West of Shuikou town, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,247 km
Chongqing is known amongst other things as the “city of mists,” and the mountains – 200-300 kilometers northeast of the city proper, still within what is now known as Chongqing municipality – were shrouded in a wet white spring fog for a full two days. This made it impossible to see much of the countryside, but provided a muffled sense of peaceful isolation. Except when buses roared unexpectedly out of the midday gloom.
I was walking mostly downhill through the mountains, toward the county seat of Yunyang, and there were few people on the roads. I stopped at a little store where a dozen or so people of all ages were sitting and chatting, and bought a bottle of water to create an opportunity for them to offer me a seat, which they did. We talked for a few minutes, and one of them said, “So your Chinese is not very good, is it?”
I laughed. “Thank you for the directness,” I said. “I try my best.” A reality check is so much better than the usual lavish praise for saying “ni hao.”
The country was very green in the moist air, but I had missed rapeseed flower season by only a week or two, which was disappointing. I love seeing the shocking yellow on the landscape, but the deflowered rapeseed plants were still lying prone in the terraced fields, minty-green mattresses of vegetation, soon to be replaced by summer crops.
But while I had missed the rapeseed, I caught the end of the peach blossom season. I passed many peach trees along the road, anonymous for most of the year, then bright white smudges on the fields for a couple of weeks. The ground beneath the trees was covered with masses of delicate and decaying blossoms, mostly purple tinged in this region.
Shops were shuttered and there was little traffic, not even motorcycle ferrymen. And everywhere was the mist. I like to breathe deeply on my walks, to clean out the air of urban China, but I was warned by a couple of people not to breathe too deeply of the mist, as it is unhealthy. Is that true, I wonder? I guess misty air holds moisture, which could carry germs, but the air was still sweet enough that I shrugged my shoulders and filled my lungs anyway.
A couple of pigs trotted by pulling along their owner, and I came upon a large white daubed slogan on a farmhouse: “Communist Party members must take the lead! Planting opium will result in a prison term!” It was possible the two phrases just happened to be adjacent, but I preferred to believe they were connected.
Through the mist, walking toward me on the same side of the road, I saw a man. What was strange about this man was that he was limping in exactly the same way that I do – right leg slightly shorter than the left.
People who limp – I speak for myself, at least – are unaware in normal circumstances of the fact they are limping, and I believe most people who know me don’t give it much thought either, for the simple reason that I don’t. But a meeting between two people limping forces both to remember what they would prefer to ignore. We limpers generally look away from each other, but this time I stopped and slapped my right leg. “Same leg,” I said. The man grunted and walked on without stopping. It was not a conversation he wanted to have.
I saw another slogan on a concrete wall: “For farmers to become prosperous they must read books,” then several more opium warnings. Clearly a quiet pipe is still to be had in this little region, the Shuikou district of Yunyang county. And then I saw another slogan, of relevance to one of the key themes for me at the moment in terms of the great “Whither China” question: “Learn the law, know the law, protect the law, for you, for me and us all.” It was signed by the Shuikou (water mouth) local government and it sounded like they meant it. But what happens in Shuikou or anywhere else in China when the law is at variance with the interests of the Chinese Communist Party? Which takes precedence?
I saw a printed message on a piece of A4 paper pasted to a wall underneath a bridge. The corner of the document was curled and there was a snail hiding underneath the curl. The notice said:
“Over the past year, some non-local people without approval from our factory have moved into the production areas of our factory and lit fires and slept. With regard to this, our factory has on numerous occasions made representations to the Shuikou people’s government and called upon the non-local people to leave, but today some of these people are still in place. Due to the fact that during the production process, our factory needs to fire bricks, it is possible there have been incidents in which people have been poisoned and burned, etc, with some people being injured and killed. In order to ensure the safety of production at our factory, as well as the personal safety of the staff, non-local people are not allowed to enter the production areas of our factory without permission, and if there are any accidents that occur as a result of such entries, our factory does not bear any legal responsibilities. (signed) Yunyang Xingwang Brick Factory, December 10, 2008.”
There was a story here of some sort, and I asked a few people but could not find anyone who knew of the situation. The notice raised so many questions: Who were these non-local people? Why had they moved to Yunyang and from where? Why were they squatting in the production area of a brick factory? Why did they not move away when production got underway? How many people had died? China, thankfully, remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. Otherwise, what is the point of staying here?
I could hear Yunyang county seat below me, but I couldn’t see it because of the mist. I was close enough to know that I would finally pass through this river town on my next outing, which was pleasing. I am eager to get to Sichuan province, and particularly interested in striking the next major town along the river – Wanzhou, or Wanxian as it has been known for most of the past couple of centuries.
This was and is the largest town on the river east of Chongqing and west of the Three Gorges. It was the place where my heroine Isabella Bird left the river on her journey through western China in 1898 and struck out across the Sichuan basin for Chengdu. My intention is to follow as closely as possible Isabella’s path, and to match my impressions, unworthy though I am, against hers. Watch this space.