116o 24' 58" E
30o 52' 36" N
Distance from Shanghai – 495 km
Distance to Lhasa – 2,335 km
I was walking through a clear morning in the Dabie Mountains, enjoying the sounds and smells and sights and looking for a place to sit where I could write my Travels notes. The birds were calling, the air was sweet after all the rain the day before, the views down into the valleys filled with terraced fields and toy farmhouses were spectacular. The bamboo and pine mix of vegetation that enraptured generations of classical Chinese poets and painters captured my heart as well.
I sat down on a road marker in the midst of this nature wonderland and started to write. But this is China and solitude means no more than a couple of minutes.
Along the road came a man who, when he saw me, mooed in the way I have learned mutes do. He was filthy, his eyes were askew, his brain was damaged, but he recognized me as someone different, an outsider, and he was amazed and excited. But he could say nothing, and there was nothing I could say to him in any language that he could understand. I smiled at him, and tried to find a way to wordlessly express something positive. He mooed again, did a sort of a jig in excitement and then tore himself away from the engagement and walked on, mooing occasionally.
I resumed my writing, and a few minutes later I had a couple of farm laborers inspecting my camera and asking where I came from. A few more people appeared and then the mute came back. It was becoming a town hall meeting. I stood up and we all walked off along the road, people peeling off gradually into the fields. Finally, it was just me and the mute.
Past a farmhouse with noisy chickens outside presumably in the process of laying the freest of free range eggs. Then the mute started mooing urgently and pointing to a path off the road. I shook my head to indicate I was staying on the road, and he headed off down the path by himself. I stood and thought about it for a minute. The road was winding and twisting, and maybe he meant this path was a shortcut down to the road at a lower level. I decided to trust him. I left the road and headed down the little path.
It was the right call. I found myself at the top of a peaceful and deserted valley, bordered by lush forest cover with every inch in between organized into neat paddy fields. Ploughed and waiting, this being only mid-April. There was a babbling brook, as it would have been called in the Cotswolds, and a small path beside it leading downwards.
The mute was now far below, but he turned and saw me in the distance and mooed. Presumably acknowledging that I was not as stupid as I had appeared when at first rejecting his guidance.
Akilometer or so down the valley, I came back to the original road. A little further along, I was standing entranced by a perfect wooded and terraced hill amidst the mass of paddy fields when several boys came up to me.
They were all surnamed Chu, and lived in a collection of houses about 200 meters up the gentle slope, looking out across the fields towards my favorite hill. The people working in the fields were their parents and relatives. The boys said: "Good morning." I said: what else can you say in English? They said "How do you do?" and "Thank you." A boy sitting on a bike answered every question with the word "Yes". One of the men in the fields shouted to the boys, asking who I was. "He's English!" they shouted back. I turned and shouted as well. "Your sons are very smart! Congratulations!" One of the men laughed and shouted back: "Okay!"
I said goodbye and walked on, but another 10 minutes and they all came tearing after me again. They wanted me to take a photo with them and for us to exchange names. They invited me to their home for a meal. I said I was delighted and honored, but I would continue to walk (I could easily have three or four meals a day for free from these hospitable people in one of China's poorest regions).
They had a quick group discussion then said: "Well, can we walk with you?" I said sure.
We talked about all kinds of things. I asked about their little village.
"Everyone is surnamed Chu," said Chu Jun (Army Chu), aged 14. "People have sons and the sons marry and the families divide up, but we all stay together."
What about the daughters?
"They usually get married and move away, but they sometimes come back and visit their parents."
Two other boys joined us from the fields. Chu Kui, aged 14 but looking more like 8, and Liu Da, aged maybe 6, who was too shy to talk but bounced around me the whole time listening to the conversation while playing Tetris on a small handheld machine. "He's introverted," said Chu Jun.
They asked me lots of questions too. Are there fields in England? What do English people do with the bodies of dead people? What religion are you? I said I had no religion.
"But what religion do other people in England have?"
"Many people in England are Christian," I said. "How about you?"
"I guess we are Buddhists," said Chu Jun.
"I like Buddhism," I said. "It is peaceful. No one is going to use Buddhism to start a war."
Chu Jun pointed to diminutive Chu Kui. "His father is a Taoist priest."
"Taoism! I like that as well," I said. I recited the first three words of the Taoist canon, the Daodejing: "Dao ke dao (the way that can be followed ?)."
Chen Jun completed the phrase. "Feichang dao (? is not the true way)."
"Ming ke ming," I continued (the name that can be named ?).
"Feichang ming (? is not the true name)," Chen Jun completed the couplet.
"What's the next line?" I said. "I forgot."
"I can't remember it either," he said, and we both smiled.
We were walking down a hill, and on the slope ahead of us on the right, as if placed there by the heavens with perfect timing, was a small Buddhist shrine. It was small and simple, with walls painted white and a Chinese tiled roof. Over the door were four characters: "Whatever you ask for, there will be a response" (you qiu bi ying).
"There used to be vicious dog guarding it, so you couldn't go in, but the dog has gone," said Chu Jun.
We walked up the steep steps and went inside. There were two circular straw mats on the floor in front of a shelf on which were placed three statues of the Buddha in different incarnations, with an incense burner in front of them.
"Do you want to pay your respects to Buddha?" Chu Jun asked me.
I said yes. He pulled a couple of sticks of incense from a box by the burner, lit them, then handed one to me. We knelt down together. "Now make a request," he said to me as Liu Da continued battling the Tetris blocks beside us. I made one, then Chu Jun took my incense stick from me and stuck both sticks into the incense ash in the burner. We went back outside into the sunlight, with the wide valley laid out below. I felt good.