Brilliant sunshine, blue skies, brown land, trees stark and bare against the low horizon. The western stretches of the Hubei plain were a pleasure to walk through on this day. The air numbed my hands cold, but I set a brisk pace which kept me warm.
Cotton and oranges. That is what cash agriculture is mostly about in the wide, flat country east of Shayang, the largest town in the region. Vast cotton fields stretching out on either side of the road undivided into small plots – economies of scale alien to the small paddy fields, each assigned to a family, that had characterized almost all the country I had walked through from Shanghai.
In the midst of the early winter scene, off the road on a track through the fields, I saw a large group of people which based on previous experience must have been a funeral procession.
The road I was on had a wide path beside it, the purpose of which was unclear. Nobody was walking along it. The farmers with their water buffalo were walking like me on the side of the road.
Just outside a gas station on a corner of the highway, I came upon an accident. There was a large blue truck with its windscreen smashed, and a crowd of people gathered around the front, with a police car just arriving.
A little closer, I saw a three-wheeler farm vehicle tangled up under the front of the truck, and a man dead beside it. Meanwhile, another truck had slammed into the side of the blue truck and another man, also dead, was lying under its wheels. Who knows how it happened, but many of the truck drivers on these little roads are hardly paying attention much of the time. Yet they pass each other around corners and exits of gas stations at ridiculous speeds.
The combination of these guys and the farmers leading their lives in the same space but at a totally different pace is a recipe for disaster. And here it was, the disaster made real.
I did not linger, and I took no photos. I have seen over a dozen dead bodies on roads across China. Blood on the highway is altogether too final and the situation treated by all present with too much of a collective shrug, even taking into account the cultural differences. But how should one react in these situations? I really don't know.
I was about 20 or 30 kilometers east of Shayang, which sits on the banks of the Han River as it courses from north to south over the plain before heading east for the Yangtze River, joining up with it at Wuhan. I passed through a small town called Wusan – Five-Three Farm, and asked several people the meaning of this rather terse and categorized name. No one knew. May 3? I suggested. It rang no bells.
The word farm in Chinese (nong-chang) suggests something large-scale and separate from family agriculture. The flat country and cotton definitely made farms a sensible way to use the land.
As I walked along the wide road and city-like sidewalk incongruously built leading into Five-Three Farm, two boys came towards me and, as always, I said hello. One of the boys said something in reply which I didn't catch. He said it again, and I assumed I had misheard due to the local accent, but he said it again and the words were unmistakable.
"Give me some money."
I looked at him in shock. He was only 11 or 12, was dressed warmly in a good jacket and was playing with several coins in his right hand.
"Give you some money? You have got to be joking!" I replied indignantly.
In all the hundreds of kilometers I had walked across China to this point, in all the hundreds of conversations I had had with kids, some of them as poor as it is possible to get, I had never had a child ask me for money. Or an adult, come to that, except for one deaf-mute I had met in south-central Anhui.
"Do you know what you are saying?" I asked him. "Are you a beggar?"
He grinned slyly and stepped back a couple of paces. "You want to be a beggar?" I asked. He jumped on his friend's bike, a respectable and not cheap kid's model, and cycled off.
I walked on, met some other children who were quite normal, which restored my faith in Five-Three Farm somewhat, but I still felt uneasy with the people and the feeling of the town.
Then a conversation with a man on the road clarified the situation.
"This is where all the people sentenced to Reform Through Labor (laodong gaizao) are sent from all over Hubei," he said. "Shayang is famous for it."
So that was it. I was walking through prison farms. That crowd of people I saw in the fields must have been prisoners. And the boy wanting money – that also made more sense now.
Further on, even closer to Shayang, I saw a gang of men, maybe 60 of them, walking along the path beside the road. One at the front was holding a small red flag, and then I noticed a man in uniform following up at the rear. A chain gang! Although there appeared to be no chains, and the prison officer behind the column was not holding a shotgun.
This was not a complete Chinese rerun of that classic American prison farm movie Cool Hand Luke, set in cotton country not dissimilar from western Hubei, and starring Paul Newman. The prison officers – I saw another following 50 meters further behind the gang – appeared smart in their uniforms and bored by their jobs.
If this whole area was prison farms, as appeared to be the case, then escape would be pretty difficult, even though I was on a public highway. No bus driver on Provincial Highway 107 would pick up anyone who looked like they were on the run. But on the other hand, security seemed extremely lax.
I stopped to take some photographs of the prison gang, and they saw that I was a foreigner. "Hello!" several of them shouted, and I shouted "Hello!" back, and waved and smiled at them. I half expected the prison guards to object to this, but they made no move and no comment, just continued to trudge along after their charges, hunched up in their fur-lined black jackets.