Wuyiqiao, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,330 km
Occasionally, there is a stretch of country on my walk across China that makes me say: this is the most beautiful and spectacular scene I have seen. The region to the west of Wanzhou on the eastern slopes of the Sichuan basin, through which I recently passed, is one of those. I was glad because it meant my hero, the bold traveler of the late 19th century Isabella Bird, had seen the same vistas.
I am following the path of Ms Bird, who traveled across Sichuan in 1898, although she was carried in a sedan chair and I walk. Last month, I left her bedding down for the night in a squalid inn in the village of Sanzhengpu. The following morning, she and her retinue started out early, under the direction of a local man named Bedien.
"(Bedien) was active and attentive, was never without leave out of hearing of my whistle, was always at hand to help me over slippery and difficult places, showed great pluck, never grumbled, arranged and packed up my things, interpreted carefully, improved daily in English, always contrived to get hot water and food for me, and on the whole made a tolerable travelling servant," she said.
The road followed the river southwest to the town of Fenshui, in between two of the mountain fingers that spread out over the Sichuan plain like the hand of Buddha. At Fenshui, the roads of past, present and future separate. The original stepped path that was for centuries the main highway between Wanzhou and the Sichuan capital of Chengdu crossed the finger at Fenshui, while the highway builders of the 1950s decided to route Highway 318 further west along the valley and across the finger at a lower point. The new freeway, which has liberated Highway 318 from much of the heavy traffic, follows closer to the original path.
But the old path was also turned into a road capable of taking vehicles in the 1950s. I know that because a 77-year-old farmer named Hou told me so as he was on his way to gather firewood – wearing very cool, in both senses, homemade straw sandals.
It was one of the quietest and most memorably scenic pieces of road I have ever had the pleasure to walk along, through immaculately cultivated farmland interspersed with spinneys of pine and bamboo.
The fields were planted with rice, in mid-September mostly already harvested, and also the first tobacco I had seen on my walk – tall, voluptuously green plants topped with delicate pink flowers. The vast hillside spreads of tobacco would, in Isabella’s day, have been planted with opium. I saw several slogans painted on farmhouse walls in the area warning that the cultivation of opium was illegal – meaning it is still grown somewhere nearby.
"It’s a foreigner!" shouted a child as I walked into view, and all the people seated in front of the little store turned to look at me. "Hello, everyone," I said. "I would like to buy some water."
One young guy took up the opportunity, and asked where I was from. I told him I was born in England, and he said, "London is your capital, isn’t it?"
"It’s the capital of England, yes," I said.
"And the English pound is much more valuable than our currency," he continued. "Around RMB13 or 14 to one pound."
He was slightly off, this farm boy aged 20 living in the middle of nowhere. The current exchange is around 11.5. But still amazing. Where does this level of awareness of the world come from, for someone living in such an isolated place?
"I worked for a few months in Ningbo," he said. "In a button factory. Then the global economic crisis hit, and I came home." He now drives a motorbike to make money. I asked him what his ambition was. "I want to travel abroad. But it is very difficult to get an exit permit." He was smart and lively, and I gave him my card and told him to call me if he ever visited Shanghai.
The exchange brought to mind Isabella’s experiences with the ancestors of my friends at the store. She would not get out of her sedan chair when the bearers stopped for a rest, staying immobile in her seat. She could not speak Chinese, and so could not converse with anyone except Bedien.
"I sat in my chair in the village street, the un-willing centre of a large and very dirty crowd, which had leisure to stand round me for an hour, staring, making remarks, laughing at my peculiarities, pressing closer and closer till there was hardly air to breathe, taking out my hairpins, and passing my gloves round and putting them on their dirty hands, on two occasions abstracting my spoon and slipping it into their sleeves, being in no way abashed when they were detected."
As to the discussion on the value of the pound, Isabella faced significantly greater payment problems than I did.
"Money annoyances began early, and never ceased," she said. "Before leaving Wan Hsien, I bought 10,000 cash, brass coins, about the size of a halfpenny, inscribed with Chinese characters, and with a square hole in the middle. By this they are threaded a hundred at a time on a piece of straw twist, and at that time (for the exchange fluctuates daily) the equivalent of two shillings weighed eight pounds! The eighteen shillings in cash with which I started weighed seventy-two pounds, and this had to be distributed among the coolies."
By contrast, I was able to pay for bottled water and batteries at small stores with grubby small paper renminbi notes.
"We passed through rich and cultivated country, with many noble farmhouses with six or eight irregular roofs, handsome, roofed, entrance gates, deep eaves, and many gables of black beams and white plaster, as in Cheshire," said Isabella. "Next pine-clothed hills appeared, and then the grand pass of Shen-kia-chao (2,900 feet) lifted us above habitation and cultivation into a solitary mountain region of rock, scrub, torrents, and waterfalls."
Isabella passed this way in February. Traversing the area in late summer provided for me a feast of aural and olfactory experiences she would have missed. The sound of cicadas, cooing doves and bleating month-old goats, the smell of fresh rice stalks being burned off, the wind in the pines and bamboo, the scent of ripe tobacco being roasted in roadside furnaces. And – a new development – Chinese disco booming out of the stereo systems of passing motorcycles.
The place name given as Shen-kia-chao is in fact the village of Sunjia which is some distance from the pass, but the mountain country is still much as she described.
"The road ascends the pass by 1,140 steps on the edge of a precipice, which is fenced the whole way by granite uprights two feet high, carrying long granite rails eight inches square. Two chairs can pass along the whole length," she said.
I think I know the section she is referring to, just to the north of Sunjia. The path has been widened to a two-lane road, and has steel cable fence along the outer edge, but it is still spectacular.
"The pass is grand and savage. There were brigands on the road, and it was patrolled by soldiers, small bodies of whom I met in their stagey uniforms, armed with lances with long pennons and short bows and arrows," she said.
No brigands today. None that I saw, anyway. But then again, I did pass a house sporting the following slogan: "The people of the entire county should motivate themselves to fully open up the struggle against robbers."
The consequences of being caught as a robber in Isabella’s time were not pleasant.
"At one point on the pass where there were some trees, three criminals were hanging in cages with their feet not quite touching the ground," she reported. "The chai-jen said that they were to be starved to death. Not far off were two human heads which looked as if they had been there for some time, hanging in two cages, with a ghastly look of inquisitive intelligence on their faces."
For me, the road from Fenshui to Sunjia was closed for a stretch of around seven kilometers for a period of repairs, which was fine. It meant the only traffic was an occasional motorbike. Far below just outside Sunjia, I saw a huge prison, to which today’s robbers are sent.
The rice fields were mostly harvested, with the rice plants bundled and lined up in little pyramids along the curved terrace field walls, looking to me like an audience at a concert. But it was the tobacco plants which dominated the scene.
I stopped at a small "factory", where a dozen women were sitting under an awning processing the already richly brown roasted tobacco leaves. The ovens nearby had "China Tobacco" signs, in English, on them.
"How’s business?" I asked.
"Not too good this year," said the only man there, the supervisor. I asked where the tobacco went, and he said Wanzhou. And then I guess into the national tobacco machine from which emerge the foul smelling fags we all have to put up with. What a shame. It smells so lovely in the hills of Sichuan.