Photographer John Lehmann and I started out with the broad goal of retracing the storied Long March that Mao Zedong led his Red Army on in the 1930s. Instead of walking, we travelled mostly by rail, stopping at cities and towns along the way to take the pulse of the country that Mao’s latest successor, Xi Jinping, is inheriting.
We started out in Wukan, in coastal Guangdong province, a village famous for rising up last year to demand the right to elect its own representatives. Then we headed inland, to Mao’s home province of Hunan, followed by a stop in China’s poorest province, Guizhou. After that came the Yangtze metropolis of Chongqing, the power base of one-time Communist Party star Bo Xilai before his dramatic fall from grace last year. Then we pushed west, toward the country’s restive Tibetan regions, and then north towards Shaanxi province, where the Long March ended. Shaanxi is also where Mr. Xi was exiled decades later during the Cultural Revolution.
In total, we travelled 7,745 kilometres (including road trips from the various stations along the way) and stopped in 14 cities and villages over the course of 22 days. We took nine separate train trips, ranging from three to 22 hours in length, in four different classes of comfort.
Most impressive thing we saw
The high-speed train line we took early in our journey, from Guangzhou to Changsha. That line stretches all the way to Beijing, cutting the trip time between Guangzhou and the capital from an onerous 30 hours to a much more tolerable eight. China’s high-speed rail project has been hurt by corruption and cut corners, but when it’s completed it will bring this sprawling country closer together than ever before.
Runner-up The fact that there was mobile service – and 3G Internet – almost everywhere we went, from the booming cities of coastal Guangdong province to the Tibetan plateau, where monks in one monastery send text messages to their brothers the next mountain over. Even in some otherwise-forgotten villages we stopped at along the way – places that had no indoor plumbing and only the most basic of schoolhouses – there was always a China Mobile or Unicom signal.
Most depressing thing we saw The schoolhouse in Wanzi, a corner of Guizhou province we visited completely by chance. There was no electricity, no heat. The squat toilet was something the students and teachers (who only have junior high school educations themselves) built by hand. A few years ago I visited schools in Shanghai that are considered – by some standards – to be the best in the world. The kids in Wanzi may as well be growing up on another planet.
Runner-up The fact that the Internet, everywhere we went, was subject to the same inane restrictions. No Facebook, no Twitter, no YouTube, no New York Times, no Bloomberg.com. China this year celebrated the fact one of its citizens finally won a Nobel Prize. They’d win a lot more if people here could read, watch and think whatever they want.
Best moment Standing in the serene monasteries of Kangding, on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. The Tibetan areas of China are afire with anger and hopelessness these days, but the Tibetans remain incredibly hospitable to any visitors, including any Han Chinese genuinely interested in Tibetan culture and religion.
Most frustrating moment For me, it came on the longest train ride of our trip – 22 hours from Chengdu in southern Sichuan province to Lanzhou in Gansu western province – when train staff seemed to decide we were spies sent to gather intelligence on what train service was like in remoter parts of China. First they wouldn’t let us visit the third-class seats, and then they wouldn’t let me hold the dinner car menu. Finally they blocked John from taking a picture of me eating scrambled eggs with chopsticks. Paging John Le Carré.
John’s volcano moment came when he attempted to check luggage at the train station in Lanzhou. Staff decided there was something suspicious in his bag, and then dug through to pull out an offending bottle of Gillette shaving cream. A lady with a camera came to photograph the possible WMD. She took photographs of us as John gave her a free introduction to prison English.