In the Yangtze Gorges, Hubei province
Distance from Shanghai – 1,100 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,785 km
I stopped for dinner in the little river town of Guojiaba, right on the western edge of the narrowest part of the Xiling Gorge, the most easterly of the Yangtze River Gorges. While I was there, I decided to have a haircut.
An attendant at the restaurant-hotel took me up the street and into a simple hair salon with a few chairs and mirrors and decorated with faded photos of Chinese singers with impossibly sophisticated hair styles. The lady of the salon was in her early 30s, wearing white jeans and a pink t-shirt with shoulder length hair fashionably tinted brown at the edges. She was pummeling the shoulders of an older gentleman, and her eyes sparkled as I entered.
“How do you do?” she said in understandable English.
“I am well, thank you,” I replied with a grin. That beat her, but never mind.
I was sat down and her young male assistant gave me a dry shampoo. The lady continued pummeling the man’s shoulders but was talking to me. Her surname was Jiang and she was 34 years old. The salon is hers, she said, and she makes RMB2,000-3,000 (US$260-395) a month from it. A haircut costs RMB10 (US$1.30).
“How old are you?’ she asked, practicing phrases she said she had learned in high school, but had never before had a chance to use.
“You are the first foreigner we have ever had in here,” she said, and started to cut away at my hair with the scissors.
“How is foreign hair compared to Chinese hair?” I asked.
“It curls at the ends. I have never seen that before,” she said.
“What do you think of China?” she asked.
“It changes fast. How about Guojiaba?”
“It hasn’t changed much,” she said.
Well, maybe not in the past year or so. But the town in its current location basically did not exist 10 years ago. All the towns in the lower gorges were flooded by the rising waters of the Three Gorges dam and the people moved up the hill to the new town.
Another client sat down next to me, a policeman. He looked at me with interest, and as the assistant gave him a close military crew cut, he made a call on his mobile phone. Ms Jiang finished my haircut, which was not half bad, and I suggested we take a photo together to commemorate the occasion. Just then, in walked a couple more policemen. They pulled out their ID cards to show me.
“We are policemen,” said one.
“I know,” I replied. “Could you take a photo for me please?”
I offered my camera to the one who had spoken, and he held it for a moment, uncertain of what to do, then handed it to his colleague, who took the photo. Ms Jiang was no longer sparkling.
“Could you come to the police station for a chat?” said the taller of the two policemen, whose name was Li.
“I am just about to have dinner,” I replied. “Why don’t you come and join me for a chat?” I paid Ms Jiang, bid her farewell and walked out of the salon.
“Where are you staying?” called officer Li.
“Yangguang Hotel,” I said. I went to the little reception counter and told the hotel manager we were about to be visited by representatives of the Public Security Bureau, and we cooperated to quickly get me into the registration book. I then sat down in the entrance area and ordered some bean curd, vegetables, rice and a beer. Before too long, the officers arrived and sat down opposite me.
“Please have some dinner with me,” I said, pointing at the food on the low table between us.
“I have eaten.”
“Have some beer then.”
“We are on duty.”
“Then a cup of tea.”
They took the tea, and asked the usual questions and I gave the usual answers about walking to Tibet. It was clear we were all waiting for someone else to arrive. So I bided time by asking Officer Li some questions in return. How is the law and order situation in Guojiaba?
“Pretty good. But you need to take care of your possessions, and keep your door locked at night.”
“Any big cases recently?”
“We had a murder in May. A man killed his wife. He wasn’t right in the head.”
In walked two other officers and a plain clothes guy. Officer Li pointed to him. “He is our leader,” he said. The two new uniformed cops showed me their IDs, Mr Plainclothes did not. He asked me what I was doing there.
“I am just walking through, and I stopped for a haircut,” I said. “I will be leaving tomorrow morning to continue my walk.”
“Which way will you go?”
“Do you have a map?”
“I don’t need one. I just go west.”
“The road is blocked to the west of here, it is being repaired. So I would advise you not to go. Around 20 kilometers of road are being rebuilt. So you need to consider carefully how you will proceed. Best to take a ferry to Shazhenxi.”
He was trying hard to think of ways to get me to leave the territory for which he was responsible. But it is a mark of China’s progress that the police in such a town no longer have either the power or the need to summarily order a foreigner to leave.
The next morning, I started out, and indeed there were places along the road that were being repaved with concrete. But traffic was still moving with some waits, as it surely had to. You can’t completely close down a country road, leaving no way for residents to get back and forth. And if a little minibus can make it, so can I.
The day was bright and clean after two weeks of flood-making rains, but the air still felt soggy. Much of the mature corn along the way looked rotten and waterlogged, but the orange and tea trees were in good shape.
I was walking southwest, away from the Yangtze River. Two or three people amazingly said they had seen me on the roads to the east on previous outings, and asked where my daughter was. She had accompanied me on a walk earlier.
The Yangtze Gorges region is serious orange growing country, but it was not always so. The farmers told me about how all the land had been forced into grain production from the 1950s through to the 1980s on the orders of Chairman Mao, when grain self-sufficiency at the expense of all other agricultural production was the paranoid and disastrously destructive response to Mao’s fears of invasion.
In the early 1980s, the communes that had brought Chinese agriculture to its knees were abolished and the land was returned to the farmer families. They immediately planted oranges.
I came upon a truck equipped with two decks of cages and filled with pigs on their way to market. The way the guys were poking the pigs to get them to re-arrange themselves was appalling, if you view pigs as being sentient beings to any extent, which the guys didn’t. I chatted with them for a while, hiding my feelings about the poor bloody pigs – they really were bloody.
Pigs across China had been slaughtered by the millions over the previous weeks to stop the spread of a highly infectious disease, and pork was off the menu in just about all restaurants, including those in the Gorge towns. But the pig man said he was taking them to Yueyang in Hunan province for sale.
“Is that legal?” I asked.
“Legal!” he showed me a piece of paper with a red chop on it. “Chinese people only do business that is legal.”
I rolled me eyes. “Chinese people only do business that is legal,” I repeated. “Let me think. Are there any exceptions to that? Hmmm.” I grinned, and a couple of his mates grinned with me.
Towards the top of the valley, I entered a town named Wenhua, which means ‘culture’. Why would a town be called Culture? As I walked into town, I passed a large building dating from the early 1970s – grey brick decorated with a large faded revolutionary red star, a relic of the Cultural Revolution. Is that where the name came from?
The main street – the only street – in Wenhua runs parallel to the river, and as I came up to a rice wholesale shop front, a lady outside smiled and gestured eagerly for me to stop and take a rest with her and her husband. I did so.
Her name was Madame Han and she invited me to sit inside the cool high-ceilinged storeroom, piled high with bags of rice. But I chose to sit near the entrance, where she and bearded husband, Mr Xiong (bear) managed the business from behind a desk equipped with an electric fan and an abacus.
They buy their rice from Wuhan, and it is grown on the Hubei plain, so I might have watched some of the very rice stacked inside the store growing in the many paddy fields I had passed the previous summer. I asked Madame Han about the Cultural Revolution.
“This whole area was a commune then, and there was no private enterprise. Everything was state-owned,” she said.
“Do you have state-owned in your country?” asked a man on the side.
“Basically no. It is capitalist, just like Culture town is now.”
“No!” he protested. “We are socialist!”
“Socialist? Is this socialism?” I pointed to the rice store outside of which we were sitting and to the little Culture Supermarket, lights off to save electricity, across the road.
“Socialism means everyone is equally poor, while Madame Han looks quite prosperous.”
After some earnest discussion on this point, the five or six listeners decided with surprise that indeed socialism is collectivism and private enterprise is not.
I asked Mr Bear about his shop hours. “We are open basically all the time. From 6am through to 9pm.” His hand played easily with the abacus, and he looked very relaxed on an elevation behind the desk, gazing out in the street.
“Seven days a week?”
He nodded. “That’s capitalism,” he said with a smile.