Gaoping district, Nanchong city, Sichuan province
Coordinates: 106.07.55 East, 30.46.40 North
Distance from Shanghai – 2,155 km
I just managed to catch the end of the Sichuan autumn. One day was warm and cloudy, while the next was wet and cool with a clear hint of worse to come. Weather experts around the world are predicting a bitterly cold winter ahead of us as the warming globe lurches more and more to extremes. Autumn and spring are shrinking, and winter and summer are becoming more pronounced.
The last brutal winter I saw on my walk was in early 2008, when major snowfalls made large areas of central China impassible. At that time, the walking trips were in the middle of the Three Gorges mountain region, where some roads were blocked for weeks. Even when re-opened it was too dangerous to go out due to the icy conditions on the precipitous mountain tracks to and from the start/finish points in the middle of nowhere.
So for three months, I had to reluctantly suspend the monthly walking trips that have become a crucial part of my life since I started this project in 2004. If this winter turns out to be as bad as that, I will still be walking, however, as I am now in central Sichuan, which is far more accessible and flat, with generally good roads. The start and end points of the walk are usually no more than three hours’ drive from either Chongqing or Chengdu airport. I like bitterly cold walking weather – it wakes me up – but I would hope for no rain or snow.
I did not see the sun on my recent walk, but I did see plenty of green. The color, as applied to paddy fields, had such an impact on me that I wrote a song about it called Green So Green, which can be heard from my page on MySpace.com.
The main thing that caught my eye on this trip was the fact that almost all fields had a circular brick-lined pond in the center, with holes in the walls to allow water to pass to and from the paddy field surrounding it. I couldn’t work out what these strange Chinese crop circles were for, which was stupid of me once I found out.
"They are for raising fish," said a passing farmer. "Many kinds of fish. We eat them ourselves and sometimes sell them."
I had passed several fish restaurants, and around lunchtime, found high-class black sedans parked outside of them. These were officials from Nanchong city to the west of me, taking a weekend drive out of town for a quiet lunch with their official friends. I saw no women in the groups, so I presume it was primarily an opportunity work on their guanxi networks.
I walked in the outskirts of Nanchong, which is a big city that virtually no one I queried, foreigner or Chinese, had ever heard of. The interior of China is growing and changing so fast, and hub towns like Nanchong are quickly becoming cities. It has traffic jams and major shopping areas. It’s all way down-market compared with Beijing and Shanghai, but it is shocking to find a place that is so big – around two million people – and almost unknown.
I walked out of Guang’an county, on the border of which yet another road tollbooth was being constructed. Someone told me that tollbooth cash collectors typically take an extra RMB5,000-6,000 (US$750-900) a month off the tolls on top of their salaries. If true, that makes those positions solidly lucrative.
I passed a boy aged probably one year of age wielding a sharp cleaver, with his mother hardly paying attention nearby. I saw lots of ducks, heads down in ponds and paddy waters.
I noticed a sign outside a truck depot that said "For the sake of the quality of the next generation, say goodbye to tobacco and alcohol", and another on a random building that said: "Take measures to ensure that Party members are in paramount positions."
I passed through villages with quaint names like Buddha Bridge Village, Jade Emperor Village and Old Gentleman Town. But the impact of Nanchong was beginning to be felt, and there was less and less sense of the separate identity of each village – more and more a sense of them being subsumed in urban sprawl.
At one point there was, incongruously, a striped pedestrian crossing across the highway, the first I remember seeing in over 2,000 kilometers. Some kids made a point of crossing at least close to it, but even then it was at a mad dash, indicating safety was more a matter of speed than the white strips of the crossing. At some point in the future, of course, it is possible the mad bus drivers may take notice of it.