Bayang town, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,267 km
The pipa is not only a Chinese musical instrument, it is also the name of a small apricot-like fruit found in the mountains of eastern Sichuan province. Early May happens to be the height of pipa season.
The roads were full of little stalls set up by farmers to sell piles of pipa, but they were competing with nature itself. I passed countless trees laden with the fruit right by the road, for anyone to pick. But business was brisk, particularly in one of the villages in Bayang township, which was full of new middle class from nearby Wanzhou taking countryside excursions in their new private cars to buy huge bagfuls of fruit.
The price was cheap, only RMB3 (US$0.44) per jin (500g), and I was sure that a couple of jin would be more than enough to give me stomach trouble. I bought some from one stall, and the farmers at the adjacent stalls wanted me to buy more. "Next year," I said.
I started the month’s walk just to the east of the Yunyang county seat, one of the main new towns on the Yangtze River, built mostly to house farmers displaced by the Three Gorges Dam. The town is not as large or as prosperous as Fengjie to the east, but it has better hotels. Still no coffee, though. Mr Peng, owner of the Yunchun Hotel, the best local hostelry, told me that the hitherto misnomered "coffee lounge" would actually serve coffee from June. Too bad. I will already have left Yunyang’s orbit.
Dominating the town is a hill topped with a tall pagoda, which I was told used to be the headquarters for a gang of outlaws. I couldn’t get a clear reading on the period from my farmer informants, but it appeared to be at some point after the communist takeover in 1949.
On the edge of town I passed the huge campus of a privately owned school called the Yunyang Foreign Language High School. The language concerned had to be English, and it was a smart selling point. I stopped at the school entrance and asked the guard if he could pass my name card to any of the foreign teachers. He looked at the card and said: "Well, there is only one and he is from the Philippines. And he is not here right now."
"So how do they teach foreign languages to so many students?" I asked.
"Chinese teachers," he said.
Smart school boss. Pull in the customers with the name on the gate and cut costs to the bare minimum. I had not met the Filipino teacher, and I would not wish to understate the English abilities of Filipinos, but I do know their Tagalog is far better than mine. I asked for the card to be passed to the Filipino teacher, but I did not hear from him.
In the center of town, I stopped at a small restaurant and had a simple dinner of beancurd, rice and beer, which has been my staple on walk days for years, preferably taken on a street stall somewhere in the center of the biggest town close to my walk location.
The manager had her son helping out, and tried to get me to buy the spicy prawns stewed with beef at a price of RMB108 (US$15.80). It sounded like a disgusting combination, even discounting the fact that I don’t eat meat. I asked her how business was faring, and she said it was best in the late evening.
"We stay open until the early hours of the morning," she said, and pointed to the row of establishments on the other side of the road, and on either side of her restaurant. They were all pink-lit massage and hairdressing places – the girls and the patrons would all be interested in late night snacks. Pink-lit hairdressers are a feature of all rural China towns. I have sometimes been told that Chinese are very discreet about illicit sex, unlike Westerners. Oh, really?
Yunyang town is basically composed of three roads along the river – upper, middle and lower – with a few steep linkage roads in between. I walked along the top road through town, and inspected the street signs, which had Chinese, pinyin and English versions of the names. Baiyun Lu was rendered as Cloud Road and Pingan Ti as Safety Stairs. Then I walked down one of the link roads, to the river side, and crossed a bridge that took me to the west of Yunyang, now behind me.
I was back on the mountain road, provincial highway 103 heading towards Wanzhou, with the river on my left. I saw a small and very old stone bridge on a side road, a one-arched construction with a dragon-snake built into the design, with its head emerging from the stonework on one side, and its tail on the other. It was a work of traditional art with a purpose. Only the name was a bit of a clichéd disappointment – the Bridge of Eternal Peace – but it was redeemed by the beauty of the calligraphic strokes of which the characters were composed.
I met an old woman with boyishly long grey hair, meandering along the road with a walking stick, now on this side, now on the other, but mostly blithely wandering straight down the middle with no concern for the occasional trucks and buses that roared along it. I said hello and the first thing she said was: "Eighty-eight! Double eight!"
"Congratulations!" I said. "Let’s walk on the side of the road."
This was the old Yunyang to Wanzhou road, and on the right, higher up the mountains, I could see the new freeway, which opened just a few months ago. Fantastically long and high bridges over the mountain valleys, each one a feat of engineering that 20 years ago would have merited the cover of China Reconstructs magazine, but now just another unremarkable part of the country’s national freeway network. China’s infrastructural capabilities – roads, bridges and tunnels – are phenomenal. Should the US ask for technical assistance?
I was passing through the quiet villages and terraced vegetables plots of Lianhuashan (Lotus Flower Mountain) district, and saw an ambitious sign that said: "Lianhuashan – Building a financial aircraft carrier to support the extraordinary growth of Yunyang."
The old road passed under the freeway, and a duck jumped out of a ditch beside me, waddled across the road, and proceeded in the same westerly direction as myself on the other side. We shadowed each other for probably 200 meters in a repeat of the experience with the old lady, except the duck had nothing to say.
I heard a bird call, a four-note song – high-mid-mid-low – repeated over and over. It was the same species of bird I had come across in the Anhui mountains, and had been told there that its call marks the start of the rice planting season. And it was again the start of the rice planting season and here it was. I passed peasants knee-deep in water, thrusting bright green shoots into the mud. The precise tones the birds were using were slightly different than in Anhui, but that was only natural. After all, the human dialects differ between Anhui and Sichuan, too.