Walking through Anhui province is far more satisfying than through the more developed province of Zhejiang for many reasons, among them the fact that you tend to bump into more interesting people. Anhui has the reputation of being one of China's poorest provinces, and it is clearly not as prosperous as the coastal regions. But there are many factors against which to balance that fact. The air is cleaner. Life is simpler. The landscape and the people somehow seem to have more depth and character.
The economy of this part of China consists of a balance of rice and tea that has existed for who knows how many centuries. I cross a stream, walk through paddy fields, then up into the gently rolling hills which something more than a whisper of the Himalayas but still not much more than a murmur. They are widely planted with tea, mostly green tea related to the Dragon's Well tea famous in Hangzhou to the south. And then, as I head back down the slopes towards another watercourse, the suburban hedges are once again intermingled with rice paddy. It is a luxury for the eyes to gaze these shifting tea and rice vistas.
It is the end of the year, the late rice harvest is now in, and the rice fields are looking ravaged and despondent. The nippy combine harvesters which have been buzzing around for weeks have all disappeared, no doubt off south to keep ahead of winter. But tea bushes are the same dark green color, same manicured shapes all year round. They feel mature, the vegetation equivalent of sedate classical music, compared to the rock and roll, live fast die young approach of the rice.
I am now past the city of Xuancheng, largest city of southeastern Anhui and a noisy, dirty place that definitely looks its best at night. I am walking along National Highway 318 which runs almost due west the way from Shanghai to the town of Nanling, about 30km west of my current location. The highway then curves south towards the river city of Anqing, but I will be continuing on westward, along a smaller road, into what appear from satellite photographs to be more significant mountains which define the Yangtze River valley beyond. I will cross the river at Tongling. After that, it is not clear what happens. The maps give little information, but my plan is to stick as close as possible to the 31st parallel, passing to the north of Wuhan, while staying on roads that are accessible to motor vehicles. The quieter, the more remote the roads are, the better, as long as they lead forever west.
There is nothing physically arduous about this project. It is at its heart nothing more than a series of country strolls. And the insignificance of the project was brought home to me forcefully when I came upon two Buddhist nuns walking in the opposite direction.
The two ladies have been walking for two months, and plan to visit all five of the sacred "mountains" of China, starting with Putuoshan, the island in the East China Sea, southeast of Shanghai where the Madonna of Chinese Buddhism, Guanyin, is said to have first appeared.
They are pulling small covered carts in which they sleep and meditate, and they walk three steps, prostrate themselves on the ground while repeating the Buddhist chant Amitofo, then stand up, walk three more steps, prostrate themselves again. These are very fit human beings, their heads are shaved and their minds cleansed of just about all the cares and worries that assail the average human being.
The leader of the two nuns was kind enough to let me take photographs and to ask some questions, but her patience was limited because she was focused on her devotion to the Lord Buddha and the process of inching forward towards her goal, i.e. Nirvana.
The head nun said she expected the entire pilgrimage to take around five years, that they survive on alms given to them by people they meet along the way. I spoke to her for only a few minutes, but I know she is as strong a human being, in both mind and body, as anyone I have ever met. She asked me only one question – are there Buddhists where I come from? I said yes. She nodded happily. Then the encounter was over.
On the road that same day, I met a peasant woman in her mid-30s, whose questions were all about religion as well. She wanted to know about Christianity and was disappointed that I was not a Christian.
"Are you a Christian." I asked. "No."
"What is the reason for your interest in it, then?"
"Well, I am trying to understand life," she replied.
An interesting comment from such a person. I wouldn't want to suggest that everyone in Anhui is a philosopher, but from the brief experience I have had, it would seem there is more deep thinking going on here than in the money-mad coastal provinces.
Anhui people also seem to be more outgoing, more interested in reaching out to me, inviting me to sip some tea, visit their homes, relate in some way.
They all seem to know at least one English word – Hello! They love to use it as I walk by, shouted and extended. It is the Anhui Hello-luyah chorus.