West of Yuanyi town, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,981 km
It was the heart of winter, but the eastern part of the Sichuan basin was still experiencing mild days and the mountains were wonderfully green, even though the paddy fields were brown and silent. The nights and early mornings were still very cold, and mists covered vast regions through to noon and beyond, causing transport problems, but also adding a delightful sheen to photographs of rural scenes.
I walked from the top of one of the mountain fingers in the region down into the valley beyond. A few dozen kilometers in front of me was the town of Dazhu, which means "big bamboo," and it is true that the region is covered in bamboo forests. Or rather spinneys, in terms of what I saw. Judging from the trucks loaded down with cut bamboo trunks, bamboo harvesting appears to be a significant industry. I hoped it was being done in a sustainable way, but I wasn’t optimistic.
My main problem as I strolled through the winter quiet on highway 318 was the fact that it was constantly shattered by trucks carting coal out of the Sichuan basin to the Yangtze River for shipment into central China. The mountain road was too small to handle so many huge trucks, and I constantly had to lean to the edge so two vehicles could pass each other beside me.
But the drivers I had contact with were all solid guys, and I exchanged greetings with many of them as they drove by. One stopped right in the middle of a steep stretch of road with another truck barreling down behind him to offer me a cigarette as a way of initiating a chat. They always think I am just being polite when I refuse the smoke.
I was sitting on a stool outside a house on the road, close to the top of the mountain, that also sold water, cigarettes and instant noodles, photographing a cat and chatting with the store owner and his wife, who were sure England was paradise.
"We are so poor, and England is so rich," the man said.
"You have fantastic views in front of you, the freshest air to breath and clean food," I replied. "You’re doing okay. And anyway, England has people that are poorer than you, and China has people as rich as any in England."
A coal truck pulled up, fully loaded, and out got the driver and his girlfriend for a rest. The wife bustled about preparing instant noodles for them; the driver pulled out a cigarette and sat down beside me. Meanwhile the store owner clambered up onto the top of the coal truck and started raking it back and forth.
"Why is he doing that?" I asked.
"To smooth out the coal," said the driver.
"Ah, he’s doing it to thank you for your next visit," I said. "He wants you to stop here again."
The driver nodded, then smiled. "That’s right," he said. "I stop here every time."
I asked him about business and he said it was slow. The economic crisis was to blame, he said.
I got a sense out on the road that the economic crisis is only now beginning to make itself felt in rural China – the long-term implications are only now sinking through. Sitting there on a mountain in the Sichuan basin, I had a strong feeling that it’s going to be a long haul for the world to pull itself out of this one.
n the way down the mountain, I dropped 500 meters in one afternoon, from around 900 meters to 400 meters, which is the height above sea level of most of the Sichuan basin. It involved a lot of sharp bends, but it was almost all heading north. In two days of walking, I made almost no westerly progress.
The road was mostly muddy, not because it had been raining, but because the trucks all pour water out onto their brakes as they rumble down the slopes to stop them from overheating.
At one point I came across a path leading down from one level of the winding road to another, and I took it. The first part was slippery, but then it became quite a well-constructed stepped way, with proto-flagstones which I guessed pre-dated the road by a long time.
Highway 318 stretches from Shanghai through to Tibet and was constructed mostly in the 1960s. However, some sections of it, particularly in Sichuan, were built during that brief window of calm in the early 1930s when the Nationalists started the process of pulling China into the modern world.
The markers along this part of the road, measuring the distance from Shanghai, followed my life. I passed the 1,952-kilometer mark, the year I was born, and with each marker that I passed, I thought about each year in terms of where I had been and what I had been doing. I finished this particular walk at the 1,981 marker, the year I first went to Tibet.
As the road crested the mountains, the day cleared and blue skies appeared, but the mist still hung about below. The bamboo mats covering the slopes along the road were a delight to view.
I passed a truck stopped on the road with the driver and his mate doing a tire change.
"Where are you from?" one of them asked me.
"Do you have a president?"
"No," I said. "A queen."
"We have a president," he replied. "And the Communist Party."
"I had heard that somewhere," I said.
"So what are you doing here?" he asked me.
"Checking on trucks to see if they are over the load limit. Are you?"
"Yes!" he said instantly and I am sure truthfully.
There were quite a few water buffalo on the road, going to and from the fields, because it was time to start preparing them for rice planting. They padded patiently by the terraced fields, with the setting sun glinting through the mist onto the placid paddy waters. I watched one female water buffalo being led along, followed by her young calf and a dog that nipped playfully, actually lovingly, at the calf’s legs as it walked along. Water buffalo are easily the best-natured animals I have ever come across.
Just as the sun set, I met a man standing beside a field wearing a bright red jacket. He said he worked for PetroChina.
"What are doing here?" I asked. "Looking for oil?"
"No! I just came to look at this area for my own interest. I live in Qiqiao," he replied, referring to the town to the east of the mountains through which I had previously passed, noted for its filthy cement factory.
I gave him a name card, and the following day he sent me the longest text message I have ever received, offering to take me to see all the amazing places he had found in Liangping county, of which this was still a part. He listed them all. "Liangping is a second Shangri-la!" he enthused, exclamation points scattered through the message like trees in an orchard. "Beautiful Liangping!"
He also declared that one of his life’s goals was to write a long poem in English called Ode to the Globe, and said he would come and visit me in England if he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. There’s no way I could make that up.
The next morning, I was out in the fields by 7 a.m., and it was only just getting light. The views out over the paddies and hills were monochromatically mysterious, bathed in a pearly glow. I stood there shivering, snapping photos, and absorbing the sounds of the early morning fields. The experience only lasted 15 minutes or so, and then the growing lightness of the sky added commonplace color to the scene and it was time to move on.
Finally, I reached the town of Yuanyi, where I saw a massive pig, splayed out over a wooden tub full of hot water, being dissected. The ground was a mess of red, the animal’s skin was steamed white and supple and its eyes were closed. I am happy to be a vegetarian.