West of Qiqiao town, Chongqing Municipality
Distance from Shanghai – 1,958 km
Early winter rain was falling in the eastern part of the Sichuan basin, but it was only mildly cold after a short period of brisk walking, and so I shed my jacket and continued along in my shirt, puzzling some of the well padded passers-by.
The land in this part of China seems to be left to sleep during the winter months. It is almost all rice paddy – surely among the most fertile rice lands in the country – and the fields were all water-logged and silent as I passed by, except for the flocks of white ducks, heads down in the muck, sucking up the goodness.
There were many signs strung across the road. Here is a selection from one section of highway: "Being conscripted is the honorable right of every citizen"; "Fully plan a solution to the population problem, the merit attaches to this age, the benefit lasts for 1,000 autumns"; "Seriously implement scientific development, and unhesitatingly follow the road of Socialism with Chinese Characteristics." There were many, many more.
As on my previous walk, I was struck by the substantial number of signs and slogans along the road warning people not to take or traffic in drugs. From what I could tell from my conversations, the stuff comes into the Sichuan basin from Yunnan, and is distributed at a local level by people who must have some measure of protection.
Chinese villages and towns are so transparent it would be difficult for a local police chief or village chief who was at least half paying attention to miss something as obvious as drug dealers plying their trade. So the assumption has to be that if it is there, it is known and a blind eye is being turned.
I fell into step with a 12-year-old boy who was walking to the little town of Jugui to buy a pen so he could do his homework. I felt like buying him a whole box full, but controlled myself. I asked him about the anti-drug signs.
"Yes, lots of drugs here," he said. "But less than before. They had a crackdown on crime last year, around October National Day. Before that, it was terrible. Robberies and even kidnappings. A boy I know was kidnapped in return for a ransom, but he got released okay."
Pretty scary stuff. I really have no idea of the situations through which I am walking.
I passed the Jugui Communist Party headquarters and wondered if the guys inside had experienced any personnel changes in recent months. I hoped so. I didn’t have a particularly warm fuzzy feeling for the officials of the area, but I was very impressed by the hospitality and goodwill of the ordinary people. I was bombarded with offers of lifts by passing motorbikes and cars, truck drivers waved and saluted me, people invited me for tea and meals.
I stopped to eat with a family with two sons aged around seven and nine. The two boys asked me lots of good questions and the seven-year-old showed me the game he was playing on his dad’s mobile phone, a mix between Super Mario and Lode Runner. I handed them both sheets of paper from my notebook and pens and asked them each to write me a letter. They sat earnestly at the table next to me for 15 minutes composing letters, of course in Chinese, while I chatted with their parents.
"Dear English uncle," said the nine-year-old’s letter. "I very much hope you can come to our school to teach English. When you have finished walking across China, I will invite you to come to our home and you can be a family English teacher. Wishing you good health. Respectfully, Jia Meiwen."
The seven-year-old’s letter said: "Today I met a foreign uncle. I am very happy."
I ripped pages out of my notebook and started to write a reply in English, but after three words, I stopped, realizing it was too much for them, and wrote simple Chinese letters to them instead, urging them to study hard and learn lots of words in Chinese and English. In my letter to the nine-year-old, I made a point of including some traditional characters.
"I can read some traditional characters," he said.
"Learn more," I replied.
He held the letter tentatively. "Can I keep it?" he asked.
"Of course! It’s yours."
He carefully folded it and put it in his pocket.
Iwalked through the town of Qiqiao (seven bridges) which is right under the mountain range which to me represents Buddha’s middle finger. If you look at a map of east Sichuan, you will see four fingers extending southwest out of the gorges mountain region. This was the second finger. The plain from which it protrudes is around 420 meters above sea level, and the middle of the finger rises to around 900 meters.
I was able to note the exact point where the mountains began and the plain ended, an experience I also had in Hubei at the western edge of the Dabieshan mountains. Walking, as opposed to driving through in a car, really allows you to notice detail. The road angled up and I was back in mountain territory.
There was a factory gate to the left and I took a photograph of it for no particular reason and wandered on. A minute or so later, I heard a shout from behind, and was aware of a guy standing in the street outside the factory gate looking at me. But I feigned deafness and walked on.
Up a little further, I passed a lovely reservoir with blue waters. I chatted with a few truck drivers waiting under a shelter on the shore to cart away gravel being ripped out of a hillside above us. They said business was bad due to the global economic crisis. I asked if they had children. They all did. I gave them name cards and said I’d be happy to teach their kids some English if they contacted me by email.
Then I saw a pall of smoke hanging over the northern end of the reservoir and made my way with a heavy heart along the road toward yet another cement factory, the bane of rural China’s environment, in the middle of pristine mountain countryside. It was filthy, it was on the shores of the reservoir, and it was for sure discharging waste into the water every day.
The factory was a Cultural Revolution-era monstrosity, and outside on a wall was a slogan from the early 1980s that I had almost forgotten: "Long live Marxist-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought Deng Xiaoping Theory." What a damning justification for such pollution.
I walked up the steep hill, past the factory gates with a sign saying Chongqing City Tiansheng Cement Company, Ltd. The factory buildings were arrayed along the left side of the road, thick grime-laden smoke pouring from twin chimneys above the furnaces. I snapped pictures as I went, as I take pictures of everything. Something like 20,000 exposures over five years of my walk.
As I passed the last of the grimy out-buildings and coal dumping bays, a guy called out to me from the road below. I glanced back and kept walking.
"What are you doing?" he asked loudly.
"Looking at the scenery," I said.
He was young middle aged, had a Bluetooth mobile earpiece in his left ear, a fur-lined black jacket and short cropped hair. Security of some sort. I smoothly removed the flash memory card from my camera and slipped it into my pocket as I walked.
"He says he’s looking at the scenery," he shouted to someone further down the road. I kept walking at the same pace. I could feel him hesitating, unsure of what to do. I was sure he was unhappy about those photos, but he did nothing more. Or so I thought.
The road became steep and sharply winding up the mountain, and was close to 800 meters at the top. I was chatting with some people waiting for a bus when a police van pulled up ahead of me and out stepped a senior policeman in a very smart uniform, and a younger guy in plain clothes, who I sensed was the one making the decisions.
"Hi," said the uniformed cop in lilting English. He then asked in Chinese if I spoke Chinese. I said I did.
"What are you doing here?" he asked.
"Just looking around," I said.
"Looking at the scenery," he offered, and I immediately knew what was going on.
The cement factory management, concerned about an outsider taking photos of their filthy polluting plant, had made a call, hoping to get those photos, or at least find out who the hell I was. The police responded, as they would have to if the ownership structure of the cement factory was as I suspected.
"Do you have a visa?" the uniformed cop asked.
"How could I be here if I didn’t?"
He asked me where I lived, how long I’d been in China (since before the Third Plenum of the 11th Congress, I said), and other questions. I looked him straight in the eye and never hesitated as I answered him politely and truthfully. He didn’t know how to handle it. He asked to see my passport, and I showed him the relevant pages without ever letting go of it.
I knew the plain clothes guy wanted to just grab my camera and remove the damn photos, but the triumph of China today is that within the context of that moment, it was not possible for him to do it.
I turned to look at him. "Your region is very beautiful," I said. "There is no problem, is there?"
He looked at my camera, then at me.
"You are welcome," he murmured.
I put the passport back in my pocket, said goodbye and walked on, marveling again at the progress China is making in terms of the slow but inevitable ring-fencing of power. A long way to go, but progress visible.