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.
Best meal Lao Sun Jia, a kebabs-and-noodles restaurant we found in the Muslim Quarter of Xi'an. Long after we were full, we ordered one last plate of their superbly spiced mutton skewers. Part of the experience was Xi'an itself, a city that retains more of its pre-revolutionary history than most in the People's Republic.
Worst meal The one thing Mao Zedong and I would have agreed on is the merit of the Chairman's favourite dish, a braised pork dish known as hong shao rou. So when we arrived in Mao's hometown of Shaoshan, I was looking forward to a indulging in what I expected would be some of the finest hong shao rou I'd ever had. I don't remember the name of the restaurant – it was late, so we went to the only place we could find that was still open – but I do remember feeling of disappointment.
Favourite city Fenghuang, an ancient town in the south of Hunan province. It's postcard-perfect China, a place of pagodas and stone bridges slung over the slow-moving Tuo River. Get there while you can – the rest of China is encroaching fast, with swathes of "ancient-style" condominiums going up where something beautiful used to be.
Most depressing city Guiyang, the capital of China's poorest province, Guizhou. The city is filled with tightly wound people scrambling to try and make a living. The astonishing part was the number of luxury cars – not just the Audis and Mercedes that are standard fare for Chinese officials, but Porsches and Lamborghinis too – we saw idling among the three-wheeled taxis and mud-caked public buses. Living in Beijing, you see a gap between rich and poor that reminds me of some of the more troubled parts of the United States. In Guizhou, the distance between the absurdly well off and the hopelessly poor reminded me of South Africa.
Best hotel The Pullman hotel, in aforementioned Guiyang. An oasis of functionality just a short walk from the city's chaotic train station. The Pullman gets extra points for not being the local Kempinski Hotel, which earned the wrath of China-based journalists by allowing security officers into a German newspaper reporter's room, where they promptly proceeded to give the reporter's laptop and other equipment an unwelcome bath as punishment for reporting on the province's epic poverty problem.
Worst hotel The Huaihua Great Hotel in the city of Huaihua, Hunan province. Despite one of the most interesting minibars ever (you could pretty much set up your own casino/brothel with the contents), it doesn't live up to the name.
Moment that gave me hope for China's future Meeting a 34-year-old bureaucrat in the city of Lanzhou. Every day, he sticks an air quality monitor out his window and posts the particulate matter recordings on his Weibo account – alongside a picture of the city's always-hazy skyline taken from his 14th-floor office – so netizens can compare his measurements with the official data published by the local government. He also showed me how he gets around China's infamous Great Firewall of Internet restrictions so he can use Facebook and Twitter and read BBC news – all on his government computer.
Moment that made me despair The same day I met Mr. Bao, I met another bureaucrat in Lanzhou, this time in one of the city's Tibetan-themed bars. This official was just as friendly to me as Mr. Bao, but insisted on ruining a nice conversation by constantly talking about the need for China to fight a war with Japan. He admitted to being a "so-called corrupt official" and claimed to be outrageously wealthy as a result.
The big picture At Chongqing train station, I wound up standing beside a young woman – perhaps 18 or 19 years old – who was studying metallurgy at Northeastern University in faraway Shenyang. She was travelling in the company of her grandparents, who came to the train station carrying two baskets stuffed with duck, goose and chicken eggs from their farm, as well as a bag of dried sausage. Gifts to share with the extended family during the upcoming Chinese New Year holiday.
As I chatted with the student about life in Canada and the gender ratio in her metallurgy class in Shenyang (she was one of only four women in her class), I looked over at her grandparents. The way they looked at their university-going granddaughter – the pride and amazement in their faces as she spoke to a foreigner in a foreign language – reminded me of how far the people of this country have come in the past two generations. The Communist Party government wants to take credit for that, but all it has done is get partly out of the way.