QIANWEI, China—The Chinese people spent the last few thousand years on foot. So today's generation has reason to regard the idea of unnecessary walking as ridiculous.
"You should take the bus," is the phrase we have heard more in the last three weeks than any other.
When we ask someone for walking directions to another town, they most often point us to the nearest bus stop. Sometimes we take the advice and get on the bus. More often, we keep moving until we meet someone else to ask.
Walking, it turns out, is a sublime way to get to know people in China. They're used to meeting strangers on the road. Many here understand what it feels like to walk a long way. And if they can get past the inefficiency of the enterprise, they appreciate the idea of trying to catch up with China's breakneck change by downshifting to 3 miles an hour.
After all, a good stroll is a "life in miniature," concludes author Rebecca Solnit in "Wanderlust," her definitive history of walking and its literature. "The most obvious and obscure thing in the world, this walking that wanders so readily into religion, philosophy, landscape, urban policy, anatomy, allegory, and heartbreak."
Walking might not be in vogue in today's China, a nation on pace to have more cars than the U.S. in 20 years, but walking has quite a history here. Valuing the road over the goal was a Taoist goal in itself. The 8th Century Chinese poet Li Bai, raised in what is now Sichuan Province, celebrated the delight of a failed walk in "On Visiting a Taoist Master in the Tai-T'ien Mountains and Not Finding Him."
But modern-day China can make such treks difficult. In the late 1970s, two avant-garde performance artists, Marina Abramovic and Ulay, planned a "Great Wall Walk," in which they would begin from opposite sides of the wall, walk more than 1,000 miles each and reunite in the middle. But the bureaucratic and practical ordeal of organizing the trip took many years; in 1988, they finally began, met in the middle, and broke up.
Our ambitions are not so grand. We are content to fall in step with others heading our way.
Mr. Chen, on the afternoon we met, was walking and riding his bike 18 miles round trip from his farm to the town of Nanxi. The 60-year-old was on a mission to find out how he might repair his broken television. He walked, like most people his age, in well-worn military-issue green canvas shoes. He carried a glass jar of tea in a homemade cup holder on the crossbar.
"What are you? Russian? English?" he asked, pushing his bike. "I don't speak those languages."
He didn't think twice about traveling 18 miles to ask a question. He didn't like it or dislike it. He preferred to spend the walk asking about how much items would cost him in the U.S. -- a house, a car, our camera, his bike, a cup of tea. Then, he moved on to other subjects: work, kids, politics.
"Do they have corrupt officials in your country too?" he asked.
He waved off a request for the rest of his name, but, before heading off on his branch of the road, he added: "You should really take a bus."
For all that we can see from the road in China, there is a lot that we cannot see. We miss what's behind the trees, the cover-ups, the darker side of things -- the ingredients that so often drive a reporting trip.
Yet, we also see things that we would miss, and we meet people we usually would not. Now and then, it seems, it's a trade-off worth taking.
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Tribune foreign correspondent Evan Osnos and photographer Zbigniew Bzdak are traveling in southwestern China.
IN THE WEB EDITION
Follow along and interact with Tribune correspondent Evan Osnos as he ventures across China's vast heartland: chicagotribune.com/chinajourney