The biggest shock of spring in the Anhui countryside is the rapeseed. It is suddenly there, brash yellow slabs all over the landscape where two weeks before there was nothing at all. It is so dominating, so rich and bright, that it lifts the gloom of the winter months and proclaims the fact that spring is here.
On this weekend, the countryside was echoing with fireworks because it was close to the Qingming Festival when Chinese people pay their respects to the ancestors. There are many tombs in the area I was walking through, all decorated with streamers. Some are simple mounds by the side of the road while others are little "houses" a meter high made of gray concrete blocks with corrugated iron roofs.
I asked a man on a motorbike about the little houses and he said: "They are for dead people." They stay there forever? "No, the body is placed in there for three years, then the family buys a piece of land and the body is buried permanently."
As I passed one grave site with fireworks exploding and paper "Hell" money burning, I stopped to talk to a teenage boy, and asked if he lived nearby. "No," he said, "we live far away. We are here because of the Chinese tradition."
The tradition of Qingming. The sense of connection to the past, to an annual cycle, is very strong here in Anhui. I was also struck by the close association of the living and the dead in this little corner of China. Graves and the little tomb houses are everywhere. As I entered the village of Shuangfeng, there was a grave mound right on the main street. I commented on this to a 14-year-old boy named Li Guoqing who had been accompanying me for a while and he laughed. "We don't have much spare land here," he said.
The wads of hell money being burned at the graves include both fake renminbi and, increasingly, fake US dollars. The belief is that, once burned, the fake money is available for the ancestors to spend on the Other Side. My question is this: what impact is the shift in the RMB-USD exchange rate on This Side having Over There?
Even in the most out of the way places, I bump into people who want to practice a couple of English words. Everyone in Anhui seems to know the word "hello" but Mr Wang, who offered me a lift on his motorbike not far from the town of Xindu (new ford), had more to say, even if it was in Chinese. He asked me where I was from, and I said, as usual, that I was born in England. He then launched into an accurate analysis of Tony Blair's economic policy and the problems the prime minister is currently facing.
I stared at him in amazement. Flip the situation and visualize a Chinese guy walking through Yorkshire and meeting a local on a motorbike. Would the Yorkshireman even be able to name the leader of China? I was thinking that I needed to get a photograph of Mr Wang, but he beat me to it, this 21st century Chinese peasant, and took a photo of me using his mobile phone.
In this part of China, I am the first foreigner these people have ever seen. "He's from Xinjiang," said one man knowledgably to his friend as I passed them on the bridge. "Are you from Russia?" asked a truck driver further on. "You're an American," said another man confidently.
I feel a small responsibility to make the first contact these people with the world beyond China a positive one. I smile, say hello and reach out. With some people, I get blank stares and a clear determination to ignore this person that does not fit into the normal pattern of their lives. But some are happy to respond.
A young girl of maybe 11 playing with some smaller boys asked me where I am from and patted her heart in shock on hearing the word England. I met a young boy aged about 15, and he desperately wanted to talk to me, but was unbelievably nervous about it. "It's okay," I said, "I'm just another guy."
I am sort of a litmus test for each village I pass through. The kids that dare to come up and talk to me are absolutely the ones that in 10 years' time will be the stars, the ones who find a way out of the village to the big world outside. I hand my name card to all of them, and tell them to call me when they get to Shanghai.
Then there are the people who sort of force themselves into my face, and look at me as a caricature. "You are a foreigner," they say. I have a test for whether it is worth talking to them further. I reply that no, I am not a foreigner at all; from my perspective, it is you that are the foreigner. If they get it, the conversation continues.
As I left one landlocked village, I called "ni hao" (hello) to a man and a woman sitting in a doorway and kept walking. Then I heard a voice calling to me from behind, stopped and saw the woman walking toward me with a younger man following down the path. She introduced me to the man, who I guessed was her son. He was maybe 25, and within a few seconds it became clear he was mentally damaged. He was so excited to talk to me, he couldn't stand still and, as he turned, I saw a huge lump on the back of his skull.
I reached out to him, told him I was from England, and asked his name. He laughed with amazement that he was talking to a foreigner. After a while, I said goodbye and walked on, happy that I had been able to give a little present, hopefully more valuable than money.
But the main hero of the moment, as of so many moments, was the mother. Her son saw me, a stranger, down below and told her he wanted to speak to me. She could have told him no. Instead, she led him down, and initiated a conversation to make his closed world a little brighter.
April 1 was a wonderful day. I walked through the villages and fields in the spring sunshine, watched the ducks enjoying the water and played table tennis on a concrete table with bricks for a net in front of a shop in the middle of the fields. I asked the man who runs the shop how business is going, and he said: "Slow, but I don't do it for the money, I do it as a service for the people around here." The energy he put into the ping pong game with the children suggested it might even be true.
The road came to an end. There was nothing but a narrow path heading west in the direction of Qingcao (green grass) township. There were no cars. It was extraordinary. I walked for a few kilometers and came to the village of Sanfan drowsing in the sunlight, surrounded by rapeseed and rice paddy-to-be.
I had to cross a small stream to get to the village and there were a couple of concrete slabs laid over the water. Some kids aged between five and eight were playing nearby. "It's RMB0.2 to cross," said the oldest girl, looking up from the hole she was digging in the sand. Huh? "This is my family's bridge, there is a toll to cross," she repeated. "Please ask your parents to come and collect the fee," I replied, and smiled. She smiled back, and went back to digging the hole. I proceeded into the village.
A teenage girl caught up on the other side of Sanfan and walked with me for a while on her way to her grandmother's house. She is a student at a school in Qing-cao 10 kilometers away, and comes back to her home in Sanfan on the weekends. Her mother looks after the home as her father is often away on business and there are fields to tend when the season requires.
She hopes to get to university and have a career in the big world. Her school, with several hundred pupils, has just received its first computer, but access is strictly limited. So far she has been no further than Wuhan, which she describes as "amazing".
Apart from the endlessly fascinating little conversations, I was struck during this walk by the sounds of spring in the Chinese countryside. Insects were busy in the grass, tens of thousands of bees emitted a generator hum from the honey farms that I passed, and a water buffalo breathed heavily in a paddy field as it ate its way through the weeds, soon to be churned into a muddy mess for planting.
And then suddenly, at the end of the three-day walk, through a haze which warned me of summer days to come, massive hills appeared just a few kilometers to the west. The Dabie Shan, the great dividing range. The end of eastern China and the beginning of a different world.
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