Northwest of Badong town, Hubei province
Distance from Shanghai – 1,150 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,755 km
It was a misty, soggy day in the Yangtze gorges, although it was not actually raining. The road to Badong out of the mountains was a series of muddy messes, but the birds were singing and the muffling effect of the mist was pleasing to the senses.
I walked through an area of wood and farmland at the northern end of a long valley, reading apparently incongruous slogans on the walls of the farmhouses, including “Hold to the Four Basic Principles”, and “Do a Good Job of Building a Model Anti-AIDS Base.”
The river was below me, but almost invisible in the heavy mist. I saw a ghost barge pass like a pale shadow over a sheet of grey silk. On the left was an abandoned quarry where the edge of one of the tilted slabs that make up this region had been blasted to smithereens and carted away.
As I walked, I reflected on the fact that I was doing this walk at just the right time. Ten years ago, I would not have been able to do it. I would have been stopped so many times along the way and told to go back to Shanghai, because the basic shift in the psychology of inland China from closed to open had not yet taken place.
Ten years from now, much of the territory I had passed through would no longer be the terra incognita it still is today. By then, the urban middle class Chinese with their new cars would be cruising the small roads with the villages along the way adapting to the outsiders.
As I was pondering this, walking down a quiet country road by the river, about a 100 meters ahead on the left, the mountainside suddenly exploded.
I have never been in a war zone, unless you count central Beijing on the night of June 3-4, 1989, so I have never experienced an artillery barrage. But the shock of the explosions was similar and without warning. In spite of having just passed an abandoned quarry, it took me a second to realize what was going on.
The ground shook with blast after blast, clouds of dust rose into the air, and the air vibrated like a drum skin as the sound waves pushed holes in the mist. There must have been 20 or 30 explosions in all, and a large section of the mountainside collapsed. There were workmen below, and as soon as the charges were spent, they moved forward to start digging at the rocky rubble, fodder for some factory or construction site.
I passed a hut with an old man and woman looking out of the door, also startled by the blasts.
“So loud!” I said.
“Yes,” the old man replied and scrunched up his face.
“What is it for?” I asked.
“For the cement factory.”
A little further down the hill again, heading west along the southern bank of the river-reservoir towards Badong, I came upon the cement plant, an angry slab of industrialism stretched along the steep slope of the river.
Along the road above the plant were huge covered pits into which the raw materials were tipped from trucks. Coal here, gravel there. The pits descended 100m towards the factory, making full use of gravity. Below the plant, I could only imagine the sludge being churned into the river.
I stopped and peered down into one of the coal pits. All was quiet and dark. Then a face appeared in the blackness, and I saw there was a man crouching on the steep slope of coal with his back to me, his clothes and face all blackened. I took a photo. He stood up, and I shouted to him the appropriate phrase: “Tough work! (ni xinku le).”
He responded by leaping up and starting to work frenetically, chopping coal slabs off the steep dunes and pushing them down a chute. The coal stream on the chute got caught 20m down, so the man bounded down the slope, hacked at the blockage to clear it, then scampered back up and hacked away some more, watching the coal slide smoothly down the chute and out of sight. I hated to think of his lungs. He was like a monkey leaping around the coal slope, and the way he silently glanced at me suggested that he was not entirely right in the head. Probably the best way to be for such an existence.
I entered Badong, a bustling river town that was always above the line. It therefore required no moving, but still there are two Badongs – the old easterly one and the new one further along to the west, above the Badong Yangtze Bridge which was built in the mid-1990s before the waters rose.
Badong is a seething mass of consumer activity. Shops open early and close late, and many have speaker systems blaring into the street. “Chongqing shoes, the best styles,” and many more, interspersed with Eurodisco coming out of little supermarkets. Endless noise pollution, presumably aimed at attracting rather than repelling customers, but just pushing me to escape the racket.
The Badong bridge came into sight, the standard two-pillar suspension design used for all the major Yangtze bridges built at the time, including the Tongling and Xiling bridges that I had crossed on foot.
I started across the bridge and stuck to a pillar was a depressing flyer – a missing person notice. Wu Min, a 57-year-old man, had “disappeared” while on the bridge at around 8am on June 27. “His relatives would be very grateful for anyone who contacts us with information of his whereabouts.” Of course, he had climbed over the railing and fallen into the river, probably dying on impact, but the relatives were trying hard not to think of that. “And if Wu Min himself sees this, please come home quickly, we are so worried about you.”
So I crossed the Yangtze River for the third and last time on my walk from Shanghai. I would follow the river for another few hundred kilometers west to Wanzhou, but my path lies north of the river all the way to Tibet.
The precise route to be taken on the north side towards the next river town upstream – Wushan (sorcery mountain) – was not clear. The map showed a road some way inland that headed west, but the maps are unreliable, and there was a road ahead of me that more closely followed the river. That would of course suit me better. Maybe there was a cliff road from Badong to Wushan along the northern bank. The word from the locals on this subject was mixed.
As I stepped off the bridge and onto the northern shore, I was met by several motorcyclists, the local taxis, waiting for fares under a sign welcoming the successful holding of the 17th Communist Party Congress. They waved to me, and I asked if the road was “passable”. One laughed and said: “Well, every road is passable to somewhere, right?”
Right. Good point. So I asked a mini-van driver if the road was “passable” all the way to Sichuan, and he nodded. That was good enough for me. I started out up another muddy track.
I crossed a smaller bridge over a tributary channel, the water bright green in a healthy way. Badong town was ranged along the far bank. I walked through a village that had recently been demolished, then into a new village in which a party was taking place.
The day was cold, but both sides of the street were lined with people drinking and eating snacks. One man said “Hello!” to me in English, and I walked over to him through a mess of spent fireworks on the road and asked what the party was about.
“It’s a birthday party,” he said.
“The old man, father of the big guy,” he said. “He’s 70 years old.”
I asked who the big guy was, and it was Mr Zhang, aged 40 who thrust a cigarette upon me. He runs a trucking operation of some scale. Big for this little place, anyway.
I asked him how many people were attending his father’s birthday party – I estimated 150 or so, including several rooms of revelers off the street. He shrugged and shook his head. I congratulated him on his father’s birthday. I would have liked to go and see the old man, presumably in the middle of the crush in one of the rooms, but Mr Zhang did not seem disposed to make the introduction.
So I left the people drinking their baijiu and beer, dodged a couple of trays of food being rushed over the road and walked on.