, alcohol and nibbles of all sorts, everything packed in red.
I sat at one of the stalls for a while and chatted with the guy looking after it, although not for too long, as the only way to deal with the bone-chilling damp cold was to keep on the move. He was a local, but was working in a factory in Guangdong and had come home for the holiday with his girlfriend, a migrant worker from Guangxi, who was not enjoying the freezing weather of Sichuan.
"Business is good over these few days, of course," he said, but he was not so optimistic about the rest of the year.
On the eastern side of the mountain finger, the paddy fields were still brown and silently waterlogged, waiting for the spring. I passed a lot of dirty ducks walking in twos and threes along the road.
Many of the villages I passed through seemed neglected. I saw broken windows and abandoned buildings and in one village I stopped to buy water at what I thought was a restaurant, but which was no longer operating. "No business," said the man who had paused in the process of washing his hair to check me out. He sold me a bottle of water and told me the village now had only about 300 residents compared to more than 1,000 in previous times.
"Where have the people gone?" I asked.
"To work elsewhere," he said.
There was another explanation too. The house next door had a speaker attached to its open front door, blaring out the funeral music favored by the Chinese to mark the passing of people from national leaders to ordinary farmers. Across the road was an abandoned factory. There was a cement factory visible down the road, the bamboo was being cut down, there were garbage piles outside of many homes and I was cold. All in all, I was not feeling so good about this little area in spite of its physical beauty.
Then I entered the town of Shiqiao, the largest town between fingers two and three. The massive party headquarters on the edge of town was festooned with red banners: "Strengthen awareness of the rule of law and consciously work to boycott cults," which raised the question of which "cults" were active in the area. "Strengthen the ability of the party to rule," said another.
The border between the Chongqing and Sichuan administrative regions is actually in Shiqiao town. Four kids joined me somewhere near the line and walked with me through the town. They were led by a lively 13-year-old boy shepherding his young cousins back home. The six-year-old boy asked that we take a photograph together, and I got a passer-by to snap a shot of us before they turned off the main road and waved goodbye.
I had a conversation with a guy I met near Shiqiao. He said he had a friend in Chongqing who had written some comments about the Communist Party on a blog and had been picked up three days later by public security people. He was sentenced to a year in jail and a further year of being monitored. What surprised me was the derisory way in which the guy described the case. Nothing to be done about it, he said, but it was ridiculous.
Beyond Shiqiao the architecture shifted subtly, as previously mentioned, with the shape of the older mud-brick farmhouses tending toward lower-lying with wider eaves. A few still had the classic Sichuan farmhouse look of Tudor manors – white walls with the horizontal and vertical wooden struts all painted either black or red. But in an interesting piece of renovation and beautification, the sides of just about all the newer brick and concrete farm houses had been painted by local officials with white walls and fake black lines where the struts would have been.
From a distance it looked great, and I imagine gave the local people a comfortable sense of continuity with the past.
As I descended the western side of the third finger, I passed a hot spring resort compound that had just opened for business. People were sitting on little plastic stools and washing their feet in little canals of steaming water, but it looked tacky and uninviting.
A little later, a man asked me where I came from. When I told him England, he asked me if I had anything to do with the hot spring project, which he said had been designed by an English company. Interesting business model, and congratulations to the English company for grabbing the business, assuming it wasn’t just a story concocted by the resort owners.
But enough of walking. The big news this month is that the book of my walk, The Great Walk of China, has been published by Blacksmith Books in Hong Kong. It took five years to write and many months to get it ready for publication. My sister Karen did excellent work on it as did Garry Marchant and his wife Marnie. But it was my daughter Jennifer Earnshaw who finally took the project by the horns and wrestled it to a conclusion. Her edits and suggestions were all good, and I now even accept her change on the spirituals.
There are so many books on China these days, but I hope this book, and also this monthly column, add something in terms of mutual understanding and respect between China and the rest of the world. I have gained so much from the walk and the people I have met along the way. Let me take this opportunity to thank them all.