He did his walk in 1909, but he didn't really walk across China at all. He took boats up the Yangtze to Chungking, and then walked southwest from there through Sichuan and Yunnan to the Burmese border, which he reached in nine months. His book is a record of magnificent scenery and hotel squalor, and I thought I can do better than that.
Over another flask of sake, I mapped out the plan. I would walk due west from Shanghai towards Lhasa, keeping as closely as possible to the 31st parallel. It would have to be non-contiguous, because I have other things to do, but the rule is that I always start from the last place I stopped, and literally walk every step of the way.
Months later, I am now close to 200km west of Shanghai, in the western reaches of Zhejiang province with the hills of Anhui visible in the distance. Each month from now on, I plan to share some of the impressions and images that I collect as I pace out a slice of this country on these largely weekend strolls.
For months, my walks have been over completely flat land, the alluvial plain of the Yangtze River, crisscrossed by canals. Then suddenly, just before Huzhou (southwest of Taihu Lake), a hill appeared, a diminutive mammary of a protrusion. After Huzhou came the first real hills west of the Pacific Ocean, the first whisper of the Himalayas. But it was nothing like arduous to walk over them, and then they were behind me, and I was back in flat canal territory, with more serious hills visible ahead through the humid haze.
This is an ancient land, manipulated and rearranged by humankind over thousands of years, and the power of the past can be sensed in many small ways – a wooden sampan on a canal, the sweep of an eave on a farmhouse. But this world is now at the cusp of a fundamental change. Intermixed with the vestiges of the past are the signposts to the future – warning notices of underground optical fiber cables are ubiquitous, China Mobile GSM relay towers cover the territory; there seem to be Petrochina gas stations on every corner, and new highways are everywhere under construction.
I am walking through a dynamic landscape. Not only is every scene new, but every scene I have passed has already changed since I saw it. China is rushing forwards, not only along Chang'an Avenue and Huaihai Lu, but also along the pathways through the paddy fields of western Zhejiang.