Monday, January 15, 2007

My Long March

Part I

Though still in its infancy, the new year has proven to be an eventful one. After spending the holidays among old friends in Kunming, I started out on this year’s first project, taking part in the final days of CCTV’s My Long March Event.

My Long March is a television event devised by Cui Yongyuan, a famous talkshow host on CCTV (China Central Television). It commemorates the seventieth anniversary of the Long March, which if you don’t know about, you’re just going to have to google it on your own. For the event, 26 hand-selected participants retraced the main Long March route across China, who crossed eight provinces, 6,100 kilometers, eight months and four snow mountains without anything resembling a brake. Each participant had to carry their own water, clothing, toiletries and sleeping bag on their backs, along with, lo and behold, two cakes of our Dayi Classic 66 tea (one raw, one ripe).

Back before the event began, we at Dayi agreed to sponsor the My Long March Event, as did Aigo, Chery, Kingcamp and a few others. What we did differently is that on top of that, we also became their charity partner. The Long March passed through much of China’s poorest, most remote regions, which is what they still are today. Through auctions of special collector’s teas, we have already raised over 10 million RMB (1.2 million USD) for charity projects along the Long March Route, and in cooperation with Cui Yongyuan and the China Youth Development Foundation, we have built a series of charity schools, installed water management facilities, donated disaster relief supplies, restored tombs of fallen soldiers and handed out jackets, blankets and other supplies to the old surviving soldiers who had been left behind 70 years ago.

The My Long March Team was scheduled to march into Huining, a county in Gansu Province, on January 5, ending their eight month ordeal. Huining is the county where the three divisions of the Red Army reunited and founded their first Soviet base region, and it is the official end point of the Long March. My job was to put together a team of seven people from our company to walk the last two days of the march with them.

I chose to have four workers sent from the factory, and for Yao Tianlai, one of our dealers, Zhang Wei, one of our marketing guys, and myself to come out for the hike. The four workers were all local Menghai youths, representing the Hani, Dai, Bulang and Han Chinese ethnic groups. Some of them had never left the comfy environs of southern Yunnan, let alone set foot on a plane, so I had my work cut out for me buying them hiking gear and coordinating our work together.

Part II – Journey to the Mud Kingdom

Our flight into Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, was one of the toughest two hour flights I’ve ever taken. I was already exhausted from a day running around Kunming handling last minute details, and our plane was scheduled for a stopover in Chengdu. We slowly approached the Sichuan basin in the evening, and the plane began to skip across the basin’s moist, cold air like a stone on water. It was the worst turbulence I’d ever seen.

We were all about ready to pass out as we finally pulled into the tarmac at Lanzhou’s airport. My view out of the window was obscured by a heavy fog, and the strange thing was that my view of the indoor baggage claim area was as well. Later that night, our gracious hosts from the Gansu Rural Credit Cooperative, who provided us with a van and a late-night meal of suckling lamb, explained to me that air pollution levels in the city of Lanzhou stand at five hundred times the accepted normal levels.

We came in late at night so we didn’t see much, but the next day I found that we didn’t miss much. Lanzhou is a poor, filthy city surrounded by a desolate landscape. Luckily, we immediately set off for more rural environs.

Gansu, at least the parts of it that I saw, is a very poor, bleak environment. Just North and East of the Tibetan Plateau, it is home to the headwaters of the Yellow River. The entire province seems to be made of yellow mud, and trees are exceedingly rare. It was ridiculously cold, and a recent snow had packed ice on the roads, impeding our progress to Huining County.

We got up before dawn the next day to catch up with the Long March team in Maying, roughly 60 kilometers from the Huining County Seat. As we slid our way through the mud hills in the darkness, our headlights occasionally illuminated crowds of children walking for miles in the sub-zero darkness to get to school. It was definitely uphill both ways for these impoverished children.

The sun rose over a Martian landscape. The blinding white of the snow contrasted with spots of yellow where it had blown away on the rolling mud hills. The villages scattered about were almost completely made of mud, the only thing in abundance here, and old disused structures were left to slowly melt away into the earth.

We caught up with the Long March team just outside of Maying. These were not the people I had met eight months before. They all looked five years older, darker and leaner. The main group walked in a close formation, bearing red flags at the front and flanked by CCTV support vehicles. Behind them stretched a motley collection of stragglers, volunteers, reporters and others who had been following the team all along.

True to the communist spirit of the event, we pulled out our team’s red flag and lined up along the road to greet and salute the Long March team. They were happy to see some familiar faces and welcomed us right in. We started marching immediately, climbing our way up the mountain.

We walked, and then we climbed, and then we walked some more, and then we walked some more. All told, we covered 37 kilometers that day, only stopping for five minutes every hour or so. All through the endless frozen hills, the local peasants dropped what they were doing to gawk at us. The women in their tattered bandannas, and the old men in rough, filthy sweaters just stood there staring. Who were these crazy people marching by with their flags, backpacks and entourage? What were they looking for in this land of melting mud and frozen ice?

And then we walked some more. My face was numb from the biting wind. And then we walked some more. My feet began to holler as they tore apart. And then we walked some more. My knees began to bitch and moan. And then we walked some more. The roads and dirt tracks were packed with hard snow and ice broken only by the chains on the support cars.

At midday, we spent an hour climbing to high ground and after a brief rest descended along a winding road into another treeless mud valley. The round, bald mountains stretched out endlessly on all sides. Everyone from the edges to the depths of the valley came down to greet us as we walked into the village to pay our respects to a mass grave. This was Zhongchuan Township, where over a thousand red army troops died in a gruesome battle with KMT forces. From the gravesite we continued down into the depths of the valley on a seemingly endless road. This is where the pain grew insistent and demanding. Downhill is much harder on the body than any incline could ever hope to be. As we winced our way down, the locals spirited effortlessly past us, hoping to get a good spot to watch the coming spectacle.

At around three o’clock we walked into the Dadunliang Project Hope Elementary school. The only school for several miles around, it was one of our recent charity projects. We were building eight new buildings to house the overflow of poor students who made this walk every day just to learn how to read. They made us a simple lunch, which I needed more than I had thought, and then we struggled like ancient men to stand for the coming ceremony.

We gathered with the children and local officials at the gate of the school to dedicate it and give out backpacks, books and sports equipment to the some 200 students served here. We were made to stand (owwwww!) as the local officials, one by one, read long speeches carefully calculated to mean nothing. Then it was my turn. I made a short motivational speech directly to the kids. I told them that I admired their spirit, trudging through the pre-dawn cold to learn how to read, and I told them that if they could make something of themselves, to remember where they came from and help the ones they left behind. I got a strong applause from the team members and audience alike, though I’m not sure if it was for a good speech or for the mercy of my brevity.

To give a sense of the poverty in the region, you can take note that the most common propaganda statement on the walls of the village huts was one naming a cash bonus for women who elect for vasectomies. The bonus when two women in a family get the operation is 3400 RMB, about 400 dollars. The people have to struggle for half a year to raise meager yields of grains and potatoes from the lifeless mud, and the rest of their time is a struggle to stay warm in their mud huts and give fodder to their flocks of sheep. The whole north of China is perilously short on water and vegetation, and desertification is becoming an ever greater menace as these people struggle to make their lives a little better.

And then we walked some more…

We climbed our way, bodies in agony, out of the valley, and when we finally reached the top, we faced a long descent into the next one. Don’t worry, just another ten kilometers to go! After a few more eons had passed, my numbed mind slowly came to the realization that we had stopped walking. It was time for the team to find a place to sleep.

Going corporate has its perks. I gratefully poured what remained of my body into our luxury van (thanks credit co-op!) and watched dazed as the mud houses whizzed past. My mind started to come back later as liquor was poured down my throat in the hotel restaurant. Apparently it was a nice dinner, and my belly was very happy. I floated upstairs and passed out with a faint notion that I could sleep for five hours, if lucky, before it was time to walk again.

And then we walked some more…

Part III

The road was a lot better and a bit shorter the next day, but my body was not happy. I really thought I had injured myself, but I couldn’t let my team down. We followed a flat road for about 25 kilometers into Huining, where we were greeted by a massive crowd who clapped, shook our hands and stuffed potatoes into our pockets. There was a huge celebration at reunion square on the site of the Red Army reunion seventy years ago.

My team hobbled out of the square sometime later. We were all proud of ourselves, but a little sheepish feeling so tortured after sixty kilometers when the Long March team had walked for 6,100. They’re really a great bunch of folks.

What had moved me the most, beyond the poverty and desolation of the area, beyond the physical challenges of the march, was the spirit of the Long March team, and how warmly they had welcomed us. Other sponsors had basically thrown a bunch of money at them for pure advertising. We had worked with the team throughout the trip to organize charity work all along the way. Several of them came over and thanked me (though I was just a part of a team myself) for our efforts. They all said basically the same thing: “If we didn’t have this work, we would be just plain walking, and what would be the point of that? We all feel that we’ve done something meaningful over the past months, and you are the guys who made that possible.” Sheepishly, which is the only proper adverb for this situation in China, I replied, “thanks for leading the way.” This became our mantra as we got rip-roaring drunk that night at the final banquet together.

Though My Long March was less than the runaway television hit that we were expecting, I still find myself baffled at what just transpired. The team members had been strangers less than a year ago, and somehow they came together and went through this enormous, incomprehensible ordeal together. Only people who have shared a life-changing experience together with a bunch of strangers would be able to comprehend what was going on in their minds, and such people are rare. As we downed case after case of local wine on the government’s tab, I could see a mix of emotions in their eyes. They were elated to be at the end of their journey, but just at the edge you could see a touch of terror at the prospect of splitting up and trying to rejoin the normal world. Nothing will ever be the same for them.


Long March - 长征 Chang2 Zheng1

Charity - 公益 Gong1 Yi2, 慈善 Ci2 Shan4

Donation 捐款 Juan1 Kuan3

Gansu Province 甘肃省 Gan1 Su4 Sheng3

Poverty Stricken Region 贫困地区 Pin2 Kun4 Di4 Qu1

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