The walk out of the mountains and into Wushan City on the river was downhill and easy. The sun was shining. In fact, it was one of those days when the sun will boil your brain juices if you don’t wear a hat.
A constant stream of motorcycle riders passed me going up and down the road, looking for fares, and they all stopped beside me, trying to get me to ride down to Wushan for two yuan. They could not understand why I would walk in the heat rather than climb on the back. But I explained about Noel Coward and they nodded and drove away.
I was walking in the mountains about three weeks after the huge Sichuan earthquake, and asked people I met if they had felt it. The answer was yes, but from their description, the impact on this region about 500 kilometers due east of the epicenter was about the same as in Beijing and Shanghai. The mountains of the Yangtze gorges region are on the other side of the Sichuan basin. If an earthquake the size of the Sichuan one hit close to the Three Gorges Dam, it would surely have been in great danger, and the prospect of all that water surging east is frightening. But the region is not earthquake prone, I was told. Famous last words.
So I entered Wushan, which is a huge town of several hundred thousand people, perched on the mountains above the river-lake. All the buildings are new or new-ish, built after the decision was made to flood the old town, now gone under the water.
It is one of the steepest towns I have ever been to, with cliff-like streets, endless steps, and the best minivan drivers in China. They can really work the gears on the hills as they climb up or fly down the slopes. It is best to close your eyes. Unlike just about anywhere else in China I have been, almost all the minivan taxi drivers are girls, presumably because all the guys are migrant workers elsewhere.
Karaoke is big in Wushan, as is getting blindingly drunk on baijiu and staggering around in the dark. There are also public dancing exercises for the non-baijiu drinkers. On the main square in the center of town every evening, hundreds of people, mostly women, gather and arrange themselves in lines, all facing the same direction and perform vaguely Taiqi-like movements and undulations in time to appalling and very loud Chinese disco music. They pay RMB30 (US$4.30) for a year’s right to join the lines any night they want, and most of them looked like hardcore regular undulators.
I spent some time in Wushan talking with some people in their late teens and early 20s about life and the future. The guys were mostly working in factories on the coast and were back home in Wushan for some R&R, a sort of break from the pressure of being a migrant worker. One was with his girlfriend and said he wanted to settle down back in Wushan but could think of no way to make any money here. Another guy was in the same situation. He planned to go back to his factory job in Zhejiang the following week. I asked how they felt about being away from home, and there was just a shrug of the shoulders in reply. There is really no choice.
I talked to an 18-year-old boy named Ouyun Dongshan, a surname I had never come across before. He was thin and had a cool hairstyle with strands hanging over his eyes, filthy fingernails and a rich smoker’s cough. I asked him if he was still at school. “No,” he said and hacked out a cough.
“So what do you do?”
“Just play around.”
“Video games. In the internet bars.”
“How many cigarettes do you smoke a day?”
“Smoking is stupid,” I said. “You shouldn’t be coughing like that.”
“I know. It’s not good.” He had lit up another within 10 minutes.
“So what is your plan?” I asked. “Where will you be in five years and what will you be doing?”
“I don’t know,” he said and shrugged, looking off into the distance. I pushed and he said: “Probably driving a minivan or else in the army. But you have to pass an exam to get in the army.”
I decided that for him, the army might be a good choice.
I confess I didn’t like Wushan too much and was glad to get out of it. Overall, you could make the argument that it is a town that should be left to shrivel. Many of the people are leaving, the tourists are passing it by and its role as a staging post for river journeys has been reduced by the faster and bigger boats now cruising the Yangtze lake. And there are just too many steps.
I climbed up the road through the town, from 200 meters above sea level close to the river up to 650 m at the top of the town. The air was filthy, the traffic pretty mad. I watched a boy cross the road running without looking the other way and a minivan taxi slammed into him. I raced over in horror, but he got up and said he was okay.
“You’ve got to look when you cross the road!” I told him earnestly, in my new didactic mode. He nodded, took the dropped items I had picked up off the road and disappeared into the sidewalk crowd.
I passed a Christian church situated in a fairly new multi-story building. Most of the building was occupied by a garage and auto repair shop. I looked but could not see Jesus on the grille of any of the cars.
And then I was out of the town and walking on the old road heading vaguely west towards Fengjie, the next river town along from Wushan. It started to drizzle, but that was okay, as I had an umbrella.
It was good to be out of Wushan. The air was cleaner, the people more friendly. I stopped at just about every farmhouse and sat in the doorway chatting for a while. Walking along one stretch, a police car came towards me and the cop stopped and rolled down his window.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“Into the mountains,” I said, not stopping.
“Walking?” I nodded at this statement of the bleeding obvious, and he drove away, leaving me a little disappointed that China had become so blasé about a foreigner walking through the middle of nowhere.
As I passed a tree, a big Alsatian dog suddenly lunged at me, barking in a deep voice. I sprang back in fright as the dog bounced backwards, the rope around its neck having reached its limit. The dog was angry, and I hoped suddenly and fervently that the rope and knot were strong. I walked on past slowly, heart pounding and aware of the fact that I had no idea what to do if the dog really did attack me.
Most of the people I met were older, and the few young people were migrant workers home on leave. There were signs on some mountain slopes saying the area was being allowed to return to forest. This is the way to go.
My vision of China 30 to 50 years from now is that the central regions of the country will be almost completely depopulated. The mountain areas will be released from agriculture and returned to Nature, with a bit of tourism on the side. The plains will be handed over to high volume mechanized agriculture with all the tiny family plots combined into massive fields. And the people will be gathered in dense cities along the coastal strip. Actually, it is not a vision. It is happening right now, and it is possibly the best option.
I headed up and west along a road cut in the almost sheer northern wall of the valley to the north of the Yangtze River valley. Down below, I could see construction of the Fengjie-Wushan freeway with four lanes, tunnels and long elevated sections. It is due to be completed in 2010. As I progressed up beyond the 800 m line, the farmhouses pretty much disappeared and I was alone on the road.
Except for the buses marked with their destination on the windshield – Hangzhou, Shanghai, Wenzhou, Fujian, Zhuhai. Perhaps one passed every five to 10 minutes, heading along this remote country road, taking the migrant workers out to the factories.