East of Badong town, Hubei province
Distance from Shanghai – 1,130 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,775 km
I was on the road to Badong, the most westerly town in Hubei province and one of the largest on the middle reaches of the Yangtze Gorges. It was a 40-kilometer walk from Shazhenxi town, basically one day up and one day back down through rugged but reasonably well populated mountains. The road took me up over 800 meters for long periods and offered some amazing views down into the valleys.
Half way up the mountain, I came upon a coal mine. The entrance was in the cleft of the mountain, about 20 m from the road, with a small track running from the mine entrance, across the road to a dump being worked by a woman. Below was a place for trucks to park and take on board the coal, and below that were plunging fields and mountains sides down to the Qing Gan River. Two miners emerged from the mine, each pushing a cart full of coal along the track to the dump point.
I walked towards the mine entrance, but the watchman waved me away. “Dangerous,” he said.
He took me to a small building nearby and we sat in the doorway and chatted. The mine is privately owned and has been worked for 10 years, said Mr Ma the watchman. The mineshaft goes horizontally into the mountain and the coal face is 800 m inside. The miners dig the coal out of the seam themselves, then push the carts to the dump. They get paid per cart filled.
The mine owner, who is a relative of Mr Ma’s, then sells the coal at the river for around RMB130 (US$17) per metric ton. He has to cover transport costs and taxes in addition to the miners’ wages. The coal is loaded into barges and taken down the river to Wuhan.
“Is it profitable?” I asked. “Not very, not any more.” He said the mine produces about 50 metric tons of coal per day, with revenues of RMB6,000 (US$780) per day.
Later in the day, I visited another coal mine, somewhat larger. But as I walked into the yard in front of the mine entrance, a miner came out carrying an injured comrade on his back, while a second man, black with coal dust, hobbled along supported by another. Safety in these pits has got to be a major issue – they have little to hold them up and a ceiling fall could happen at any moment.
“Accidents are rare now,” said one man at the mine entrance. “All the smaller pits have been closed down.” Maybe, but you wouldn’t get me in there.
A young boy with a backpack walked past me, full of energy, zigzagging back and forth across the road, picking up twigs, poking things and singing to himself. He started off reticent, but gradually fell into conversation with me. His name was Jiang and he was 12 years old, but had eyes that were much older. He was walking back home from school for the holidays. He said he did not have enough money to take a minivan.
He asked where I came from, and I said England. “Have you been to London?” he asked. Wow. I asked him if he had been to Yichang.
“Yes. I have been to Beijing too. My father was working there and took me to see it.”
“What did you think of Beijing?”
“Well, conditions are better there in many ways, but I prefer it here,” he replied thoughtfully. “The air is cleaner, the food is better.”
I asked him about his school. “Do you learn English?”
“Oh yes, we have been studying English for several years.”
“Can you speak?”
“No. The lessons are like reciting the scriptures.”
I liked this kid. “But the meaning you understand?”
“Some if it.”
A man on a motorbike stopped and asked where I was going, and I said Badong. “Let me give you a lift,” he said.
“No thanks, I am walking,” I replied, and he drove away. “What a nice man, offering me a ride,” I said to the kid.
“It’s his way of making money,” he pointed out.
“True. So, ‘Good morning’,” I said in English. “What does that mean?”
“It means good morning.”
“What is your name?” I continued. That beat him. Oh well. He stopped again and pointed to a green lizard by the side of the road. The lizard posed for a photo then ran off.
He told me that in Badong there was a temple I should visit.
“Are you a Buddhist?” I asked.
“No. But the Buddha’s face is good to look at.”
We were walking up a dusty winding road, and he stopped and pointed to a path off the road. “This is a shortcut,” he said. So I followed him up a dirt embankment, through a field, and emerged five minutes later back on the road. I asked him what he wanted to do when he grew up.
“I want to be like you, going where I want to go, seeing interesting things.”
“What about earning money?”
“Money. You need money to go traveling.”
“I’ll work as I go along,” he replied. Like so many itinerant workers from the mountains now on the coast.
“Okay,” I said.
“Have you ever seen cherry blossom?” he asked. “I saw a photo of cherry blossom in Japan in school. It was very beautiful.”
“Cherry blossom? Yes, I’ve seen it.”
“And the fruit tastes good too.”
“We are harvesting melons now. White inside. Really sweet.”
He said Badong was filthy. “Really bad pollution. The water is very dirty.” No further need to coax him to talk, he was now chatting at full throttle.
“I want to be an archaeologist when I grow up,” he suddenly said, returning to the previous topic.
“An archaeologist? Sure, but you have to study hard first.”
I took another photo of a small roadside post marked “National Defense Optical Fiber”, which was thoughtful of them. “What do you read?” I asked.
“I would like to read magazines, but they won’t let us,” he said. “They say they are not healthy.”
“How about books?”
“Oh yes. A lot of books. I have read all the kung fu novels. I have to buy the books. We have three meals a day at school, but sometimes I just have two meals and save the money to buy books.”
The boy eventually stopped talking and asking questions and scuffed his way off to his home in the hills. I hope to meet him again one day.