East of Wushan City, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,180 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,800 km
It was the Qingming Festival when the Chinese honor their ancestors, but there was little sign of it in the Yangtze gorges. The traditions of the past seem to have disappeared faster here than in other regions.
My walk in southern Anhui at the same time two years before was a procession of streamer-covered graves and fireworks as people covered the territory and paid their respects. Not here. I saw a little action in a public ceremony, and the grave sites along the road looked untended and forgotten. Strange.
But another part of the Qingming period tradition was in full swing – the bright yellow rapeseed carpets thrown over every mountain slope and spare piece of ground. The yellow flowers bloom for a short period that absolutely lights up the country. They look from a distance like a child’s daubs. In this part of the gorges region – the extreme eastern end of Chongqing municipality – the earth is mostly a bright purple red color. This provides a fabulous palate of views at every turn – yellow, pink, purple, green and brown, topped by blue skies.
I bumped into some school kids walking to school. It was Sunday afternoon, and they were walking the 10 kilometers or so along the dirt track to the closest town. From there, they take a mini-van to the school and stay in a dormitory through the week, returning to their farms on Friday afternoon.
“Good afternoon,” said one girl in English, although it was morning. A good effort, nevertheless.
There were four of them, all aged 14 or 15, all from different families, and not one of them was an only child. I asked them about their plans for the future. They will all graduate from junior high school in two years, and they said there was little chance they would get into senior high school. It is not a matter of intelligence. Simple farm kids are just not programmed to do well in exams.
I asked them where they thought they would be in five years’ time. The two girls had no answer, which was in itself an answer. The two boys said they would be far away, the implication being that they would be migrant workers in the coastal cities. My guess is the girls will go too in spite of their indecision. I gave them all name cards, as I always do, and told them to call me when they get to Shanghai. I spoke later to another guy aged 23, who did go to high school but did not graduate. He said that 80% of his classmates had left the Wushan region for allegedly greener pastures.
I asked the farm kids about the pink earth, and whether it was good or bad for farming. One of the boys said, “It is of average quality,” and I laughed. “That’s a very professional reply,” I said.
They walked slowly, and took rests regularly along the way. They were in no hurry, and I ended up walking on ahead. The road came to a series of hair pin bends down the mountain, and I decided to short circuit a couple of the curves. I took a path straight down through the vertical fields of vegetables and rapeseed, slipping and sliding on the rough path used by the farmers. Not so easy in the leather-soled boots I always wear. But I am pretty sure-footed, largely because I know I am so imbalanced.
The terraces were all buttressed with rock walls, and when I reached the next level of road, I of course walked the wrong way, and had to be corrected by a farmer digging vegetables who answered my query as to the right direction in perfectly accented Mandarin.
A man gave me some help in finding my way, and we talked for some time. In a Chinese way, he knew he had built up some credit with me and that it was possible to ask for some favor as a payback. I could feel it coming, and when he mentioned Shanghai, I was sure he would ask me to find a job for him. But I was wrong.
“My father,” he said, “is a farmer, and he is immensely strong and also an expert in a special form of the martial arts. Is there any chance you could help him find a job as a bodyguard? Knives and even bullets do not harm him. He would be really good at protecting someone.”
“Wow,” I replied. “He sounds like one of the Boxers in the Boxer Rebellion. But they were fake. They died when they were shot.”
“Well, I’ve seen him and it’s true,” insisted my friend. I said I did not know anyone who needed a bodyguard, but would let him know if I chanced upon an opportunity for his father.
I walked on through the hot spring day. There were butterflies playing in the rapeseed by the road as it headed up and up, the wall above the river. In one day, I walked from 650 meters above sea level down to 220, and then back up to 1,200. Yet the tortured winding way of the road meant that in two days and more than 30 kilometers of walking, I progressed westwards by only three minutes of longitude.
I ran into a honey gypsy and his wife. China is the world’s largest producer of honey with around 40% of the global market, and I have met maybe 20 mobile honey farms on my journey so far. It is always the same. A couple of dozen wooden hives ranged along the road, flanked by a tent in which lives the honey gypsy. They move regularly, to give their bees fresh pastures. Inside the tent is a bed and a vat full of honey. I always buy a water bottle of the stuff, and they always say their honey will be sold to middlemen and funneled through to the world markets. Amazing.
This was only the second honey production facility I had seen in the Yangtze gorges. But this was the peak season. The pink peach blossoms were breaking out, the yellow rapeseed flowers were in full bloom. And the bees, drunk on spring, were everywhere, working for the global economy.
I chatted with the wife about the state of business as she ladled honey into a standard water bottle. Price RMB30 (US$4.30). Unusually, the couple came from the gorges region, which is very rare for China’s honey gatherers, who generally travel far and wide looking for fields of flowers to gorge their flocks. Business is good, she said, the honey quality is good and most of their honey is sold to Traditional Chinese Medicine factories.
As I paid, I thought of the old Wanchai line. In this case, it really was “no money, no honey.” Then suddenly, one of the bees mistook me for a peach blossom and attached itself to my hair. Its buzz was deafening, and I danced around trying to brush it off.
“Stop! Stand still!” the woman shouted. “You’re just making it worse.” I stopped and she deftly picked the bee off my head, crushed it and let it fall onto the road. I stomped on it as well, just in case the bee had missed the point.