East of Fengjie City, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,155 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,779 km
I came upon a traffic jam on the mountain road between the river towns of Wushan and Fengjie in the heart of the Yangtze gorges. It had been raining solid for more than a week – the gorges were soggy, and the roads in the mountains had become obstacle courses, strewn with rocks and earth that had fallen from the walls.
Dozens of vehicles – minivans, SUVs, trucks and motorbikes – were backed up and waiting patiently. Around the curve of the mountain road, I could see a similar build-up coming the other way.
I walked through the jam and got to the center point where a piece of cliff overhang had collapsed onto the road about an hour before, blocking it off completely. A mound of earth up to two meters in height stood in the middle of the road and a couple of dozen people were standing on and around it. Occasionally, they eyed the overhang above us to see whether or not another slab would break off and collapse, either burying us or pushing us off the cliff. Only a flimsy metal guardrail stood between us and an almost straight fall down more than 300 or 400 meters.
A group of guys had decided to try to create a path over the rubble by breaking up or rolling away the rocks, and fitting slabs of stone into holes. They made some progress and one SUV revved its way over, but it was clear that most of the 100-or-so vehicles on each side of the collapsed wall – more every minute – would not be able to pass.
About half an hour after I arrived on the scene, the drivers on one side were convinced to back up and create a path through to the front, and a huge earth mover appeared with chained wheels. The confident young driver rammed his shovel at the mound, scooped up dirt, then wheeled round and dumped load after load down the mountainside. In 15 minutes one lane was open and both sides rushed the gap.
There was momentary confusion, but then one side prevailed and before long cars were racing away, making up for lost time by driving much too fast along this little road.
The incident showed how efficient China is becoming in so many ways. A landslide blocks a road more than an hour from the closest town and is cleared and the road is re-opened within two hours.
I was also struck by the number of SUVs in the line and the quality of the newer motorcycles. There was a new generation of all sorts of vehicles hitting the rural roads of China. My boots, however, were the same as they were before.
I was walking through one of the most remote parts of the gorges, through an area pretty much equidistant from Yichang and Wanzhou, the cities on the eastern and western limits of this remarkable region. The road veered up a long valley in the mountains north of the Yangtze River, and then down another. In over 40 kilometers, I passed only one small village, and while there was a steady sprinkling of farmhouses along the way, there was almost nowhere to buy bottled water.
The rains had ended, and the summer heat was about to re-assert itself. But in the meantime, the world glistened in rain-washed clarity, the colors of the vegetation were bright, and of the earth deep and sonorous. Mist covered the valley as I trekked up the narrow road, with a cliff overhang on the right and a 60-degree drop down to the floor of the valley on the left.
I spent an hour moving in and out of rivers of mist, which were climbing the mountainside in discreet flows. One minute, the visibility on the road was 10 m maximum and the next the air was completely clear. I watched clouds scudding around in the valley below me, always a strange experience for a coastal-plain person used to clouds being overhead.
I spent time looking at the flowers. Purple and yellow dominated. I recognized the daisies, but apart from that I was left to regret that my knowledge of flowers extended little beyond roses and tulips. But I did know that the flowers cultivated so anally in English gardens are largely transplants from wild places in China like this.
There were slogans daubed on most farmhouse walls, for which I was thankful – they gave me clues as to the big issues in the area. Many related to fire: protect the forests, prevent fire. It became clear as the day progressed that the slogans were mostly aimed at stopping farmers from deliberately burning sections of woodland in order to collect the ashes for fertilizer.
Up and up along this road, provincial Highway 103. I passed two guys by the road, their motorcycles parked in the middle while they squatted on their haunches smoking and chatting. A girl stood nearby looking at the scenery. I said hello and kept walking, but a few minutes later, one of the guys drove up to see me with the girl, plump and face overly white from make-up, on the back of the bike. He asked where I was going and with that out of the way, I asked about him.
His name was Wang Dejun and he was a farmer-turned-migrant worker from the Fengjie area to the west. He was back home to get his kid into school in Wushan. Meanwhile, he had picked up the girl in Wushan, at a night spot of some sort, and was taking her back to Fengjie for a few days of acrobatic companionship. His wife, he said as the girl listened, was also a migrant worker, currently in Chongqing city.
“You fancy her?” he asked. A hard question to answer without embarrassing or insulting the girl who was studying the ground. “You can have her if you like.” I declined his kind invitation.
“Let’s go to Wushan this evening,” he continued. “I can show you some places. Totally safe. Only 100 kuai for a girl, maybe 300 or 400 for a good one. Don’t worry, I will be with you so they won’t cheat you.”
I said maybe. His breath smelt of alcohol, which is not unusual for Chinese farmers in the middle of the day. He insisted the girl give me her mobile number so I could contact her next time I was passing through. “She can show you around,” he said. The girl smiled uncomfortably.
I climbed during the day from around 800 m above sea level to 1,340 m at the top of the pass from one valley to another. By the time I reached the top, the mist had largely cleared and the sun was bright behind the cloud cover. From the heights of the pass, the views down into the valleys, still partially filled with mist, were spectacular.
I came upon a farmer named Li who was rebuilding a wall that had collapsed in the rains. He was 50 years old but looked much older. A peasant’s life is tough. He said he had four children, and the eldest son, aged 15 or so, came out of the house to check out the foreigner. His father tried to get him to practice his English with me, but he was too shy to even respond to a slow and clear: “What is your name?”
I handed Mr Li my name card, but he pushed it away shyly, saying he was illiterate, then handed it to his son to read. He grew corn and potatoes and sesame seeds, and had two chickens and five pigs. He was healthy and strong and clearly proud of his son, even a little in awe of his ability to read.
I asked him about opium, and he confirmed it was still grown up in the mountains, but he shook his head when I asked if he ever smoked it, eyeing me carefully.
I was seeing a lot of signs on farmhouse walls about “drugs” and opium – “Growing drugs is illegal”, said one red daub on a telephone pole, signed by the local Longjing township government.
Up over the pass, with big signs proclaiming that this was a protected area, no wood cutting allowed. Through the pass also marched transmission pylons carrying power from the Three Gorges Dam toward the west. There was a bilingual sign on an arch over the road, which said in English: “Wushan policemen wish you a nice trip!”
Then it was downhill into a huge valley, roughly east-west with wide mountain slopes, occasional farms and fields visible, stretching from peaks at up to 1,600 m down to the valley floor at less than 300 m. A thin gray cloud layer that lapped at the peaks on the far side of the valley, making the whole scene seem tucked-in and cozy. It was a pleasure to spend time in its space, giving my eyes the opportunity to track over such vistas.
The road to Fengjie was visible below me, twisting back and forth as it made its way downhill. I passed a boy by the road selling bright orange mushrooms as big as his hand from a wicker basket. Berries and plums hung from the trees beside the road, and a sign said: “Love life, keep away from drugs.”
Highway 103 was twisting back and forth down the hillside and I saw a path to the left that appeared to cut straight down from one level of the road to the next, and I started down it. I was overtaken by three children carrying firewood to a farmhouse below and I asked if it was possible to get down to the next level of the road. They nodded.
I arrived at the mud-brick farmhouse and walked into a quagmire of mud in the front yard, covered by a massive blue tarpaulin. A number of old men were sitting around the doorway of the traditional windowless farmhouse. Two of the men were banging metal rings onto sheets of crude paper sheets, making indentations about the size of a coin. I asked what it was for, and the answer was to create hell money to burn for the deceased to spend on the other side.
There was a pause before I was invited to sit down, which was unusual. I talked with the people for a while, especially the kids, and got a girl of seven called Huang Yan to write out her name for me, which she did pretty well.
I looked into the doorway and saw a candle burning on a table in front of an image of an old man. Clearly the men were there because their friend had died, which explained why this was about the only time in the mountains I was not offered tea at a farmhouse door. I felt uncomfortable about crashing a funeral, so I stood up and asked for directions down the hill. They pointed into the vegetation, but I could see no path. I looked round and Huang Yan was standing near me.
“Huang Yan, could you show me the way down?” I asked.
She looked round, her finger in her mouth and a woman said firmly: “No.”
And quite right, too. I realized it was an entirely inappropriate request. They showed me the path entrance and threw me a piece of bamboo to use as a walking stick. I clambered and slid my way down the slope, through terraces of corn and various vegetables, and stumbled out five messy minutes later on the next level of road. I left the bamboo stick standing in between two rocks at the entrance to the “path” for the next person to use.