Fangqiao Village, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,939 km
The road followed a stream downward, then another stream upward, through well-forested stretches interspersed by intensively cultivated valleys. Rice paddies until just recently, today vegetable plots just planted to keep the land engaged during the coming winter.
When the adventurer Isabella Bird had taken this road in 1898, it took her three days traveling westward to get from the river town of Wanzhou to the county seat of Liangping. It would take me a total of six walking days, meaning I was sauntering lazily, traveling only half the distance each day that her coolies managed to carry her.
Inland China at that time was seeing an upsurge in anti-foreigner sentiment, fueled by officials of the Qing dynasty who were feeling increasingly threatened by their administration’s crumbling power and seeking scapegoats. This was not the last time Isabella was physically threatened on her Sichuan jaunt.
On her last day’s journey to Liangping, Isabella makes no reference to anything of note having happened or being seen. And I had a similar experience. It was just a very pleasant stroll through the hills of the eastern Sichuan basin.
I walked with one group of farmers out of the little village of Guanlong, which was hosting a market. We chatted sporadically as we covered 2-3 kilometers of road, then a woman and her young son peeled off from the group, walked off the road, and down to a stream where I noticed there was a pile of clothes sitting on a rock in the middle of the flow. The woman squatted down and continued to wash the clothes, which had probably been sitting there unattended for several hours. The boy helped her.
The river valley contained many rocks, large and small, that had fallen off the cliffs at some point and rolled down. One of the biggest had a large tree sitting on its top, which helped give some indication of how long it had been there. One rock had a slogan written on it saying: "Firmly attack the electrocution and dynamiting of fish."
I passed a magnificent old stone bridge crossing the stream near some houses. It was called the Wan An Bridge – ten thousand peacefuls – and while it had a short span, it rose maybe 20 meters above the water and was covered in dangling vines and vegetation reaching down to the stream. I asked how old it was and a lady said "more than 100 years," but it was a guess on her part. I was hoping for a date earlier than 1898, which would make it the only construction I had seen which Isabella would also have seen. Mud brick farmhouses don’t last more than a few decades.
I knew I was getting closer to Liangping when I saw pomelos on trees near the road. The pomelo, called youzi in these parts, is a sweeter version of the grapefruit and a favorite of Chinese everywhere. It lacks the sharp sourness of grapefruits and lemons, but makes up for it with size.
"Xiong Ling is a good student and got 100 marks for his homework," said a chalked message on a wall. Good for him.
"Jiang Demei, you are a sticking little thief," said another chalked message on a rock by the road. "Believing in you has taught me not to be gullible."
The pomelo trees by the roads, with their dark green leaves, were well hung with the large yellow-peeled balls. By the roadsides were stalls manned by ladies with stacks of pomelos on the tables before them. As it was in season, there was a noticeable pomelo tang in the air on the streets of Liangping in the evening, along with the usual Sichuan pepper charge.
The leaves of the pomelo tree have a special significance and are used by Chinese people far and wide to wash away bad vibes after a death in the family, or to start the new year with a clean slate.
I finally descended from the last valley and started walking across the first really flat country I had traversed on the walk since I left the Hubei plain in late 2006, many hundreds of kilometers to the east. It was strange experience not having mountains and hills in sight as I walked along Airport Road, an absolutely straight stretch of at least 6 km. The airport referred to is a military airfield right next to Liangping town that has not been used for a number of years, I was informed.
Isabella arrived in Liangping one late afternoon in 1898 and described it as "an imposing city… on a height, approached by a steep flight of stairs with a sharp turn under a deep picturesque gateway in a fine wall, about which are many picturesque and fantastic buildings."
This hill is just to the south of today’s Airport Road, and is now the center of a much more sprawling town, but the walls and fantastic buildings are all gone. Isabella entered the town gate, but as she started along the main street, "men began to pour into the roadway from every quarter. The crowd became dense and noisy; there was much hooting and yelling. I recognized many cries of Yang kwei-tze! (foreign devil) and "Child-eater!" swelling into a roar; the narrow street became almost impassable."
She was hit repeatedly by sticks, as the mob howled around her.
"There was nothing for it but to sit up stolidly, and not to appear hurt, frightened, or annoyed, though I was all three."
She and her sedan chair coolies made it into an inn courtyard, and the innkeeper pushed her into an inner room, but the mob surged after her. She sat near the door with her revolver in hand, "intending to fire at the men’s legs if they got in." The mob tried to ram open the door, and the upper part of it had begun to cave in when suddenly soldiers arrived and the mob scarpered. The riot had lasted an hour before the local officials intervened.
The next morning she left Liangping in the rain, and there was almost no one in the main street except for soldiers. She describes the town as having many fine temples, "their fronts profusely and elaborately decorated with dragons, divinities, and arabesques in colored porcelain relief, or in deeply and admirably carved grey plaster, the effect of the latter closely resembling stone." All now gone, of course.
Today, the walls of Liangping feature many slogans about drug use. "Say no to drugs", "drugs destroy lives and families" and similar messages. I asked an 18-year-old boy if the drug situation was serious.
"Oh yes, there are lots of drugs here," he replied. I asked what the local poison of choice was.
"Baifen." White powder.
"Heroin?" I asked.
"How do they take it?"
"Well don’t you touch it," I said sternly to my young friend.
"Oh no, I wouldn’t," he said.
The air in the town was filthy, the people looked dulled by the shabby environment. I passed a stream course that possibly set a new record in terms of the concentration of garbage and filth. Then I reached an intersection, marked by one of the abstract post-socialist metal sculptures that rural Chinese officials seem to like, turned right and I was back on my friend Highway 318, the road I first took out of Shanghai in 2004.
The first photo I have of a Highway 318 milestone is the 30 km mark. I finished this particular walk at precisely the 1,939 km milestone. Nearly 2,000 km. The distance as the phoenix flies from Shanghai to Liangping is roughly 1,500 km, so all the twists and turns in the road added an extra 500 km to the distance. I will be with 318 now all the way through to Chengdu and beyond.
I passed some ground being cleared to make an "economic zone," then the town dropped behind and the fields reasserted themselves. All rice paddies, and as rich as any I had seen. As rich and fertile as any in China, I would imagine.
There were an unusual number of advertisement arches spanning the entire road, an unconscious reflection of the many pailou arches, memorializing virtuous widows and the like, that would have spanned this road up to the early 1950s.
Speaking of virtuous widows, the next town I passed though was called Renxian, "ren" meaning "trust" and "xian" meaning "virtuous." I of course had to find out how the name originated.
"There is indeed a story attached it," one man told me. "In the Ming Dynasty, there was a woman who ran an inn here and a businessman traveler stayed at the inn one night. When he departed, he left behind by mistake a bag containing a large amount of money. The woman kept the bag and did not touch the money, and several years later, the businessman came back and asked after the bag. The innkeeper handed it to him, and in gratitude he had erected in the village a stele marked with the two characters – ren and xian – trustworthy and virtuous."
"Does the stele still exist?" I asked.
"No, gone." I could guess when.
It was a special market day and the center of the town was a blaring mass of people, trucks, stalls and loudspeaker vans. The racket was intense and it was a relief to walk out the other side of the town, no matter how trustworthy and virtuous its citizens.