When it comes to travel writing, China’s immense size can be overwhelming. Solutions include focusing on a small town and its hinterland, or – at the other extreme – covering every province. A good compromise is taking a transect across the country, whether that thread be a river, a highway, the Great Wall, or an “in the footsteps” retracing of some historical journey. The most challenging approach is to tackle China at ground level one step at a time. Long-distance walks, however, despite promising so much, seldom deliver on the page; yes, these epic treks give us an intimate human-scale journey through undiscovered byways, but the plodding repetition of distances covered and milestones crossed off all too often creeps into the text, especially when diaries are the raw material from which the book is made.  

Graham Earnshaw’s The Great Walk of China is a welcome exception to disappointing walk-based travelogues. It’s a delightful, touching look at the Chinese heartland. And as a hopeless bibliophile, I’m always a sucker for a nice origin story. This was a case of a book inspiring another, the ghosts of an eccentric author from yesteryear passing the baton. As Earnshaw explains in the foreword, in April 2004 he was eating in a Japanese restaurant in Shanghai, reading Edwin Dingle’s Across China on Foot. The book describes the 28-year-old Englishman’s 1909 journey from Shanghai to Burma (which incidentally was not entirely on foot – he took boats up the Yangtze River to Chongqing and then walked through Sichuan and Yunnan). Dingle could not speak Chinese and his account, while readable, lacks depth. Earnshaw thought, “I can do better than that, and over another flask of hot sake I mapped out the plan. I would walk due west from Shanghai towards Lhasa.” 

He started his walk the very next day, at first not telling anyone of his project in case he should embarrass himself by abandoning it in the early stages. This almost happened. Not long into the the journey, family and health problems meant the project was shelved for nearly a year. But Earnshaw felt the call of the road and once more began notching his way westward.

Rather than a continuous journey, Earnshaw walked when time permitted, always starting from the last place where he had stopped. He slept in small inns and hotels, the absence of camping equipment making for a light backpack load. The Great Walk of China is remarkably seamless – the author almost never mentions his travels back and forth to Shanghai; consequently, it reads a lot like a continuous journey, though without the grumpiness that a single trip might have produced. Not being worn down by the drudgery of walking day after day and fielding the same questions and reactions (“England … the Opium Wars”), he remains refreshed and in good temper, eager for conversations with farmers, passers-by, and townspeople.  

Getting from Shanghai to Sichuan took nearly six years and over two thousand kilometers. He passed through the provinces of Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Anhui, Hubei and Sichuan, (and the province-sized municipality of Chongqing). Along the way, he visited towns and cities you’ve never heard of, and this highlights an interesting aspect of the trip; in many ways, Earnshaw’s walk down the back roads of China’s fly-over territory was closer to old-fashioned exploring than would be visiting wilder, more exotic areas such as western Yunnan. For most of the people he encountered in the countryside, Earnshaw says he was “the first non-Chinese person they have ever seen, let alone spoken to.”

And speak to the author they did, a testament to his language skills and friendly demeanour, and to his decision to travel alone. He obviously cast an unthreatening figure on his walk; he’s of slight build, middle-aged (53 when he started), and walks with a limp as a result of childhood illness and operations. 

Unlike many long-distance walkers, Earnshaw didn’t care about knocking off maximum mileage; instead it was “simply a series of strolls through the countryside” of a relatively modest fifteen or more kilometers a day, depending on how much time he spent chatting with people along the way. 

The Great Walk of China is a very positive account of China, and it’s not just that Earnshaw is cautious – you don’t get to stay in China for nearly four decades (and publish books on the country) if you rock the boat too much. However, it doesn’t feel like the author is pulling punches. There are multiple reasons for the optimism in his account. Earnshaw first moved to China in 1978, when the country was still reeling from decades of Maoist insanity. Even in those early post-Mao years, China was largely closed to outsiders:

Foreigners were not allowed to travel beyond a radius of about twenty kilometres from the centre of Beijing without official approval from the Foreign Ministry. Every road out of Beijing had a sign posted and a checkpoint that required foreigners to stop and turn back if they lacked a pass to proceed.

Earnshaw took his walk as evidence of how much China has opened up to the world. When hassled by officials and the police – such as after taking roadside pictures of a polluting cement factory – he sees it with rose-colored glasses by comparison to the bad old days: “I knew the plain-clothed officer 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.”

Another reason for the positivity was the great timing. A decade before it would have been impossible. “I would have been constantly stopped by police and told to go back to Shanghai.” The China he was walking through was more prosperous and open than ever, and Beijing had just taken serious measures to address the problem of the growing urban-rural rift in incomes. 

The abolition of the agricultural taxes in 2005 instantly removed the tension of centuries. There were still slogans on walls all over the countryside warning people not to beat up, surround, shout at and otherwise harass tax collectors, but it was all a thing of the past.

He says the prevailing feel of the countryside was one of peace:

…possibly the most peaceful that it had been in several hundred years. The people of the villages had the basics of life: they had readily available food, were well dressed in simple but warm clothes and even the most basic mud-brick farmhouse had satellite television. They had the time and the peace of mind to sit around in the sun playing cards for hours.

I’m sure The Great Walk of China will inspire (or has inspired – it came out in late 2010) some readers to undertake their own overland China trek, and perhaps with an eye to a book. They’re unlikely, though, as Earnshaw was with Dingle’s book to think, “I could do much better.” Still, there is an aspect of Great Walk which could be improved on. While Earnshaw avoids the pitfall of repeating travel logistics, there is arguably too much repetition in recounting short conversations with strangers. The remedy would be to mix things up with periodic in-depth interactions. This would require planning; some sections of a long walk should ideally be done with an interesting companion. Secondly, some meetings with characters should be prearranged; a purist might consider this cheating and not presenting a true cross-section of society, but which is going to produce more engaging content – chatting entirely with a selection of randomly chosen people or with a mix of the the man on the street and some hand-picked individuals?

It is one of the few longer-form conversations that stands out from The Great Walk of China. In Hubei, Earnshaw came across an educated elderly man surnamed Zhou, who tagged along for several kilometres sharing his life story, a life “ruined by the Communist Party.” Zhou’s father had been a KMT official and was executed by the Communists. In his teens, Zhou was sent from the city of Wuhan to a remote village, where he had lived ever since. The bookish Zhou had suffered persecution for his class enemy background and still remained a fish out of water, trapped in the village by poverty. His links with the outside world were books and foreign radio broadcasts: “I have a very old radio and, when the reception is good, I can listen to the BBC and Voice of America.” Meeting Earnshaw was for Zhou a heaven-sent honor: “Mr. Zhou appeared to be overwhelmed at meeting me. ‘I have waited decades for this,’ he said.”

The Great Walk of China: Travels on Foot from Shanghai to Tibet is one of the most sympathetic, non-sensationalized works I’ve read about China. It provides a heart-warming affirmation of that important insight which thoughtful travel gives us; people around the world are the same and essentially good.  

The book is published by Blacksmith Books

To learn more about Graham Earnshaw, you can read my Bookish Asia interview with him.