Finally, I had reached the end of the Hubei plain. About 1,000 kilometers west of Shanghai, 800 km east of Chengdu, with the Yangtze Gorges just ahead.
I was walking into Xiaoxita, which on the map is a separate town but in fact is already part of the expanding city of Yichang. Yichang sits just beyond the Yangtze Gorges and has for centuries made its living off the river trade, with orange growing and some rock farming on the side. Rock farming, you ask? More of that later.
The day was dull and marked by the sporadic gunfire-like rackets of fire-crackers – it was, after all, Chinese New Year's Day.
But apart from the noise, there was a surprising lack of atmosphere. I asked a few people about that, and got a variety of answers. "Things ain't what they used to be," was the most common. "Everyone is inside gambling," came second.
And then a bus passed me that was not the usual country minibus but a regular route town bus in red livery stopping at regular bus stops, and before I knew it I was in an urban area. I walked through the northern reaches of Yichang, past restaurants and convenience stores and a shop selling sex aids.
Having navigated my way successfully across half of China, I managed to get lost in the middle of the city. It all started when I crossed a freeway via a bridge that took me through a series of housing estates which forced me to walk southwards and then eastwards.
For a while, I was getting further away from Lhasa with every step.
Eventually, though, the grim estates released me out onto a road that curved round to a bridge over the Yellow Cypress River which marks the western edge of Yichang.
Over the bridge and there it was – the Yangtze River.
It was the first time I'd seen the river from the walk since the city of Tongling almost exactly a year before. The road rose quickly, and then I realized: I had done it! I was now entering the Yangtze Gorges! I had walked all the way from Shanghai to the center of China.
The first section of the road heading into the Gorges was well paved and I passed a few largely deserted tourist spots. But before long, I was back in China. The road veered far away from the river and downshifted to third rate, the farmhouses looked basic and poor, the stone-built rice terraces were weathered and sturdy.
And suddenly people were being more hospitable towards me. Or perhaps I just became a little more open to conversations now that my race to the Gorges was over.
An old man walking off the terraces invited me into his home, and I sat with the whole family in a stuffy little sun-filled room, everyone huddled around a stove for a while, chatting. When I left, I was loaded down with peanuts, melon seeds and sweets that they insisted I take.
I passed a few patches of ground by the road on which were placed strangely shaped rocks. Angular and asymmetrical, they are traditional courtyard ornaments of China's rich. They range in size from miniscule to massive – 50 tonnes and more – and the cost can run into millions of US dollars.
Viewing them is much like lying on one's back on a summer's day and deciding on what the cloud formations look like – lions on guard, or Buddhas with radioactive hearts, or whatever your imagination directs.
A little further along, my attention was drawn to a rock promontory ahead that seemed to be blocking the road, and out to the right was nothing but sky. As I got close, I saw why. I had cut across the mountains and rejoined the river, which was sparkling far below, probably 300 meters or more down.
The road doubled back on itself, but I first spent some time beside the rock on the corner, the face of which was covered in cultural graffiti – carvings of poems and phrases in Chinese calligraphy.
"The spring waters of the river flow towards the east", said one, a line from a Chairman Mao poem. "The clouds and rain wrapped in passion, a thousand mountains intoxicated", said another, which was much more interesting.
The roads ran sharply down towards the river far below, with a high cliff face on the right and the bluest of China blue skies above. It was a magical late winter day, the only drawback being a slight haze which made it difficult top make out much of the river except for the sparkle of the sunlight on the currents.
"It is clearest just after it has rained," one man told me. "You must come back."
Well, it was fine as it was. The cliff was dominated by the rock outcrop that looked like a head, which watched as I went down and down, the road winding back and forth to get down the cliff.
I passed a ladder leading up to a terrace with a house behind, and a sign that said "water refills". An old woman with a weather-beaten face and a smile that transcended hardship was sitting outside with her family and waved to me to come up, so I did and sat with them for a while.
"This is my mother," said one man. "She has nine children and she is 74 years old." He was very proud of her, and quite right too. She brought me some tea, so I had the water refill that was promised. Another son, a man aged in his 40s, called his daughter over, a pretty girl of 18 who he said was going to music school in Wuhan soon.
"Can you teach her something?" he asked me.
"What do you want her to learn?"
"She is studying piano, but she needs guidance. Can you guide her?"
He was insistent and non-specific and the daughter, who could not get a word in, left the conversation in exasperation. I left too, after thanking the old woman who kindly saw me down the steps. Then on down the road.
I passed through a little town built on the mouth of a tributary at a bend in the river, with a bridge built in the early 1970s featuring slogans such as "Long Live The Great leader Chairman Mao". It was quite nostalgia-inducing.
There is a point here from where a certain mountain on the other side of the river looks a bit like Chairman Mao lying embalmed in his Beijing mausoleum, and there were a bunch of people at the site trying to make out the shape through the mist. It was vaguely visible, and the pavilion built at the viewing point also featured a massive bust of Mao next to which was a pile of discarded peanut shells.
But enough of Chairman Mao. China was doing all it could to move on, and it seemed silly to stand there trying to make out his fake likeness in the mountains. So I moved on too.
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