The water lilies were in bloom, the cicadas were going crazy – it was the heart of summer. The water buffalo were out sun-bathing in the fields, lying languidly in the crippling heat, but I met few people on the road.
The kilometers clicked by and I arrived in the late afternoon at the county seat of Luotian, a town markedly bigger than Yingshan, strung along of the Yi River (Yi Shui – the Waters of Justice), which that day was a shallow waterway in an impressively deep and wide channel, indicating occasional massive flash floods.
On the edge of town as I entered, I came upon a group of men with a map laid out on the ground, studying a wide area of paddy rice. I asked what was happening, and the answer was that the fields had been earmarked for redevelopment into residential and commercial areas. These fields were growing their last rice crop. That was it, forever.
I walked on and stopped at a small shop on the next corner, where there were several people sitting around outside. I joined them and asked about the rice fields behind, and they confirmed this would be the last crop. They asked me how I felt about that, and I shrugged. "That green is the most beautiful color in the world," I said. "But development is a firm principle. I don't know." They agreed. The town was growing and could not be stopped.
Luotian is known for three things as far as I can tell: Chinese chestnuts (banli), a peasant rebellion at some point in history that had its own "local emperor" who was from Luotian, and Lin Biao.
Lin was a formidable Red Army general in the civil war and in the late 1960s became Chairman Mao's right-hand man. He was born in 1907 near Luotian and had an airfield constructed to facilitate commuting to his home village.
Lin Biao is generally viewed today as a brilliant general who degenerated into an evil dwarf of a political schemer, using Mao's growing senility and the chaos of the Cultural Revolution to advance his own power. The political machinations and infighting led to a crisis which resulted in his suddenly flying out of Beijing in September 1971, apparently on his way to Moscow, but the plane crashed in Mongolia, killing all on board. Was he fleeing after a failed coup attempt? That's the official story. I would put money on there being more to the story than was announced. I asked the people near the soon-to-be-retired fields about Lin Biao and one said: "There are different views on him. Some people say he was good, some bad."
What do you think?
"It is not clear how he died," said another guy.
"In an air crash," I said. "England played a role in that." A puzzled pause. "The plane he was in was a Trident jet, British-made."
It took me about 45 minutes to walk through the town, which was bubbling as Chinese towns do in the early morning. Lots of breakfast stalls on the pavements selling noodles, dumplings or onion cakes. Suddenly a man appeared in front of me on a motorbike.
"I am a reporter with Luotian TV and I heard about you last night," he said breathlessly. "Can I do a report on you?"
He had a pretty good pro TV camera and I resumed my walk, looking around, taking photos as he filmed me from behind, then in front. Gripping television for sure. He came over and said: "Can I interview you now?" We were on a nondescript street in the middle of town, and I suggested we do it near the wide bridge which is the center of town. So with the wide river channel in the background, he turned on the camera.
R: I would like to know your goal for this trip.
GE: The purpose is to better understand the situation in China.
R: When did you come to China?
GE: Many years ago. My first visit to Mainland China was in late 1978. Around the time of the Third Plenum.
R: You have been working in China since then? What kind of business do you do in China?
GE: Sometimes I have been in China; other times, not. Yes, I have a small business in Shanghai.
R: Oh, you have a small business in Shanghai? Why did you decided to embark on this cross-China "Walk to Tibet" project?
GE: I read a book written by an Englishman. In 1909 he walked across China and the book title is Across China on Foot. But in fact, he didn't really walk across China. He walked from Chongqing, southwest through Sichuan and Yunnan to Burma.
R: It was 1909, so it was Edgar Snow?
GE: No, it was the end of the Qing Dynasty. Edgar Snow was an American, it was a different era and that's another story.
R: He wrote about China's communist revolution.
GE: He wrote about what the interpreters told him. He couldn't speak Chinese. That's the difference between him and me. He didn't know anything. Whatever the translator told him, that's what it was; whereas I can communicate with you by myself.
R: Now you are a zhong guo tong (China expert)?
GE: I am not a zhong guo tong.
GE: But I am walking from Shanghai to Tibet. I come out during the weekends or when I have free time and, each time, I continue from the place where I last stopped. So I really am walking from Shanghai to Tibet, just not every day.
R: Then during the trip you have returned to Shanghai?
GE: Yes, I am flying back to Shanghai tonight. I have to work tomorrow.
R: Oh. And then when you have time you will fly back and continue?
GE: Basically, each month I have six or seven days of walking. My goal is to reach Lhasa in August 2008; to crawl into Lhasa.
R: Do you have any interesting stories that you can share with us from your trip across China?
GE: I have many interesting stories. Being interviewed by you is a very interesting story!
R: You arrived in Luotian yesterday?
GE: I arrived in Luotian last night.
R: And now your plan is ??
GE: I returned to the last place that I stopped and now I am continuing. My main purpose on the trip is to speak to people, to communicate with people. I have talked to hundreds of people, thousands of people in Anhui, Zhejiang, Hubei. Ordinary farmers, children, everyone.
R: You arrived in Luotian yesterday. Today, you may leave Luotian. Do you have any comments?
GE: Luotian ? Luotian town ? The people I have met have been very, very kind. Many of them want to invite me back to their homes for tea, or a drink of water. That gives a very good impression. It's obvious that people here are very hard-working. Luotian is like other cities in inland China; its connections with the outside world are getting stronger, and people here know more and more about what is going on outside of Luotian. That, I feel, is a very good direction. Also, previously, perhaps not many Westerners have traveled to Luotian. But in the future, more will definitely come here.
R: What do you feel is the best thing about Luotian?
GE: Of course, it's the scenery. The fields are very beautiful. Green, it's green everywhere. It is a wonderful green. The air is very sweet, very nice. This is the difference between big cities and the countryside – the air quality. Of course Luotian has pollution as well but it is not as bad as, for example, Shanghai.
R: So, speaking to the entire Luotian audience, they see you as a stranger, they don't know you, right?
R: So you need to first introduce yourself and then talk about your journey. Okay?
R: Now, tell me your name.
GE: I can start? My name is Graham Earnshaw, Chinese name Yan Gewen. I was born in England, am 53 years old and live in Shanghai. I first moved to this part of the world in 1973, before the opening up of China. After the Third Plenum ended, I came into mainland China and was a reporter in Beijing. I have basically been in Greater China ever since. I have a small business in Shanghai. I can speak Chinese; I can read Chinese. I have a keen interest in China, its society and culture. That is why, about two years ago, I came up with the idea of walking from Shanghai to Tibet. As it happens, they are almost on a straight line, around 30 degrees north – Shanghai, the Three Gorges and Lhasa. So, when I have the time, I come out and walk. Every time I begin from the last place I stopped. My goal is not speed-related. It is not a matter of getting from point A to point B in a certain amount of time. My goal is to better understand each place. For example, Luotian. Every day, I have a chance to talk with local people, I say hello to everyone, and they say hello to me. Then we will talk, we communicate. Communicating and sharing is very, very important. My goal is to better understand your situation, Luotian's situation: What are you like? What are you thinking about? And you may be curious about me as well. What am I like? What am I thinking? What do I think about Luotian? I can tell you, Luotian is a very beautiful place. The air is very sweet. A very nice place. I feel that this place is definitely developing, and it is not as developed as Shanghai. But that is a positive thing, not a negative thing. Shanghai is not heaven, and here in Luotian, it is not so poor. In other parts of the world, it is the same. In England, for instance, there are people who are poorer than some people in Luotian. And, there are some people in China who are richer than I am. That's the way it is.