Wenchang village, Sichuan province
Distance from Shanghai – 2,028 km
I walked over the last of Buddha’s fingers – the fourth of the mountain ranges that line the eastern side of the Sichuan basin. It was mid-April, and rice planting had not yet begun, but the rock harvest was in full swing.
The rock of these mountains, when crushed for gravel, is apparently perfect for road construction and the production of cement. Highway 318, the little road that traverses this region, was full of trucks hauling the gravel out of the mountains to cement plants and constructions sites both to the east and west.
The pace of mountain demolition is speeding up, and the impact it is having on this lovely part of China is becoming more and more pronounced. It is no longer a matter of an occasional quarry scarring a mountainside. Whole mountains are disappearing. The air along many sections of the country road is also foul. People, when asked, and often when not asked, will comment on the way their surroundings are deteriorating.
China’s environmental problem is not a new story, but that doesn’t mean it should be accepted with a shrug.
Near the town of Juandong in the middle of the mountains, I found a new cement plant had been built. It opened last year, with the owners obtaining permission to damage this part of the country by using the excuse of the destruction of another part. The Wenchuan earthquake on the western edge of the Sichuan basin two years ago was the chance they needed. I was told the plant owners had bought up all the hills in the area. Come back in a few years’ time, and they will be gone.
"All the trees and bushes go with the quarrying," said one old lady who treated me to a cup of tea in front of her restaurant. "It is such a shame."
Now, it is true the Wenchuan area needed cement and gravel for reconstruction. I guess it is possible there was no choice but to put the plant in this preciously pretty and pristine place. But I doubt it.
A 16-year-old girl asked me what I thought of the environment in the area, and I said: "Terrible. What do you think?"
She nodded. "It’s getting worse," she said.
I asked her what her plan was after graduating from high school and she said university. I asked her what she would study.
"Probably politics, because it would be useful to understand more about how things work. I previously thought about studying law, but law is unclear."
An impressive and revealing comment from a country girl.
Adding to the sense of environmental disconnect in this part of Qu county, Sichuan province, were many new signs, slogans and billboards placed in all locations saying things like: "Look after the people’s health by doing a good job of looking after the environment."
The implication of the signs seemed to be that the local officials know there is growing negative sentiment about the degradation of the countryside, and they are trying to contain it with a propaganda campaign. But it is hard not to be cynical about this process in that the officials who approved the campaign were presumably also the ones who gave the go-ahead for the mountain demolition and may even have a stake in it.
As I walked along the side of the road, an older man overtook me, then bent down and picked up a random piece of garbage – a plastic wrapper lying on the ground – and walked on.
"Good!" I exclaimed. "Garbage is bad!"
He grunted, hardly acknowledging me, and walked on, but it was an inspirational moment for me, indicating that Chinese people can be convinced to pick up the trash.
I reached the edge of the mountains, and was faced by a steep drop and wide vistas westward over the plain. It was a beautiful spot, and right there was a Buddhist monastery.
I stopped at a tea house opposite and asked about the monastery, which was a brick building that looked like it dated from the 1930s. The man running the tea house told me the monastery had been there since the Tang dynasty, 1,200 years ago, but that now there was only one old monk living inside.
I walked down the steep mountain slope, from its highest point of around 900 meters above sea level, to around the 350-meter level. As I hit the relatively flat land, I stepped onto the Chengdu plain. There are still some hilly districts between me and Chengdu, but nothing major. Flat land also means straighter roads, which means faster progress west.
On my walk across the Hubei plain in 2006, I detected a slightly less welcoming attitude from the local people than I had experienced in the mountains, but during a day passing through the little villages on the Chengdu plain, I was impressed by the hospitality and openness of the people of Sichuan. I handed out name cards to people that I met – as usual – but my phone’s SMS text list filled up much more than usual with messages from people saying hi after I had moved on. There were many exchanges of good wishes and group photographs.
All in all, it was all a wonderful counterpoint to the mutilation of the mountains.