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The Great Walk of China

A journalist's journey by foot from Shanghai to Tibet offers a fascinating look at a part of China seldom seen by foreigners.

By Mike Revzin / December 23, 2010

The Great Walk of China: Travels on foot from Shanghai to Tibet By Graham Earnshaw Blacksmith Books 342 pp., $16.95

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Imagine you’re a Chinese peasant, stooped over in your field, planting rice.

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You glance up and there – coming down the road – is something you’ve never seen before: a foreigner. As he gets closer you see that he’s middle-aged and has blue eyes. When he opens his mouth, you’re astonished to discover that he speaks fluent Chinese.

In recent years, thousands of people in remote Chinese towns and villages have encountered that foreigner – Graham Earnshaw – who is walking westward across China, from Shanghai to Tibet.

Earnshaw’s book The Great Walk of China actually tells the story of a series of walks. Since 2004 he has been walking across China for several days each month, sleeping in local inns. He then returns to Shanghai, and later comes back to the exact spot where he left off.

This feat is all the more remarkable because Earnshaw, who is in his 50s, walks with a decided limp – the result of a childhood illness and surgery that left one leg shorter than the other.

Originally from England, Earnshaw has worked as a journalist and businessman in China and the region since the 1970s. His walk is taking him through China’s heartland – a far less prosperous area than the east coast. It is also a region where many people have never seen a foreigner.

Earnshaw’s language ability allows him to chat with ordinary people and read everything from graffiti to propaganda slogans.

In many small towns, police are suspicious of what he’s up to and demand to see his passport and visa. Earnshaw seems to enjoy toying with them – asking them to show him their ID. When one policeman responds that he is off duty and does not have his ID, Earnshaw replies, “Oh well, next time then,” and continues on his way – only to be stopped a short time later by police with IDs.

But he receives a friendlier reception every day from farmers and townsfolk, who invite him to stop for a cup of tea or to share a meal. Along the way he visits schools, and even tries his hand at planting rice.

He sees the quirky side of these remote towns, making curious discoveries such as the photo studio in which Chinese babies pose in front of pictures of Hawaiian beaches. Or the small shops in which people pay to sit and have an intravenous liquid drip into their arm as a cure for minor ailments like colds.

When the Chinese tell him they are poor compared with the people in England, he responds that they have fresh food and clean air. Earnshaw admits he sometimes glamorizes life in rural China, but he points out that, even in poor areas, life there is better today than it once was.

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