TAIZHOU, China- I began walking south on Hailing Bei Lu with the intention that I would not stop until I’d reached the banks of the Yangzi (Yangtze) River. I estimated the hike as being between 25 to 30 kilometers, and had a day pack on my back filled with some essentials, as I knew that I would [...]
TAIZHOU, China- I began walking south on Hailing Bei Lu with the intention that I would not stop until I’d reached the banks of the Yangzi (Yangtze) River. I estimated the hike as being between 25 to 30 kilometers, and had a day pack on my back filled with some essentials, as I knew that I would tramping for the better part of the day. The sky was cloudy, gray, and there was a slight breeze, but rain was not on the forecast.
I can go anywhere, I said to myself as I began leaving the sphere of my normal rounds about Taizhou — it always feels real good to say these words — but my destination was set: I would go to the river. Though I also knew that the river was just an excuse for a journey.
I walked fast down the avenue, pushing to get out into places I’ve never been before. Some jerk threw a string of firecrackers into the road behind me and a car slams on it’s breaks to avoid running them over, almost causing an accident. The near accident then turned into a near traffic jam as cars and buses pile up in a line and waited for the minor explosions to cease. They all were blaring their horns.
I rounded a corner and made for the Carrefour. A gaggle of teenagers tried thrusting advertisements for photo portrait studios into my hands. I ran the gauntlet, avoided taking one, and then had a laugh on the other side when I saw that some of the people were folding the rather large fliers into paper airplanes and were throwing them into the wind. I stocked up on Snickers bars and bottle water at the Carrefour and was ready to walk out of Taizhou. I did not burden myself down with food and water as I was not worried about resupply: I was in lowland Eastern China, there are people everywhere.
I cut west and walked by the gigantic Tesco superstore. A guy inside a bus that was parked on the side of the road scrambled to the door, stuck his head out, and shouted, “Hello!” at me. I ignored the greeting and kept walking.
I do not mention this because it was an atypical expression of a one word polyglot, but because nearly everywhere a Caucasian person goes outside of the US/ Europe/ Australia their travels will be accompanied by the “Hello!” soundtrack. In East Asia the frequency of locals shouting hello at foreigners rises to a peak. All day long you hear people shouting, “hello, hello, hello” at you. Often, it does not seem as if they’re even looking for a reply. In China, these hellos are often mixed in with a chattering of waiguoren and laowai — sometimes I get Xinjiangren.
I’ve been listening to locals shouting these hellos out at me for well over a decade, and I’ve discerned that they are not always simple greetings. In fact, the meanings behind them seem to be rather varied. Sometimes the hellos genuinely mean “hello,” and are spoken by people who simply wish to welcome me to their town. Sometimes the hello is a game to see if I’ll respond. Sometimes shouts of hello and how are you comes from students checking to see if the English words they were taught in school really works. Sometimes these hellos mean, “Hey you, look at this stuff I’m selling;” sometimes they mean “Hey, come take a ride in my taxi;” sometimes just just mean “Hey, look at me!” But sometimes these hellos mean something approaching contempt, something akin to mockery.
When that guy stuck his head of the bus and screamed hello at me he was more than likely not trying to be friendly. His greeting seemed along the lines of, “Hey, there’s a foreigner, I’m gonna yell hello at it to see what it does.” It was something like poking a caged animal with a stick — “Hey, look, it snarled at me, hahaha.” It was something near the equivalent of pulling the corners of your eyes back and yelling, “Wang wong bing dong” at an Asian person in the streets of the USA. Funny how even the word hello can be turned into a xenophobic slur.
The highway south
I turned south onto highway 231 and figured that I would just walk it all the way down to the Yangzi. It was one of two routes that I’d previously checked out. The other was along the banks of a canal that was disregarded by the street grid that was laid over top of it. I figured that staying on the highway would give me the best chance of making it to the river before nightfall. I also wanted to observe the development that is growing like a fungus all around Taizhou and just about every other city in China. There was a big “economic development zone” in the works in my path, and I wanted to see what this really meant.
The outskirts of Chinese cities
China’s high-rise-landias give me the creep. Looking out at a horizon of dozens and dozens — hundreds — of the same blank, off white apartment blocks that show no hint of human character is like something from sci-fi fantasy where all the good guys lost. I was standing in a place on the highway where only cars dared to travel. No human lurked anywhere near me, a sea of the same building replicated over and over again stood before me, behind me two towering skyscrappers that had once been the headquarters of a bank stood abandoned. A smooth grey sky provided the backdrop for a scene where little seemed alive. It is no wonder the Chinese feel more comfortable in crowds.
The boat people
The east of China is a patchwork of canals. There are literally hundreds, if not thousands, of them connecting and running through every town, village, and city more than a couple of decades old. The canal network of this country is almost beyond belief. It is often said that when the Chinese do something, they do it all the way. Their canal system is surely a shining example of this. Having dug the first major canal in the world, and then digging longest in human history — the Grand Canal from Beijing to Hangzhou — China then linked them all together with a patchwork of smaller canals and rivers so goods could be ship by sea to almost anywhere in the east of the country.
I started walking on a bridge over a minor canal and stopped suddenly when I saw that there were idle barges beneath me that stretched out, end to end, through the water far into the distance. There had to be fifty of them just sitting down there in an incredible row. I called down a greeting to a man who was sitting before the door of one of the boat’s cabins eating noodles. He responded in kind, looking up at me quizzically as I took some photos. I did the same to a man on a neighboring barge and he returned my greeting as well. They seemed friendly enough so I hopped off the bridge, descended a small graded slope and made for the canal.
I walked up to a huge barge parked along the bank. I called to the woman on board who was cleaning fish, and she stood up and looked over the edge at me. She was not wearing any pants, only a long t-shirt, and clearly was going without a bra. “I really like your boat,” I called out to her in Mandarin. “What’s there to like about it?” she replied with a snort and a laugh. We chatted for a moment. She seemed to find my interest in her dirty old barge amusing.
Her boat was probably seventy feet long, was painted army green, had a huge cavity for the pouring of industrial material — or anything else for that matter — and had a little cabin in the back where, I presume, she lived with her family. All the barges in this canal were similar to each other, members of a fleet of thousands that ply the waterways of China.
Watch video of Chinese barges
Garbage cans and highway cleaners
The highway went on seemingly without end. Through city, through suburb, and now through the countryside. There were farms on both sides of the highway, and the only signs of human habitation are little villages here and there that are assembled in patches in the middle of agricultural blocks. As I walked farther and farther away from the city, I noticed that an urban relic was still following me: trash cans.
I was almost in disbelief as I walked by trash receptacle after trash receptacle posted out in the middle of nowhere on the side of a bike lane that flanked a highway. There were no pedestrians out here other than myself. There were only cars, ebikes, trucks, buses, etc. . . going far too fast for anyone to be able to successfully drop a piece of garbage into a can. The villages were too far off in the fields for the garbage cans to be of much use for the people there either. But, regardless of the fact that nobody could really use these trash cans, every three hundred or so meters one proudly stood.
Though thousands of cars flew by there was hardly a piece of litter strewn anywhere. Around 10km outside of Taizhou city limits I found a woman dressed in orange overalls riding a three wheeled bicycle with a huge trash receptacle on the back. She was picking up garbage off the highway and tending to the trash cans.
When the Chinese do something they do it all the way.
Highway lined with flowers
I was walking along the welcoming highway for people coming into Taizhou prefecture from south of the Yangzi, and it seems to have been decked out to look like one big rolled out red carpet. I initially took for granted the thousands and thousands of red and green bushes and trees that were planet in an extremely long garden that stretched along both sides of the highway — unbroken for nearly 12km. Then it struck me that some one — or, realistically, entire teams of someones — had to come out here and plant those bushes and trees, and then return regularly to trim them up. At one point I walked by a gardening team. Around fifteen older Chinese workers in orange overalls were trimming bushes.
In my Western mind employing dozens of people to do nothing other than care for a garden on the side of a highway that people just drive down and raging speed seemed overtly unnecessary, but the Chinese government is obsessive about presentation. It is also obsessive about providing its bulging population with employment.
China Medical City
I walked through a newly developed area called China Medical City. It’s home to a major international medical conference facility along with various pharmaceutical/ biology plants and other medical research facilities. This place is the capital of China’s pharmaceutical research. I could not help but notice the bums and stragglers who were stumbling along the highways around here, peaking into garbage cans. I could only conjecture.
Up ahead I saw a unique sight for China. It was a head full of long Rastafarian style dreadlocks. They extended far down past a butt. This is not typical of this culture, even amongst trendy youth. What was an old hippie doing way out here? I watched as owner of the dreads turned a corner out of the main China Medical City area and walked in front of me on the highway. He bent over and picked up a disposable cup off the ground and peaked into it. Finding that the previous possessor did not leave even a sip left, he chucked it back to the highway for the woman in orange overalls to pick up. I rushed to catch up to him. He took refuge inside a bus stop. I followed.
I walked around the wall of the bus stop and peered in. The “hippie” was an old Chinese man who apparently ended up with dreadlocks the natural way: by simply not cutting, washing, or combing his hair for a number of years. He also had a long straggly beard. He was muttering and mumbling to himself.
“Hello,” I greeted him, but he seemed too occupied with his other conversations to bother with me. He did muttered a hello back to me though and continued talking with someone or something that I could not perceive as existing. He was clearly insane.
He stood up and walked over to a trash can and rummaged around inside of it for a moment to no satisfactory ends. I made to part with one of my Snickers bars, but he quickly turned and walked over to the other side of the highway.
China is still building new cities. Their existing cities are not only growing beyond their bounds but they are building brand spanking new urban districts in what was once farmland. It is awesome to watch this process. As I walked down highway 231 I could see these “cities” in various stages of development. They start with a sea of high-rise apartment complexes then the businesses move in, and an area that was once all farms becomes urban.
I stood on the side of the highway and watched as ag fields were being graded and leveled. In the distance rose a couple dozen half completed luxury high-rise apartment blocks. It was called Celestial Park. Across the highway was another high-rise project of perhaps 50 units. As I watched the backhoes clear out entire square kilometers of space it was clear that this project was not even close to gaining full steam. All of Bangor, Maine could probably be housed in this new city, but in China it’s just only a small turd sitting at the edge of a small and relatively insignificant prefectural capital.
All over the country these new mini-cities are being created. It is part of the build, build more, keep building kick that China is currently on. They are molding a new country like it’s an art project and luxury high-rise apartment blocks seem to be their favorite thing to create.
I’d never thought I’d say this in a country of 1.3 billion, but I don’t understand where are all the people to fill these new cities are going to come from.
When the Chinese do something they do it all the way.
Name of the River
I call my destination the Yangzi River because I was walking to the point of it which gave the entire thing the name by which it is known in English. Yangzi was actually the name of a small village near Yangzhou that had a ferry crossing. A couple of Western missionaries heard the word Yangzi associated with the river and applied that name to the entire thing. The name stuck and this is what Westerners still call the river. But most Chinese have a different name for the Yangzi. Most traditionally just called it “River.” When it came time to standardize the maps the Chinese government decided that they could not just call the thing, “River,” and decided on Chang Jiang: Long River.
It was an appropriate name, as the Chang Jiang is the longest river in Asia and the third longest in the world.
I walked off the highway and into a orchard before climbing an embankment and walking on an overpass that took me over a major east/ west highway. On the other side I found myself walking into a small town. It had three story buildings rising on both sides of the street, noodle restaurants, ebike and car repair shops. I could not tell the division between this town and Gaogang, but both places emitted little more than a glimpse of local life in rural China.
I watched a gang of people demolish a building by hand. They were a swarm of around twenty individuals wielding old sledges, hammers, and one lady was bashing concrete blocks with a mason’s trowel. One guy had a sledge hammer head attached to a length of PVC pipe — it wiggled like a wet noodle as he smashed what was once an wall to smithereens. But the building laid in a heap of rubble none the less. Through numbers alone this group was able to dismantle a building with hand tools. This scene will always stay with me as a parable of the Chinese way.
Gardening, by any means necessary
Gaogang came and went and I found myself on a rural road that appeared as if it was just recently paved. The bike lanes were still gravel. A new set of curbs were created by the road, and the locals, apparently, found them to be as good a place as any to plant crops. Various types of beans and other vegetables were now sprouting out of the dirt that was laid inside the curb blocks. No place that could nurture a plant was left un-tilled here. Some of the plots were hardly a man’s arm span wide, but there were crops growing out of them. I watched groups of old ladies chattering as they went about harvesting the small gardens, and I thought to myself, why not?
What would be called guerrilla gardening in the West is called normal agriculture in China.
The people along the way
I have to admit that I like the “Holy shit, what are you doing here?” look that I often get when traveling in places unaccustomed to foreign faces. It means that I’m someplace raw, real, not made for me to look at, and, perhaps, curious about visitors. I feel like I’m stealing views of the world, shop lifting impressions when in these places. It is in these places that I can best find the little pieces to put a little more of this global jigsaw puzzle together.
As I walked from the Hailing district of Taizhou to the Yangzi river many people stopped to offer me greetings. Old men stopped peddling their bicycles to have a conversation, old ladies stopped harvesting crops to look up and cackle to their workmates about me, and one old lady looked as though she was about to explode with excitement as we talked.
When a laowai goes afoot in the countryside of China it is not a normal thing, and it is bound to receive a reaction. In places where there are no tourists sites, nothing to attract visitors, nothing but normal, everyday life, the most common question you will here is “What are you doing here?”
It is a very difficult question to answer.
I had been walking for six hours straight without taking more than 15 minutes to rest. I was approaching the end of my tether, but I was also approaching the end of the line. The road that I set out walking along was coming to an end. I could see where it came to T at the bank of The River.
I stood on tip toe on top of an embankment and tried to peer over the cranes, the warehouses, and the associated industrial this and that which blocked my way from walking down and touching the Chang Jiang, the Yangzi. I was probably no more than 300 meters away but my path was completely blockaded by the industrial monstrosities. I got up just high enough to spot a glimpse of large river boat, and, surrounding it, the Long River. A funny climax to a 28 km hike.
“So this is what I walked all this way for?” I asked myself as I took a swig on a celebration beer.
No, this was not what I walked all this way for. The walk itself was the reason, the destination a mere excuse. The joy of complete path travel is experiencing, observing, and trying to figure out small stretches of this planet in turn. The speed of travel and the intimacy that you can have with the places you pass through are inversely proportional variables: the slower you move the thicker the travel experience.
There is no thicker way to travel than on foot.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3679 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Papa Bay, Hawaii
May 15, 2012, 10:45 pm
Wonderful article! I suppose you’ll be doing bike trips when you exhaust locations for walking?
May 16, 2012, 5:57 am
This article is typical of what sets Wade’s travel/writing apart from, well, EVERYBODY else’s. He really does take me along to parts of the ‘real’ world that I’m unlikely to ever visit myself.. Or even be willing to visit…
I don’t know if I can ever find the willingness to explore the world as he does? Without my personal tastes of how the world should be, getting in the way of simply what it is actually like? He finds adventure where I see scary high rises… And makes me realise the deep seated fear I have of my own true anonymity and insignificance.
I really enjoy how it feels as if he takes me along for a walk in China, not only a walk in his psyche, like so many writers are wont to do.
May 16, 2012, 3:55 pm
I had a similar experience in Bangkok. I had 12 hour layover in BKK and set out to see if I could walk out of the airport and find the end of the city on foot. One of the best things I did in Thailand.