Huangni Village, Chongqing municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,295 km
Isabella Bird arrived at Wanzhou, then called Wan Hsien, in February 1898 after a journey by boat up the Yangtze River from Shanghai. She was planning to travel overland from Wanzhou to the capital of Sichuan province, Chengdu, and I wanted to follow as closely as possible in the footsteps of one of the great adventurers and travel writers of the late 19th century.
Isabella, if I may be so familiar as to call her that, was 67 years old at the time of her trip and Sichuan was seething with the anti-foreigner sentiment that would fuel the Boxer Rebellion two years hence. But on arrival at the river wharf, she typically ignored the danger and walked alone up into the town.
"I was much impressed by the good paving and cleanliness, and the substantial stone dwellings en route,"she said. "Wan Hsien has a very large trade. Its shops are full of goods, native and foreign, and the traffic from the interior, as well as by junk, is enormous."
The town today still has the sharp inclines and thriving shopping streets. But there are no buildings older than 20-or-so years in sight, and the general sense of the city is now almost the same as any one of hundreds across China. It is such a shame how every town in the country has had its individual charm ripped out of it in the past few decades.
Isabella’s Wanzhou was a walled city, "small, steep, and handsome."It had substantial suburbs extending beyond its walls. The countryside beyond the town "is exquisitely cultivated, and is crossed in several directions by flagged pathways, carried over ascents and descents by good stairs. These usually lead to lovely villages, built irregularly on torrent sides, among a great variety of useful trees."
Today the walls are gone, but the countryside is still exquisitely cultivated. I passed through several villages built beside streams, and I imagine they were once pretty. I enjoyed particularly the river stretch of the village of Gaoliang, which I am sure Isabella was referring to in her comments.
I approached Wanzhou, not by water but by land, walking in from the northeast. I looked at the maps to figure out by which route Isabella would have exited Wanzhou, so that we could rendezvous for the trip across the Sichuan basin. I passed a turnoff at a huge flyover intersection which I was told was the main road west, and continued south past the truck repair shops and tire graveyards that infest the town’s outskirts.
Logic told me that she must have taken the valley stretching out before me to the west. It was the only way to get to what I knew was her first stopover, a place named by Isabella as San Tsan Pu. In fact it was Sanzhengpu, which is now referred to on freeway signs as Sanzheng. I came to an intersection and asked if the smaller road west went to Sanzheng.
"You can get there on this road, yes,"said the guy. "But why don’t you just take a car and go by freeway?"
Why not indeed? The official temperature on that day was 37 degrees Celsius, but it was definitely well into the 40s on the road. It was simply a furnace, the naked sun blasting down. I carried an umbrella and walked slowly along the road, sweating mightily and relishing every piece of shade.
I took photos of scenes that I felt sure Isabella would have seen with almost no change, as she gazed out of her swaying palanquin, coolies fore and aft jogging along in rhythm.
"The uniqueness of the neighborhood of Wan consists in the number of its truncated sandstone hills,"she wrote, "each bearing on its flat top a picturesque walled white village and fortification, to be a city of refuge in times of rebellion."
The flat-top hills are still there, the same mighty slabs of earth as those in the Three Gorges region, but horizontal rather than jacked up at 45-degree angles. They are remarkable and pleasant to perceive with rings of crops round their slopes. But they no longer have walled villages on them, easily defended refuges. All demolished.
Isabella said she took little with her for a land journey that would cover more than 1,800 kilometers. "The longer one travels the fewer preparations one makes, and the smaller is one’s kit,"she said. "I got nothing at Wan except a large sheet doubly oiled with boiled linseed oil, and some additional curry powder."
Her mode of travel, as mentioned above, was a coolie-carried chair.
"My light, comfortable bamboo chair had a well under the seat which contained my camera, and, including its 16 pounds weight, carried 40 pounds of luggage in addition to myself. It had bamboo poles 14 feet long, and a footboard suspended by ropes,"she said.
She wore Chinese dress, which she said "certainly blunts the edge of curiosity."
I walk as opposed to being carried. But I also wear clothes aimed at melding into the scene – a simple work shirt and trousers that are often more ragged than the always-Western clothes that the Chinese of this region now wear.
Isabella left Wanzhou "early on a fine February morning, the air as soft and mild as that of an English April."The road passed in open country "on a good, flagged road, which was carried up and down hill by stone stairs."
This road I believe to be a stretch of what is today National Highway 318. There is only one valley she could have taken, and it is so narrow that the highway – really a small two-lane road – must have been built on top of the flagged path Isabella travelled on.
"The road on which I traveled on that and two or three subsequent days has the reputation of being one of the finest in China,"she said. "It was built 54 years ago (i.e. in the 1840s), and is in splendid repair. It is never less than six feet wide, paved with transverse stone slabs, carried through the rice-fields on stone causeways, and over the bridges and up and down the innumerable hills by flights of stone stairs … with stone railings and balustrades wherever there is any necessity for them. Streams are crossed by handsome stone bridges, with sharp lofty arches, and the whole is a fine engineering work."
What a shame this path no longer exists. But to yearn for a past that has been destroyed has little value.
"The scenery,"she reported, "is entrancing. The valleys are deep and narrow, and each is threaded by a mountain torrent. The hills are truncated cones, each one crowned by a highly picturesque fortified village of refuge, and there were glimpses of distant mountain forms painted on the pale sky in deeper blue. Everything suggested peace and plenty. The cultivation is surprising, and its carefulness has extirpated most of the indigenous plants. It is carried up on terraces to the foot of the cliffs which support the refuges."
The scenery is still lovely and the threaded mountain torrents remain delightful. I walked along the valley that Isabella had traversed and came to a bridge over a stream that was of some antiquity, at least the 1930s and probably earlier. I knew that because it had decorative stonework of a traditional Chinese nature, and typically it had been smashed. Nevertheless, it was still a handsome stone bridge. Chinese people seem to have always had a talent for building bridges. There is of course no sign today of the wonderful Wan-
xian bridge pictured by Isabella in 1898. Alas, alas. But today there are remarkable freeway bridges of massive scale, which seem to fit into the landscape by being so unconnected to it.
Isabella reported that the main crops visible in February were broad beans, rape and opium. She does not mention corn, which may not yet have been planted in February, but which also may not have been introduced until the 20th century.
The road she describes sounds bustling. "About every half-mile the road passes under a roof with food booths on each side. There were many travelers in closed chairs with short poles, hurried along by two men at a shambling trot. There are so many temples that the air is seldom free from the odor of incense. We met two dragon processions, consisting each of 100 men, and the undulating tail of the dragon was 50 feet long."
The road today is still bustling, although quieter than it was a few years ago, as the new freeway now draws away most of the trucks and buses. The introduction of the internal combustion engine meant the end of the food booths at half-mile intervals, but there are now small stores selling water, alcohol, cigarettes and nibbles every few kilometers.
Unfortunately, I have so far not been as lucky as Isabella in regard to dragon processions. I have never seen even one in the countryside. I live in hope.