The New Long March
by Ed Jocelyn
This is the journey that set me on the road to Red Rock. It was dreamed up over a couple of bottles of Pubu Beer in the small town of Kaili, Guizhou, during the May 1st holidays in 2000. My old friend Andy McEwen was sharing the drinking and dreaming – and thought that was all he was doing, until 12 months later when I asked if he fancied doing it for real.
The plan was to do something no one had done before. We would retrace the route followed by Chairman Mao and the Chinese Red Army on the legendary Long March, and we would do so entirely on foot. The history books promised us a 12,500-kilometer odyssey; Mao's poetry dangled the prospect of "10,000 rivers and 1,000 mountains". I think the latter proved more accurate.
We'd already thrown away any pretence at careers when we moved to China, so resigning our rather dispiriting jobs didn't seem such a big deal. On October 16, 2002, we loaded up our backpacks and walked across a bridge over the Yudu River in southern Jiangxi – 68 years to the day after Chairman Mao began the same trek from the same spot.
Andy and I told the stories of our own journey and the Red Army's in our imaginatively titled book, The Long March. Make our publisher happy and buy it here:
We also put together an album of pictures taken during the 384 days we spent on the road. Make Andy happy and buy one from the box under his bed. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Alternatively, take the cheap option and scroll down to see a gallery and read stories from this, our first expedition.
Longsheng County in Guangxi is home to a number of different peoples, including members of the Red Yao such as those pictured here. Longsheng is a friendly northern outpost of the Guilin area, one of the biggest tourist attractions of South China. Things got less welcoming over the next border, which took us into Hunan Province. Because we arrived by an obscure mountain path, it took the police several hours to notice our intrusion, at which point we were stopped, detained overnight and then expelled into Guizhou. "Don't try coming back," advised the policeman who put us on the bus. So much for our plan to walk every inch of the way.
Andy crosses Big River in Xishui County, northern Guizhou Province. After leaving Jiangxi and crossing Guangdong, Guangxi and Hunan in less than two months, we spent the next three months circling around Guizhou. This took us from midwinter to early spring, the most glorious time of year in China's poorest province. The swathes of yellow are rape flowers.
While the north of the province blooms in spring, southwest Guizhou offers one of the most barren stretches of the Long March trail. Soldiers' memoirs leave it out almost entirely, pausing only to note escalating starvation and exhaustion. For us, running out of water was a constant danger here. Temperatures soared into the 30s. We struggled through mountains dotted with the poorest villages we saw anywhere, connected to the outside world by nothing more than the same footpaths the Red Army trudged nearly 70 years earlier. Although we were on a journey of exploration, the most memorable discovery during this period was a shop with a fridge full of cold drinks.
Ed crosses the Nameless River on the border of Ziyun and Wangmo counties. Behind Ed, villagers cross in the opposite direction on their way to market. Everyone had waited a day for the river to subside after a storm flooded the ford. The people who live here belong to the Bouyei group; most of those we met lived as subsistence farmers well outside the mainstream of Chinese society. Many spoke no Chinese at all. Average annual incomes were reckoned to be equivalent to about US$50. Teachers in the local school said only around 10 percent of girls got any education.
Ed's favorite spot on the entire Long March trail. This is Yihai, a tiny lake in Mianning County, western Sichuan Province. It's also one of the most celebrated sites of the Long March. At this point, the Reds faced two difficulties: one was the heavily forested mountains ahead; the other was the local Yi people, a famously militant and independent group. The story goes that the Red Army Chief-of-Staff Liu Bocheng solved this problem by making an oath of brotherhood with Yi leader Guoji Xiaoyedan. The two men met by the shore of Yihai and shared a bowl of cock's blood, then Xiaoyedan accompanied Liu and his men to the edge of the Yi lands. Xiaoyedan remains an official Communist hero, but another version goes that he subsequently betrayed the Reds, killing soldiers left behind in order to stay in the Guomindang's good books. It did him no good; Guomindang officials later had him arrested and executed, anyway.
The Dadu River, viewed from the highest point on the trail followed by the Reds as they raced to Luding, the only town with a bridge over this ferocious river. It's about 45 kilometers from here to Luding. The Red vanguard covered this distance in about 12 hours, after having just marched 75 kilometers in less than two days. Sadly for Andy, he was in hospital at this point and missed this wonderful trail (read on for Andy's health report). Yang Xiao replaced him and got his first taste of Long Marching. You might say his road to Red Rock started here.
He might look lazy, but there's another reason Andy struggled to keep his eyes open on the Long March. This picture was taken less than two months after he emerged from hospital, where it had been discovered that Andy had trekked 3,500 kilometers while suffering from a chronic oesophageal condition. As a result, acid began dissolving his oesophagus and stomach lining and his body stopped absorbing protein. His weight fell from a healthy 80-plus kilos to 55 kilos.
Doctors suggested Andy give up and rest for at least six months. He said he'd be happy to rest for six years, just as soon as he'd finished the last 2,000 kilometers or so.
Andy makes enthusiastic friends with a group of Tibetan ladies who herd yaks and goats near the top of Mt Dagu, the highest mountain of the New Long March, on the border of Heishui and Songpan counties in northwest Sichuan. The girls' excitement may be connected to the fact that no men live on the mountain.
We reach the pass over Mt Yakexia, the second-highest point of the New Long March at around 4,300 meters above sea level. It was actually the wrong pass and we spent much of the following day teetering along goat tracks and hacking through primeval forest. The experience rather dulled our appreciation of this majestic trail, shadowed by Mt Aotaiji, the tallest mountain in Heishui County. It was lucky we kept to the road less traveled, as much later I discovered that foreigners were still barred from Heishui until the year after we passed through. The whole of Sichuan Province is now open to foreign travelers.
The Tibetan town of Zhuokeji has been used on numerous occasions as the backdrop to film and television productions. No other town on the Long March trail had preserved its traditional architectural integrity to such an extent. In summer 1935, Zhuokeji witnessed the unusual spectacle of the Red Army fighting itself. Surrounding fields were left strewn with bodies after units belonging to the rival 1st and 4th Red Front Armies clashed. Local Tibetans dug a mass grave below the town by the river; in the 1970s, children dug up some of the bones and sold them to a fertilizer company.
The unusual sod houses of Banyou, which lies at the very northern edge of the "Grasslands", a vast expanse of swamp and prairie where hundreds, possibly thousands of Red soldiers perished. Some starved to death after collapsing from exhaustion and altitude sickness; others were sucked into the bogs or died from exposure. Exiting this region was among the happiest moments of the New Long March expedition.