West of Shuangtu township, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,250km
It’s winter and it’s cold in the mountains, so this month I decided not to go walking. Instead I have been mulling when and where to end the walk, or whether to continue it in some other form.
I started walking from Shanghai westwards in 2004, and each time I go out on a walking expedition, I start from precisely the last place I stopped. This means I have walked every step of the way, non-contiguously, from the Bund in Shanghai to about 100 kilometers east of Wanzhou, a major town on the Yangtze River. As the phoenix flies, Wanzhou is around 1,300km west of Shanghai (in fact, there is a small possibility that I missed about 5 meters on a stretch of road just east of the city of Tongling in Anhui, but don’t tell anyone I said so).
My original stated plan was to walk all the way to Lhasa, but increasingly I feel … no. It is not the distance, although the fact that a straight line from Chengdu to Lhasa is 1,200km in length is daunting. Nor is it the rugged terrain. It would be exhilarating to walk across the Tibet plateau, the air crystal clear, the mountains magnificent.
But the purpose of the walk is to talk to people and explore the state of the China heartland. On the Tibetan plateau, there is almost no one to talk to, I do not speak Tibetan, and I am not really very interested in Tibetan culture. Plus, there are not many trees up there.
At the same time, I want to complete the original plan, which was Shanghai to Tibet. The question is, where in Tibet?
The border between what we shall call for the purposes of this article Tibet and the Han-dominant areas of China has moved several times through history, but even 100 years ago, there was a sense that China proper ended at the mountains to the west of Chengdu. The line between Tibet and Sichuan was redrawn in 1953 to include large areas inhabited by Tibetan farmers and nomads within the borders of Sichuan.
So from the look of the map, it seems to me that the town of Kangding, once the provincial capital of the defunct Chinese province of Xikang, could be described historically and/or culturally to be a part of some definition of Tibet. In which case, I will walk to Kangding, which is 666km from my current walk location as the crow flies, or a half of the distance I have walked from Shanghai. This means I am two-thirds of the way to Tibet – or to the place in which I will declare victory and end the walk from Shanghai to Tibet.
I have been thinking about this for quite a while. Several possibilities spring to mind, but they do not include the option of stopping walking through China. I enjoy sauntering along the open Chinese road, the fresh air and the random conversations with the farmers too much to stop after all these years.
One possibility is to chose a different province or municipality every month, and do a walk of around 40km more or less at random somewhere in the province. Heilongjiang this month, Hainan next month. There are 22 provinces in China, plus five so-called autonomous regions, and three municipalities. That means I could cover the country with a monthly visit to each part in about three years, providing myself with exercise and adventures plus raw materials to fill these pages each month in CHINA ECONOMIC REVIEW.
Another possibility would be to head back east to the coast, via another route, which is currently my preferred option. North or south of the Yangtze River? Definitely south. It is warmer and greener to the south. And the route to the north would take me through places like Shaanxi and Henan which are dry and getting more drought-ridden all the time. Not to mention more lawless.
So what if I turned left at Chengdu, and walked southeast across the Sichuan plateau and over the mountains to Guiyang, the capital of Guizhou province? I went to Guiyang once – it calls itself Little Shanghai because of its vibrant nightlife. Funnily enough, I have never heard anyone refer to Shanghai as Big Guiyang.
Guiyang is at 26 degrees north, about 5 degrees of latitude south of the route I have taken west across China. Heading east from there would take me through Guangxi, Hunan, Jiangxi and Fujian provinces back to the coast. Remote and mountainous regions with country roads and lots of paddy fields. Perfect for weekend strolls.
And when I hit the coast, I guess I could turn left again and walk up to Shanghai, and finish with afternoon tea on the Bund.