North of South Mountain,
Distance from Shanghai – 1,180 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,803 km
Finally the snow was gone, the roads in the Yangtze gorges region were open again and I was back out there. The trip began with a conversation in the town of Maoping, near the Three Gorges Dam, about the annual session of the National People’s Congress, then in progress in Beijing.
“Are you following it?” I asked the man with whom I was having dinner. He shook his head.
“It’s like the time of the emperors, in a way,” he said. “They get people from all parts of the country to come to the capital and report, and take back the message. But it doesn’t mean much.”
That led to a discussion of the power of the people to influence events in today’s China. This led me to tell him about the fascinating stand-off in Shanghai at the moment between the authorities and middle class apartment owners over the construction of an extension of the maglev rail line, which the apartment owners believe will erode the value of their real estate assets.
This problem of how to deal with people who have assets to protect is the next major challenge the Communist Party has to overcome, but my friend felt the middle class apartment owners would find some way of influencing events. He gave an interesting example from his own world:
“In about 1997, when construction of the Three Gorges Dam was in full swing, Maoping was full of workers and construction firms, and it was messy and there were karaoke bars, and gambling and prostitutes. It was pretty wild.
“The police chief of Yichang city (the main city to the east) for some reason suddenly decided to implement a crackdown. One day, he sent all his police and several dozen buses and raided all the brothels and karaoke bars and casinos and arrested everyone they could get their hands on.
“Then, over the next few days, a huge sum of money was withdrawn from the local banks in the dam construction area – something like RMB500 million (US$70,500). The banks were just cleaned out of money, leaving the whole project unable to pay salaries.
“What happened was that many of the people caught up in the sweep were the bosses, or managers of private construction companies involved in the dam project. They just pulled all their money out of the banks all at once. There was nothing the authorities could do. Everyone was released unconditionally.”
The snow had completely disappeared, but the weather was still soggy. I was walking between the river towns of Badong and Wushan. But the valleys I was traveling through were several dozen kilometers to the north of the river because there is no road directly up through the gorges on this stretch.
I was walking north from Huofeng town, up a valley through one of the east-west mountain range ribs of the Gorges region. Then there was a choice of a road down into the east-west valley beyond, or a walk up the mountain and then west along the slopes at a higher elevation. I chose the mountain. It was a shorter distance as the phoenix flies, and far more scenic, but the road up the mountain doubled back time and again, rising from around 700 meters to 1,350 m within a distance of maybe half a kilometer. It probably meant a much greater walking distance in the end.
The most visible result of the biggest snowfalls in decades was row after row of shriveled tea bushes, killed by the sudden cold. There will be no tea harvest this year in many places, which presumably means higher tea prices.
In spite of the massacre of the vegetation, there was still a feeling of spring in the air. I passed a spinney of bamboo that was alive with the squealing of what sounded like thousands of tiny birds. The fields were bright green with young vegetables and the rapeseed plants that in a month or so will turn much of China into a yellow sea.
The road up the mountain was paved with concrete, which was a surprise after only dirt tracks since leaving Badong, and I walked up it to the 1,350 meter mark, then veered off west along a track that one driver I spoke to described as “possibly the worst road in Hubei.”
But it was only Hubei for a part of the way, because this road was the one that finally allowed me to put that province behind me. There was no sign to indicate where on the track Sichuan began, but I finally asked one woman if this was Hubei or Sichuan and she said Sichuan. That was a pretty cool moment.
Although, of course, it is not called Sichuan now. The whole eastern part of the province was carved out to become the massive Chongqing Municipality in 1996. But for people on this isolated mountainside, it is still Sichuan.
The views down into the valley, 700-800 meters below, were magnificent and it was thankfully a clear day. I could also see along the mountain wall, almost flat, disappearing into the haze to the west.
I came upon a truck that was blocking the road as a group of workers broke rocks off the hill and heaved them into the back. I worked with them for a while, and one guy stopped me as I as pulled out a brick-sized rock, indicating that it might dislodge a larger rock on top and crush my hand. Good point.
For a larger rock, maybe 100 kilos in weight, the men fixed some steel wire around it and then four of them lifted it using wooden slats balanced on their shoulders. As they swayed to the truck, the rock suspended between them, they sang out a chant, led by one, then answered by the other three. It was the same chant or kind of chant, I was told, as that used by the ancestors of these gorges workers – the trackers who pulled boats up the river.
Each man gets RMB5 (US$0.70) for each truckload of rocks, with 10 truckloads making up a day’s work. So RMB50 a day, or RMB1,000 for 20 days a month. Not bad for the gorges. But still a small amount compared to the RMB2,000-3,000 a month these workers could get on the east coast.
So I walked along the slope at about 1,200 m, heading west, but the track got steadily worse. On Google Earth, I had spotted two interesting features on the mountain range as viewed from space – one a sort of natural amphitheater; the other a huge circular dent in the mountain rib, like a bullet hole in a body. If you want to check them out, the amphitheater is at 110.09 East, 31.07 North and the bullet-hole crater is at 110.06 East, 31.06 North.
I walked passed a number of farmhouses and walked into the amphitheater, which looked like it had been crated by glacial action. The bullet hole crater, six kilometers in diameter and going from 1,600 meters at the rim to 250 meters at the center of the depression, must have been caused by a meteorite slamming into it. Alas, the track ran out before the bullet hole crater.
I walked down another track to the floor of the valley and then along the adjacent gently sloping hillside dotted with the occasional isolated farmhouse, looking old and not of this age. I met a woman walking a pig just as if it was a dog, and I passed a couple of lazy and pleasant-looking dogs and was about to stroke them when I was sharply warned never to touch a dog – they can bite and many of them have rabies.
I sat for a while with a woman named Hou Fachun whose 18-year-old son Xia Tao is crippled with a brain ailment, confined to a wheelchair, unable to read, unable to speak much more than a barely intelligible mumble. What happens to him when she dies, God knows. But he could understand, and answer questions in monosyllables.
He sat all day every day in his wheelchair in the doorway watching the road, and knew everyone and everything that was going on. He watches TV every evening, and particularly likes war dramas. He had never been to school, and his mother said she had somehow found RMB40,000 (US$5,600) to send him to specialists in Xi’an. But they could do nothing for the boy.
There didn’t seem like there was anything more that could be done. So I just told Xia Tao we would send some picture books to him, and he squeezed my hand in thanks.