Gaoping district, Nanchong city,Sichuan province Coordinates 106.07.55 East 30.46.40 North Distance from Shanghai – 2,155 km
The year 2010 was an important one for my continuing China walking project. It was the year the project sort of went public, beyond the pages of this magazine, with the publication of the book The Great Walk of China. Its publication in March generated some interest and many conversations about the motivations and practicalities of the walk. In November, it was also released in the US, although I have yet to receive an invitation to appear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. They will no doubt resend the email soon.
But the reality is that such a book stands little chance in the global publishing market. There are just so many China books out there these days, and quite a few of them are “road” stories of one sort or another. And more are coming. I am aware of two books under development involving motorbike tours of China.
I encourage people to go and see all the little places in China, because they are all changing so fast. But if you write a book about it, don’t expect it to be a profitable venture, or even to get published at all.
With my project, I did not start out with the intention of writing a book, and with the book now out of the way, the walk continues. I do the walk for the joy of wandering down a country lane in anonymously rural China.
Not last month, however. Extreme cold and icy conditions in Sichuan and the whole southwest of the country kept me out of the fields. I don’t mind the cold so much when I am walking – brisk strides warm me up well and the sting of the frigid but delightfully clean rural air on the face is invigorating. But I am wary of icy road conditions. Call me a coward, but I have seen too many accidents on China’s roads, and more than a handful of bodies. I see no reason to risk being in an accident on an icy road hundreds of kilometers from good medical care when I don’t have to.
In 2010, I walked slowly because I was enjoying the Sichuan countryside. I covered a total of 96 minutes of longitude, just over a degree and a half, not a record by any means. In 2006, I covered more than four degrees of longitude, from Tongling in Anhui province, to the western edge of the Hubei plain, in one brilliant burst. But I am increasingly in no hurry.
Nevertheless, the end of the first phase of the walk is slowly approaching, seven years after it started. I am now – or was at the end of the last walk – at a point about 170 kilometers due east of Chengdu, so I should pass through that city sometime in 2011.
The logistics of the walk are also about to go through a major shift. For each stage of the walk, there is a base through which I pass back and forth from urban to rural China. For the past two years, Chongqing has been that base, and I have watched the city change from one month to the next. The remains of the old city have gone during this period, replaced by vast swathes of anonymous high rises and infrastructure. This is true of all cities in China, of course. But Chongqing is special because it has the chance to become the capital of western China.
There is an argument to be made that the initiative on the future of China is slipping out of the grasp of Beijing and Shanghai and shifting west. The coastal cities are already falling into that stage of middle class maturity that Hong Kong entered 20 years ago. It is possible that significant developments in the future, be they cultural, social or political, could be more likely to emerge in, say, Chongqing, than in the more obvious locations. A place like Chongqing is running faster, and is also more grounded in its own past than the coastal cities, increasingly dominated by migrants and out-of-towners. But then maybe it is Chengdu that will dominate, rather than Chongqing. I should have a view on that by the end of the year.
The infrastructure of the countryside through which I walk has been upgraded dramatically in the past few years, and I have watched the building of the freeway network, endless ribbons of asphalt criss-crossing the landscape, with high-speed train networks coming along behind.
Farmhouses have been transformed, the towns have grown. It is entirely possible that the unlocking of these inland regions can sustain China’s fast rate of growth for another decade – I wouldn’t bet against it.
So my walk resumes next month, and I hope will continue for many years to come. It has become, for me, a metaphor for, and a way of affirming a certain approach to life. If I ever have to stop the walk for whatever reason, then fine. I will find another metaphor. But for now, I relish the continuation of this one.