West of Dangyang, Hubei province
Distance from Shanghai – 980 km
From Lhasa – 1,905 km
The country lane winding through rolling hills deteriorated into a rutted muddy mess, which lasted for several kilometers. It appeared to be on the border between Shayang and Dangyang counties, maybe neither government could be bothered to fix it up. It was a very quiet part of the country, and there were almost no houses, just small three-wheeler farm vehicles overloaded with straw chugging by every so often.
I wandered along the road in almost silence, very rare in China. Peaceful sounds of relaxed domesticity emerged from the few houses I passed: the tinkling of rice bowls, gentle talking, laughter. No need to shout or strain to hear in the rich quiet of the country.
I passed a courtyard in which three girls were playing, and said hello.
"It's a foreigner!" one of the girls exclaimed.
"You're Chinese!" I replied in mock surprise.
I kept walking, and after a few minutes or so, the girls ran up behind me, and one of the three said in English: "What is your name?"
Her surname was Xiao and she said she was 12 years old but she looked more like 16 and was precocious enough to be in her late teens. The other two girls, who she introduced as her elder sisters, said nothing, just stared wide-eyed. I gave them all name cards, and walked with them for a while. Then they raced off home and appeared again five minutes later, running hard.
"I have a present for you!" Ms Xiao said breathlessly, and handed me a bag of melon seeds.
It was the first of several gifts I received in this region. As soon as I get into hilly country, the reception becomes warmer and the people more hospitable than on the plains. I wonder why.
Next to strike up a conversation was a man on a bicycle. Mr Zhang, aged 50, is a teacher of Chinese literature at the local high school, as well as being a part-time life insurance salesman. He invited me to visit the school, which was a couple of kilometers up ahead.
He cycled on ahead, and I walked through a pine forest before emerging out onto highway 107, coming up from the south and heading towards Dangyang city. This was the road I had taken through the prison farms of Shayang, and the 60km shortcut was over.
The road tended generally northwest through the town of Harong, noted for garlic and the trilling way in which the people speak, which sounds a bit like Russian. This is also the region in which most of the action of the classical Chinese book The Romance of the Three Kingdoms takes place. The book, written in the 16th century, covers the wars of 220-280 that followed the collapse of the Han Empire, and is considered to be about 80% historically accurate.
The mud on my boots was the same as that on the boots of the soldiers and peasants of that era, 1,700 years ago, but there was no sign of the history.
I reached the school and teacher Zhang was there to greet me, but the school itself was virtually deserted and the headmaster was not answering his mobile phone. I asked if we could visit the library, but it was locked.
I asked how many students there were. Teacher Zhang said that at its height the school had 1,400 students, but this year there is only 700. Why? The birth control policies and the shift of people to the coastal regions. Central China's rural areas are, if anything, seeing negative population growth these days.
I asked if there would be any interest in the school taking books from the China Reading Project.
"Fine for me, but I think the headmaster would not do it."
"So could we give books just to your class?" I asked.
He seemed reluctant. I moved on.
A man on a motorbike did a double-take as he passed me, then stopped and came back to check me out. His name was Chen Xing, and he said he did some small business trading construction materials.
He pushed his bike along beside me for a while and we talked.
"This is Guan Gong's home," he said. Guan was one of the generals of the Three Kingdoms period.
"There is a brand of baijiu made near here that has his name, but the company forgot to register the name, so a baijiu manufacturer in Hunan registered it and stole the market away from them," he said. It was clearly something that really hurt his pride. But, hey, that's the way business works in China, and it is interesting to see a Chinese company getting hit by piratical IPR practices.
I asked him about life in the Harong area, and he said that Chinese culture, had been thoroughly trashed in the past few decades and that whatever there had been of value before was gone. All that was left was baijiu and gambling.
He offered me a lift to the next town, and then invited me to his home, but I declined both saying it was kind of him to offer.
"All Chinese people are kind," he said.
He got tired of pushing his motorbike, and it was clear I was not going to go home with him, so we said goodbye. But afterwards he called me several times, and invited me to meet his grandfather, a man in his eighties who had been a Kuomintang military officer and had attended peace talks between the KMT and the Communist Party rebels in the late 1940s. Finally, when he had grasped that I intended to keep walking, he asked if he could join me on the walk the next day.
Chen Xing joined met me in the town of Dangyang, as I was sitting outside a little restaurant, drinking hot water provided for free by the ladies who worked there. He was dressed smartly today in a suit and he invited be to go to a karaoke joint called Beijing Spring.
"Let's drink some hot water here with the ladies," I said.
He gave me a jade pendant carved as a dragon in recognition of my birth sign, and also a painting he had made just for me, inscribed with my name. It was, as he admitted upfront, as good as a child could do. But as I told him, it was valuable because he had put the time into painting it for me.
"All Chinese people are kind," he said again.
"Even reform through labor convicts?" I asked, and the ladies collapsed in gales of laughter.
Chen handled it well. He was entertaining a foreign guest who insisted on drinking hot water from a plastic cup sitting on a plastic stool in the cold in front of a hole in the wall restaurant while including the restaurant ladies in the conversation. But I was puzzled. He was not the standard peasant for sure, and he was talking about how he planned to buy a car.
We walked through the slush for a few hours, and I finally got a clearer view of this small trader in construction materials. He did that, but he did other things as well, including running a small casino in a village near Dangyang.
"Gambling," he said. "It is ripping this society apart. Everyone is doing it, and the gamblers who lose are having to sell their houses to pay their debts, while the guys who run the gambling are driving around in luxury cars."
"What is the main gambling method?" I asked.
That was interesting. Mark Six is a Hong Kong charity lottery, where six numbered balls are chosen on a daily basis. Guess the number sequence, you get a prize.
I remember back in the 1990s, when working for Reuters, we were amazed to find that the top accessed page on the Reuters system in Taiwan was the page showing the Hong Kong Mark Six results. It was being used by gambling syndicates in Taiwan. And now, 15 years later, I found the same deal in place in darkest Hubei. Incredible.
"Are you doing Mark Six?" I asked.
"No, that is controlled by the big syndicates," he said. "I just do casino evenings."
And as I walked, I spotted a slogan painted on a wall. There is a theory that slogans painted on walls in China accurately reflect reality in a contrarian way. And here was the proof:
"Sternly attack underground Mark Six".