Somewhere around the little crossroads town of Wuli in the western reaches of the Hubei plain, the land wakes up, and hills start appearing. Or not quite hills, more undulations in the landscape. But it is a welcome change, like a flat ECG display suddenly displaying a blip of some sort, no matter how minor.
Walking from Shanghai, I have developed a feeling that flat land lacks life force; it is in the hills and mountains that the earth displays its power.
The plains are so totally controlled by humankind. Whatever forest cover was once here disappeared centuries ago, and every part of the landscape is being used, has been chained and whipped into the service of human beings.
Undulations make for more interesting walking because they present vistas from the tops of rises, and because, for some strange reason, poverty seems to tend away from flat land.
For a couple of hundred kilometers across the Hubei plain, I have seen few old farmhouses, built of mud bricks and quaint (cold and drafty) in their ramshackleness. Then, as soon as the undulations appeared, there they were again. Similar in style to the old houses in the Dabieshan mountains, but all mud brown in color, not whitewashed as is often the Anhui custom.
In the tracts between Shayang city and Dongyang, going through little towns and villages with names like Grass Yard, Zeng (family) Compound and Two Rivers, the land is almost all rice paddy. But this being winter, the paddy fields are doubling as vegetable plots.
There were few people about on the quiet lane that stretches for 60-70km almost straight west from Shayang.
The two main highways to Dangyang go far north and south, leaving the middle road peaceful. There were few of the little minibuses, which meant that the few people on the roads were often walking quite long distances to get home from the nearest town.
I fell into conversation with a farmer in his mid-70s named Qian. He has six children, three sons working in Beijing and Wuhan, and three daughters who all married locally. He has 10 grandchildren. These numbers are unthinkable in the China of today.
He has never traveled anywhere beyond the local district, not even to Wuhan. But straight after Chinese New Year in mid-February, he said he would go to Beijing to see his son. I gave him my name card and told him to call me when he got there.
I asked him about the history of the region, and if the Japanese army had occupied the area during the Second World War.
"Yes! I was only this high at the time." He gestured with his hand. "But I remember them well. They were so cruel. They would come and burn any house they came to."
He pointed to a house nearby to show how random it was.
"They would rape any females they found. It was terrible. If it had not been for the support and assistance of the British and the Americans, we would not have been able to beat them."
So how far up the Yangtze River valley did the Japanese get? I have tried to research it, and so far I have found that the they occupied Yichang, but Chongqing beyond the mountain barrier remained in Chinese hands. It was kept alive partly by the Flying Tigers, bringing in supplies from Burma.
The river town of Wanxian was bombed by Japanese planes but was also never taken. So on the day of the Hiroshima bombing in August 1945, the frontline was somewhere between Yichang and Wanxian. I plan to find out where in the coming months.
The undulations in the landscape were a reminder that the plain was ending and that the mountain step from central China up onto the Sichuan plateau was ahead of me.
My plan is to reach Lhasa in August of 2008, which scarily is now "next year", as opposed to a date in the unfixed future. I will crawl into the city in the manner of the Buddhist pilgrims – just the last kilometer – and end my journey at the Jokhang Monastery in the heart of old Lhasa, center of the Buddhist world. Then I will fly to Beijing to attend the opening ceremony of the Olympics.
To do this, I need to cover around 20 degrees of longitude in 20 months – one degree of longitude per month.
The section from Chengdu to Lhasa, I plan to do pretty much in one go. But the road from Yichang to Chengdu is not straight. It wanders around and through mountain ranges, and so maintaining the pace I had set across Hubei will not be easy.
My body appears to be willing to give it a try. I have a problem with my right leg, but I can handle more than 15km a day which, if the road is relatively westerly, is easily 10 minutes of longitude (60 minutes equals one degree). The more I walk, the easier it gets.