I hate the cold. Global warming has a lot to be said for it. Here it was, late October, and the days in central China were warm verging on hot. Truly a pleasure – offsetting, to some extent, the possible loss of the polar icecaps.
The fields were still green, because the cold of winter had not come to brown them yet. But the land had already finished its work for the year. Even the late rice had been harvested and just about every field was lying fallow, mulling and murmuring as it prepared for hibernation and the rebirth to follow.
I noticed quite a number of black caterpillars crawling around, only a couple of inches in length but fast on their suckers. I spied one striking off bravely across the asphalt road, heading from one slab of fields to another. I stood and watched as it wiggled quickly towards the center line.
Two bicycles passed, missing the caterpillar by inches, and I breathed more easily. Then a bus came past and squashed it flat. How sad.
I walked on and soon came upon another caterpillar starting out on the same death-defying trek across the road. I stood quietly and watched, hoping that it would make it. I wanted it to realize its dream. Good grief. Talk about transference.
The caterpillar gamely wiggled along and was at about half way across the near lane when a truck roared past, missing the caterpillar by inches, but the draught of its passing blew it along the road a couple of meters. It righted itself and resumed its trek in exactly the same direction, confirming for me that it was sentient, brave and determined to cross the road.
But why did the caterpillar cross the road? Surely not just to get to the other side? Whatever the motivation, caterpillar number two made the half way mark just as a mini-bus slightly out of its lane squelched it into non-existence.
This was getting depressing.
Another caterpillar. It made it close to half way and then had its back half chopped off by a passing wheel. Amazingly, the front half kept going, just like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator. But this plucky semi-caterpillar was consigned to oblivion just over the median strip by a bus coming in the other direction.
I continued along the road and watched as several other kamikaze caterpillars made a break for it across the tarmac. All killed. I wasn't sure how this could be. A car has only two tire tracks, neither very wide. How come all the caterpillars were getting blown away in this Hubei version of Russian roulette? Surely the odds should be better. There weren't all that many vehicles on this stretch of road.
I stopped with a heavy heart and kept my usual death watch as another caterpillar started out northwards across the road (I almost always walk on the south side of the road, facing oncoming traffic). It was blown about by a passing car, but made it safely across the south lane and started its way across the north lane.
A three-wheeler truck came along. Suddenly the risk factor was up 50% as there were three tire tracks threatening the caterpillar's existence. But it passed safely and – hooray! – the caterpillar made it safely to the other side.
My faith in the principle of "anything is possible if you try hard enough to find a way" was vindicated.
I took a victory photo of the plucky caterpillar before it crawled off into the fields on the north side of the road. And was then amazed to see it turn just before the edge of the asphalt and start to wend its way back across the road again.
I gave up. If the damn thing was crossing the road just to play chicken with the passing traffic, then I was not going to stand around rooting for it any longer. I left the thing to its fate.
I was walking past a couple of men talking when I noticed that one of them, wearing a colorful but filthy Hawaiian-type shirt, was holding a book. Books are almost unknown in rural China. I cannot remember seeing any other individual, even a child, holding a book anywhere on my walk across China.
The man looked up and greeted me, so I stopped and we talked and then we walked together for several kilometers. I learned his story. Or part of it.
He was born in Wuhan in 1941, his father a KMT official and his mother a doctor educated in a Christian missionary school. He was the eldest of three boys and his father made the fateful decision not to go to Taiwan when the Communists took the mainland in 1949. He was executed.
In the late 1950s, he was moved to the countryside, to a village close to where I was now walking. He had spent more than 40 years living here.
He is now 67 years old. He has never married so he has no children. He lives alone. His two younger brothers live in Wuhan, and he has little contact with them. He was not born there and has no relations amongst them. The people in the village have never accepted him as one of their own, always seen him as an outsider. He has a degree of education, which inevitably sets him apart from the farmers.
He lives on a pension from the state of RMB138 (US$17.5) per month, and occasional gigs washing dishes and wiping tables in a local restaurant.
"At my age, I have no bargaining power in terms of the fee," he said. His very way of talking was a world away from that of the farmers.
He was simply overwhelmed at meeting me. "I have waited for decades for this," he said.
Apart from his colorful but dirty shirt, his trousers were equally filthy, and his fingernails were dirt-filled. He had no more than half of his full quota of teeth. His body was thin, his hair crew cut and grayed; his eyes were huge and watery and they constantly glanced over at me. His breathing was somewhat asthmatic, but he talked non-stop for at least an hour as we walked along.
I asked him to show me the book he was holding. It was called Health and Long Life. The cover was gone and the pages were scruffy, the book not setting a good example. Why are you reading this book, I asked.
"I have always been very healthy, until these past two months, and I want to learn more about living healthily," he replied. "I don't smoke or drink or gamble, I avoid all those bad habits."
I asked about his living situation, and he said he had just bought a house. For the first time in his life, he had a place to call home. It cost him RMB5,000 (US$635).
"You are welcome to visit. It would be my honor. Oh, I am getting quite emotional. It is like being visited by a god," he said.
"I never imagined that I would be able to meet an English person. I have admired England and English culture all my life. So many great men. Newton, Watt, Shakespeare, Darwin. I read the novel Robinson Crusoe when I was young. I read it in Chinese of course. We were not allowed to learn or to speak English, so all I can is 'hello'. Russian was the only acceptable foreign language in those days. But anyway, I read Robinson Crusoe. I would be delighted to be your Man Friday."
His use of language, his choice of words, was that of an educated man. It was a miracle that he had managed to preserve that sense of an educated outlook throughout the lonely decades in this isolated village. He was surely one of the few people in this stretch of Hubei province who had ever heard of Robinson Crusoe.
"I have had such a hard life, but I should not complain," he said. "If my father had decided to go to Taiwan, who knows where I would have ended up. But he decided to stay and the Communists killed him. I have struggled for so many years, because of my complicated background, and because I once said at a meeting that "nongmin shenghuo ku" – the peasant's life is hard."
"Why did you never marry? Because of your complicated background?"
"Exactly! No family would accept me. As a result, I have no relatives and no one to look after me. No descendants. To have no descendants is truly a terrible fate. But I have kept myself active. I read a lot and I sing. I have a good voice for singing. But the songs I sing are foreign songs."
He hummed a couple of melodies that I recognized as classical favorites .
"But Marx talked of the proletariat (in Chinese: the class without assets). I am truly a member of the proletariat. I don't even have a TV set," he continued.
"I have a very old radio, and when the reception is good, I can listen to the BBC and VOA. I heard about a radio that can be hand cranked, so that it doesn't need electricity. That would be such a good thing. I wanted to write to the United States to ask about it, but if the letter was discovered, it could cause me a lot of trouble, so I didn't."
It probably wouldn't be a problem today, but in the 1960s and 1970s such a letter could have landed Mr Zhou in jail. His caution was understandable.
He returned to his theme of a life wasted. "I have been struggled and criticized; my life has been ruined by the Communist Party. I have nothing and I have no hope. Or rather, I had no hope until I met you. Ah, the chance of it all! If I had not decided to go for a walk, if I had not been standing there by the road, I would never have met you! This is the most important thing that has happened to me in my life! It is truly a great honor to meet you. May I write to you?"
Of course. It was embarrassing and overwhelming for me too, to be lionized by this intelligent old man. But it was also a great pleasure to provide him with a link through to the world he had dreamed of for so long.
During this long conversation, he asked me almost no questions about myself, but discussed his own situation, volunteered information and views, and answered all my questions fluidly. It was as if I had opened a floodgate in his brain.
"Finally, someone to talk to!"
As we walked, I occasionally stopped to watch a caterpillar fail to cross the road alive.
"Are you a biologist?" he asked.
I shook my head. "No, I just hope that at least one of them can make it to the other side. It seems to be a metaphor for life."
He stared at me for a moment.
"You are such a romantic," he said.