Huofeng town, Hubei province
Distance from Shanghai – 1,150 km
Distance from Lhasa – 1,833 km
As you may have heard, it has been snowing. Eastern and central China, and definitely the Yangtze Gorges region through which I am walking, have experienced their biggest snowfalls in decades. This means the area of my walk has been closed for weeks, as roads are impassable. And while the snow was melting as this issue of the magazine went to bed, it was not enough to get me back out there.
I am not scared of the cold, but it is a danger. In particular, there is one long section of mountain road across the river from Badong town. Even on a sunny and dry day, it is a worrying dirt track with precipitous edges, fast corners and a surface from hell. So a slippery, icy, muddy, slushy prospect was not enticing.
The mini-van drivers are good, but there’s no point in testing their driving skills to the limit, and anyway, they refused to take me.
So instead, I re-trod a part of the walk I traversed three-and-a-half years ago, about 40 kilometers west of Shanghai, south of the town and freeway exit of Zhujiajiao. It was a section I had fond memories of, with fish farms, rice paddies and quiet tree-tunneled country roads. That had been mid-summer, and now in mid-winter, I wanted to see the seasonal shift and also get a sense of how much things had changed in this part of rural Shanghai in the intervening years.
Walking through this area in 2004 had felt adventurous. It was the beginning of my adventure, and these were the first farms I had passed, so everything seemed exotic, remote and rural. This time, it felt almost urban, although nothing much had changed except for my perceptions.
Compared to the remote parts of Anhui and Hubei, southwest Shanghai farmland is like standing in Times Square. There’s always a freeway somewhere in sight in the distance, and some of the farmhouses look a bit like Beverly Hills mansions.
But it was still the countryside, and there were still drifts of snow in many places along the way, and on the northern sides of farmhouse roofs. I passed one small stream with a brick wall running along its southern bank which was still frozen solid. I wanted to try walking on it, which would have been stupid. So instead I slammed rocks and bricks onto the surface, trying to break it. They just bounced off. It had been quite some time since East China had seen ice and snow like this.
But everywhere there was also a sense of dripping. Random wet patches where snow was quietly melting. And I realized that this was going to be the story for Central China – actually right through to Afghanistan – for the next few months. The melting of all this snow is going to have a consequence: The floodgates of the Three Gorges Dam will be working overtime during the summer.
I navigated along small paths through the fish farms. Many of the rectangular ponds were drained and fallow, with the steroid and hormone residue hibernating in the mud. I walked along one path between a massive fish pond and a field in which a farmer was digging, heading for a highway I could see about a kilometer away.
“You can’t get through that way,” he shouted. I waved thanks and continued along the same way. I was already disappointed that I had failed to find the path I had originally taken through the area, and I figured there must be a way to get there from here.
Well, of course he was right. Another 100 meters on I came to a wide body of water, a canal, with no way across. So I walked back and asked the farmer, as I should have done the first time, and he showed me how to walk around the pond and off towards the road.
The road was the Zhufeng Highway, north-south from Zhujiajiao to Fengjing, once the main road from Shanghai to Hangzhou. I emerged onto it about 200m further south than I had three years before. I was looking forward to a section of road just round the corner – the old Zhufeng Highway, now a deserted country lane.
This was one of my best memories of the early part of the walk: a long, long stretch of road, straight as an arrow, lined by rice paddies and a green tunnel of lushly magnificent trees dating from the 1950s, I would guess.
The road was still there, although the paddy beside it was fallow. But what shocked me were the trees. They had all been lopped off at about 2 meters. No branches left at all, just tall stumps. Now they do this in Shanghai too – vigorous pruning. I am not a tree expert, and I have no idea what the best approach to keep them healthy is, but at least in Shanghai, they leave some of the main branches. Out here, the effect of the mass amputation on the roadscape was obscene.
I followed the path I took back then right along the southern shore of Lake Tai to Huzhou City. My dominant impression was of more factories, more production, almost wall-to-wall along the main road west, Highway 318. This region, just west of Shanghai, is equidistant between Suzhou and Jiaxing and is proof that China is now, for this next phase in human history, the factory to the world.
The places I passed through seemed more prosperous than they had in 2004 and 2005. More cool cars. Better dressed people. The town of Miaogang near Lake Tai was looking cold but busy. It is the heart if of market for fat crabs so beloved by Shanghai people, although it wasn’t the season and prices were high – a small turtle cost RMB50 (US$7). But deals were being struck. People have more money now.
I saw lots of posters and stickers on walls and poles for two things: venereal disease clinic flyers and job vacancy ads. Factories looking for workers. The economy is doing well, and it seems that people also have enough free time on their hands to pursue outside interests.
But mostly the crab farms were in hibernation. They are huge expanses of semi-industrial wooden contraptions found on any body of water linked into the lake network on Lake Tai. Big wooden cages are attached to poles and left in the water until the crabs reach maturity. Then the cages are brought to the surface and ferried into Miaogang’s little river where they are opened and their contents sold to buyers from Shanghai.
Did I say there are a lot of cool cars around? There is money in them there crabs!