Near the old Yunyang county seat,
Distance from Shanghai – 1,280 km
I am in a position to confirm that the road between Fengjie and Yunyang is long and also winding. On my most recent excursion, I walked for an entire day, around 16 kilometers, moving from around 300 meters above sea level, down to 200 m and then up above 600. At the end, I had nothing to show for it in terms of westerly progress. I was in fact 30 seconds closer to Shanghai than at the beginning of the day, although four minutes of latitude further south.
But I didn’t hold it against the road. This is the last real stretch of mountain country before the land of China smoothes out in the Sichuan basin, putting me back on a plain again for the first time since Hubei. I was in no rush to leave the mountains. In fact, after racing impatiently across the Hubei plain in just six months in 2006, I have spent two years exploring, or rather sauntering through, the vast mountain region dominated by the Three Gorges.
On this day, there were fires burning on a number of the hillsides in spite of the sternly daubed slogans on many of the farmhouse walls, warning of prison terms and stiff fines for farmers who start fires. The farmers were burning off dead winter vegetation, and presumably had things under control – but it still looked dangerous given the broad expanses of dry vegetation interspersed with farmhouses in all directions.
I came to a tunnel, maybe 200 m in length, winding and dark enough that I had to use my iPhone to break the intense blackness and check for holes in the road. Beyond the tunnel the hillsides were covered in graves, large dog house-like structures facing outwards with rounded, almost art deco designs.
I was approaching a little town with an offshoot of the Yangtze reservoir below me, when I saw something that I had never before seen in rural China, a sight that was shocking in its uniqueness.
Beside the road, next to some houses, were two people with brushes, sweeping up garbage and putting it in a trash can!!
They were Buddhist nuns, dressed in orange trouser robes, white socks and gloves, and with shaven heads. As they busied themselves with basic tidying work, about a dozen ordinary people sat or stood nearby ignoring them.
I asked the nuns why they were picking up the garbage – it was that extraordinary a sight.
"It is good to help people," said one.
"But shouldn’t everyone pick up the garbage?" I asked.
"It doesn’t matter who does it, as long as someone does. It is our honor," said the other nun, never stopping her sweeping as she talked.
The garbage situation in China’s villages is something I have remarked upon before. Roadsides, hillsides and streams across the country are covered in the detritus of modern life. Plastic bags, old clothes, saline drip bottles, old machines, rotting fruit – sometimes dumped right next to the people’s homes.
Why was it two Buddhist nuns were the first people I had seen fighting this tide of multicolored refuse? I am not religious, and I fervently hope that Chinese people do not need to get religion before they decide to pick up the garbage.
The small space by the road being tended by the nuns turned out to be entrance to an old market street. It was also close to a temple, which used to a walk down the hill and up the other side, but is now accessible by boat. The nuns cleaning up was in fact also a below-the-line promo activity to encourage the local people to become supporters of and visitors to the temple.
The local people were curious about my questions to the nuns, and several of them followed me as I walked into the narrow alleyway. Little shops and stalls pressed in on both sides, stocked with plastic-packed foods, eggs, simple clothing and footwear, kitchen implements, slabs of fly-enhanced meat and what may be the best-selling item in rural China – hair adornments for women.
There were kids sitting in wicker baskets strapped to the backs of their mothers and grandmothers. A young guy with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth fired a shot with a small semi-toy rifle at a bird above us.
I stopped in the market and a crowd gathered around me. We chatted for a few minutes, with them asking the obvious questions about who I am and where I am going, while giving the obvious answer to my question about the quality of their lives. Life is poor, they said.
I took a photo of a man with a big smile on his face. He was wearing dirty clothes that nevertheless looked reasonably comfortable. I was berated for taking the shot by a woman standing beside me wearing a vaguely fur-like coat that was stylishly out of place in a village market.
"His clothes are ragged, you shouldn’t photograph him," she said.
"My clothes are not too clean either," I said, pointing to my muddy boots, slightly torn trousers and grubby work shirt. "Also, you are the most fashionable person here. Your coat is lovely." She smiled happily.
I walked out of the market with a middle aged couple. They told me how the village had a history of 2,000 years, and that it was all that was left of the old Yunyang county seat, which had been below us.
"We were above the waterline, so we didn’t have to move," said the woman. "We were lucky. Everyone else has moved to the new county town."
I could see why she was happy to stay. The valley was pretty even on a gloomy morning. Then we turned a corner and came upon a cement factory, the bane of the rural environment in so many places in China. The air suddenly turned powdery and foul, and I hurried past it, trying not to breathe deeply.
"Contribute your loyalty to the motherland, give your youth to the army," said a slogan on a farmhouse wall. The road started to wind upward, and at times I could see three or four stretches of road below me as it switched back up the mountain. I puffed my way up the steep grade, and the motorcycle guys tried to get me to accept a ride, often for free, but I waved them away.
"Giving birth to a boy or girl is the same," said another slogan. "Population quality is the most important thing."
I came upon a field of half-mature rapeseed, the flowers not yet fully open, but a family was busy harvesting it to presumably steal a march on the market. Four or five people cut and bundled the plants while their cow wandered around the patch chewing on selected flower tops. The family members laughed and talked as they worked steadily, and the cow seemed happy, too.
I stopped and absorbed this classic country scene for a few minutes, and left feeling that some of the peace had rubbed off onto me.