|It took Bill
Purves three months to walk across China from Hong Kong to the
Mongolian border. He set off with just a rain pancho, tent flap and a
small backpack, buying food as he went along, navigating by asking
farmers for directions. To say that this trek took him off the beaten
path would be an understatement. Purves avoided tourists spots and
towns larger than the smallest dot on the map. His path took him along
paddy trails and berms. He camped out under bridges or sometimes
haystacks or occasionally with a Chinese peasant family.
This is a China travel book unlike any other. It has
the feel of the "real" China, the China that is known to the 80 per
cent of its 1.3 billion people who live on farms and in small towns
but is almost totally unknown to outsiders. Dip into the text at
almost any page and come across fascinating observations and insights
about rural China not seen anywhere else in English. The text is
illustrated with maps and photographs supplemented by an appendix
giving advice on the practicalities of walking in China.
Bill Purves is a 57-year-old Canadian engineer,
longtime Hong Kong resident and competitive runner and race-walker. He
is the author of Barefoot in the Boardroom about daily life in
a typical Chinese office and factory.
travelling through a China linked by ancient trails and pathways....It is a journey
littered with wryly delivered comic incidents. Camping in a disused
brickworks one night, Purves is woken by a goatherd who invites him to
stay in a nearby village. Purves declines, only to be woken later by
the goatherd's entire family, who have come to gape at the weird
China Morning Post
"Thanks to Bill Purves and his
rather mistitled book, China on the Lam, all those who love sleeping
rough, rain-soaked clothing, foot blisters (your Swiss Army knife will be
great for lancing them) and endurance marches can now learn the answers—two,
yes, no, and 12 paper napkins....Purves has written an enjoyable read about
one man's jaunt through a rural China that seems like a place out of
yesteryear. But it's still there, with it's fabled hospitality intact.
Purves reminds us of this, and we should be grateful."
Edited extract from China on the
Lam, as it appeared in The Weekend Australian Magazine, May 4-5, 2002.
View from the ridge: From the serried, wooded hills of Guangdong, Bill
Purves can see where he’s staying tonight.
Topography is one of the joys of central Guangdong.
It's a jumble of low but rugged and wooded hills. As a child, my image
of China had been of vast rice paddies, but now I was spending my days
climbing up and down forested ridges. The rice paddies are small and
contorted, moulded into narrow valleys. The public way either winds
along a stream bed or hugs the edge of the forest a metre or two above
the level of the adjacent fields.
Route finding in country like this consists of
deciding how far to stick with the current valley before striking off
on a trail over the bounding ridge. At each ridge top, there is
likely, to be a junction of several trails marked by a clearing with a
little shine. The typical valley shelters a string of villages – each
a cluster of half-a-dozen adobe houses. Once or twice a day, my route
takes me through a small town. These towns are my signposts the places
whose names I can read from the map and refer to in asking directions.
They are also my only reliable opportunities to get a hot meal.
You can literally spot a town in Guangdong province
a mile away. I emphasise the word "town" as opposed to "village". In
contrast to the peaked tile roofs of the villages, most town buildings
are cast concrete creations with flat roofs and whitewashed exteriors.
It's the whitewash that so strikes the eye from the nearby hillsides.
Newer towns and villages, built by the communes since 1949, have
straight streets and buildings lined up like army barracks.
The buildings usually have two storeys. The bottom
storey is one large room with a high ceiling. The wall facing the
street is wide open, closed only with a set of removable boards. Shops
remove them all during the day; private residences remove just a few
to let in light and ventilation. The second storey is reached by
stairs at the back. It overhangs the pavement right out to the street
line, so the pavement is sheltered from the sun and the rain. Toilet
facilities consist of a public block of latrines at the edge of town.
These, too, are built to a standard plan - holes in a concrete slab
separated by low, conversation-friendly partitions. There's a men's
side and a women's side filling a common pit.
In the new climate of economic liberalisation,
restaurants have established themselves as one of the most popular
forms of private enterprise. The fittings and sanitation in these
establishments vary widely. In the prosperous south, I've seen
shed-roofed joints equipped with karaoke machines. At the other
extreme, I met one proprietor who might not have offered karaoke, but
she brought a metal basin of hot coals and placed it under my table. I
found it a far more welcome amenity, as I had stumbled in cold, hungry
Finding snug places to camp is a constant worry. I
was invited to stay in village homes about every other night, but
remained reluctant to accept. In most cases it was because the
invitation came too early in the day, but I also felt guilty about
accepting hospitality from families in such obvious poverty.
On one occasion I spotted on the hillside a very
ramshackle hut half-roofed with corrugated sheeting. It proved to be a
faggot store - a community project that buys up bundles of grass and
ferns from rural women and sells them to town dwellers for firewood.
The shed was piled high with bund1es of dried grass that made an
excellent mattress. It was a pleasure to awake on a chilly night and
hear rain drumming oil the tin roof, then snuggle deeper into my
Camping out this way is an often nerve-wracking
experience. There is nothing illegal about my spending the night in a
communal shed - It's everyone's property in a socialist state – but
had someone come along, the discovery that I had not accepted the
local hospitality would have led to embarrassment all around.
One afternoon I run into a couple of musicians. They
tell me they wander around the country working for room and board: "We
play for weddings, funerals, celebrations...weddings are the best
because we can always enjoy the banquet."
I suggest that business must be pretty slow, but
they explain that they manage to find an audience almost nightly. In
the past only the big landowners could afford them, but these days the
pool of clients is much larger and more democratic. They face
competition from television in the cities where there's reliable
electricity, but in the country they're busier than ever, at least for
a few more years.
Each is carrying an erhu – a kind of
miniature two-string cello. A band of just two erhus would have
a pretty whiny timbre. But I suppose they sing as they play, and maybe
they have some percussion instruments in their baskets which they play
with their feet. I would have liked to hear a bit of their repertoire,
but we are heading in opposite directions.
I wish them well in this age of television.
Copyright © Bill Purves