Luojia town, Peng’an county, Sichuan province
Distance from Shanghai – 2,104 km
Goats are not my favorite animals. I look at their faces and I cannot get any sense of what they are thinking. Unlike dogs and water buffalo, for instance, which are pretty easy to read. It’s something about the eyes. But the goats were out in force in central Sichuan during my late summer walk. It appeared to be the season for goat rambles.
At one point, I passed – or was passed by – a herd of 50 goats being driven (with sticks) along the newly re-sealed road by two goatherds. They were on their way home after a grazing session, but they clearly still had the nibbles, and members of the herd kept darting off the road to chew on random bits of anything before being smacked with a cane and brought back into line. It wasn’t as bad as herding cats, but close.
The countryside was lush, the rice plants still green, but increasingly weighed down by the ripening seeds. But the big agricultural news item from Sichuan on this particular walk was corn. The cobs have been picked and husked, and little groups of people were sitting in doorways, young and old together, to knock all the corn pellets off the cobs. There must be a word for that, but I don’t know what it is.
A screwdriver is typically used to dig a furrow up the length of the cob, then the yellow pellets are knocked off, on the pile on the ground, with the thumb. I sat with one group in Nanyan (southern swallow) village for half an hour or so, and uncorned the cobs until my thumbs were sore.
"How do you eat it?" I asked, thinking of cornflakes.
"Oh, it’s for the pigs, not for us," one lady replied.
I joked with the kids, and discussed politics with a slightly drunk bearded gentleman who was hanging out near the corn group, but not working on the corn. He claimed to have been schoolmates with the local party secretary. "Wow," I said.
As I worked on the corn, a guy I had met on my previous walk, Xiao Yang, appeared. I had been walking in the rain, when a young man driving a truck stopped by me and invited me to ride with him. When I declined, he drove off and returned 15 minutes later with a bag containing water, peanuts and biscuits. I had kept in touch with him via SMS in the weeks since and now he invited me to go to his home for lunch.
"You’ll have to wait," I said, working the cobs. "I am busy. I have responsibilities."
When my thumbs had had enough, I climbed onto the back of Xiao Yang’s motorbike and we raced off into the hills. I do not like motorbikes. I have spent more than my fair share of time in hospitals and have seen far too many young men with legs ruined in motorcycle crashes. It’s simple. Two wheels are not as safe or as steady as four.
The road was steep and winding, but it was mostly sealed, after a fashion, and I hung on tightly trying to lean with the turns. I much prefer riding a plodding horse to a motorbike any day.
We finally arrived at an isolated farmhouse on a ridge, surrounded by fields down below, and more hills beyond.
"They all have names," said Xiao Yang without me having to ask. "That one is called Cat Peak, and that one is White Cloud Mountain."
He showed me round his family’s two-story house, built 10 years ago. It was L-shaped, with a courtyard inside the L. Just inside the main door off the courtyard were three big old wooden chests, colorfully painted, but faded and battered.
"These are the wedding chests of my parents and grandparents," he said. "They’re antiques now."
Xiao Yang had been married in October last year, but he and his wife had no wooden chests. The tradition had died along the way.
Beyond the traditional kitchen, was a room with a big bowl set into a counter.
"My father kills pigs," said Xiao Yang. "This is the killing room."
It was clean and there as no odor, but I did not linger. Nor did Xiao Yang. "I want a career that is hygienic," he said. "Not killing pigs."
Xiao Yang is 24 years old, sports a punk haircut, spiky and brown tinted, and has no regular job. He harbors a secret desire to be a racing car driver. He handles his truck and motorbike well on the mountain roads, but I suggested gently that choosing the goal of a full-time salaried driver job would be something better to aim for.
"I haven’t decided what my goal in life is yet," he replied, clearly struggling with the idea of being nailed down to a job. "I haven’t fixed a direction."
"Don’t wait too long," I said.
He led me upstairs into a large space with four or five rooms leading off it. All doors but one were open and the space was filled with light and fresh air, with the fields, mountains and sky clearly dominating through all the windows. He opened the only door that was not open, and we went into a cramped, tiny room with curtains drawn and four generations of females lying on beds and sofas watching a crappy television gameshow.
I sat next to grandma, aged around 150 judging by the skin, but actually late 80s, and talked for a while with the others, but conversation was slow and difficult as they were fixated on the screaming contestants falling off rafts in a swimming pool.
"This is my mother," said Xiao Yang, pointing to one lady. "And this is also my mother," he added, pointing to the one next to her. "In this area we call aunts ‘mother’, and uncles are called ‘father.’ It is much better to have more mothers and fathers."
He asked me if I wanted to watch TV, and I declined. So we went downstairs, and the ladies followed soon after heading for the kitchen to prepare lunch.
I sat with Xiao Yang in the room that only a few decades ago would have held the family’s ancestral tablets, now replaced by some inscriptions on large red sheets pasted to the wall.
He was constantly smoking. I asked him how many he smoked in a day, and he said around 20.
"I don’t believe you," I said. He had consumed at least five in the past hour.
"I want to give up," he replied. Then he brightened. "In fact I have given up several times." Just like the old joke – giving up smoking is easy. I do it all the time.
He told me he had spent a few years in Fuzhou as a migrant worker, and a few months last year in Shenzhen, but had come home, because he prefers to be at home. He is worried about money, but lives okay in the big family house, and has enough for cigarettes. Plus he has his dream of being a racing car driver.
His ancient grandparents came in, followed by the ladies and Xiao Yang’s father. It was a mini-feast, but just a normal lunch for them, not prepared especially for me. Almost all the dishes were meat-based, but there were also some delicious lightly fried dough dumplings and green bean congee rice soup that were acceptable to my finicky palate. But I hurt their feelings by turning down the meat dishes.
"Try it, it tastes great!" urged Xiao Yang.
"I don’t eat meat."
"I know, but just try it, it’s really tasty."
The idea of not eating meat just does not compute for Chinese farmers.
Xiao Yang’s father asked me if I would like to drink beer or baijiu. Easy choice. He opened the beer bottle with his teeth and we did several toasts with small shot glasses.
We chatted about life in the area. The Wenchuan earthquake in 2008 had shaken it pretty badly, and he said about 10 people had died "of heartattacks, out of fear. They didn’t know if the world was ending or what."
The meal came to an end, I shook hands with everyone, including grandma, and Xiao Yang took me back to the doorway where I had been stripping corn. The work was over, and the people had dispersed.
"Here’s an umbrella," Xiao Yang said. "It is going to rain. Stay in touch."
He drove off and I started walking out of Nanyan village back into the fields. Within 10 minutes the first drops were falling and a few minutes later it was a downpour. The rain came and went for the rest of the afternoon, and between each session, I asked the farmers I met if it would rain again today. They all looked at the sky and said: "No, that’s it for today." Then it rained again. I got very wet, but what the hell. It was all part of the fun.
I walked into Luojia town, where the main street has a big hill running right along one side of it. The middle section of the hill, however, had been recently removed, gutted, destroyed, gouged out, desecrated.
I asked a girl sitting outside a hardware store what had happened to the hill.
"They are going to build apartments there. I preferred the hill. Better air before. Why don’t you ride in a car?" That is the most common question I get on the road. She was 12 years old, about to start high school, and she was smart and inquisitive.
"Because I wanted to talk to you," I replied.
The China Reading Project donates books to schools in rural China. Donations are tax-deductible. Payments can be remitted to The China Reading Project, Xinhua Finance Library Foundation Limited, HSBC Hong Kong account 809-215064-838, SWIFT code: HSBCHKHHHKH, HSBC Causeway Bay Branch. Visit www.chinareadingproject.com for details. For more Travels articles, visit www.chinaeconomicreview.com/travels.
Graham’s book, The Great Walk of China, was recently published and can be purchased from Blacksmith Books and at all good bookshops.