The Big Road
"Allons! whoever you are, come travel with me! Travelling with me you find what never tires.
Whoever you are, come forth! a man or a woman, come forth! You must not stay sleeping or dallying there in the house, though you built it, or though it has been built for you." WALT WHITMAN.

"The Master said: With coarse rice to eat, with
water to drink, and my bended arm for a pillow; -- I
have still joy in the midst of these
things." -- Confucian Analects.



THE city of Hwochow is situated on the main road which connects Taiyueanfu with Sianfu, the direct route from Peking to the northwestern provinces. Along this road pass strings of camels, laden with the merchandise of Mongolia; thousands of donkeys, carrying bags of flour from the more luxuriant southern plains; cartloads of tobacco and paper from the large cities in the south of the province, and caravans of travellers; whole families packed into large carts moving to some new home; mat-covered litters swung between two mules and heavily curtained, in which the wives of an official are transported to their new abode; pedestrians, clad in sky-blue cotton, "yamen runners" yelling as they ride at furious speed to clear the way before them, and bearers of burdens combine to form a moving picture of interest and beauty upon the Big Road, as it is called.

Not least interesting among the wayfarers are the Lhamas from distant Thibet nearing the end of their long pilgrimage to the famous holy mountain Wutai, where each one hopes to be granted the vision of the famous opening lotus. For many months, stretching into years, this hope has sustained them through the weary pilgrimage. From the threshold of their Lhama home they have walked every step of the thousand and more miles, some at every tenth, some at every fifth step, touching the ground with their forehead, and some measuring the whole length of the way with their outstretched body on the road.

As the traveller enters Hwochow from the north, he crosses a bridge, passing on his right a large metal cow. Beyond, flows the Fen River, and before him is the city gate. To this brazen image is committed the important function of guarding Hwochow from flood, and so successfully does it accomplish its task that dryness and drought are the normal condition of the countryside!

Turning to the east he faces the magnificent range of the Ho Mountains, in winter covered with snow, and in warmer seasons touched with the beauty of ever-changing colour. These mountains are part of the range which, farther north, is traversed by the famous Lingshih Pass.

Excepting in the early summer months when patches of vivid green indicate the fields of growing wheat, the landscape is of a uniform shade which is best described as khaki. Owing to the friable nature of the soil formation known as loess, the traveller, whether journeying from north or south, finds himself in a succession of deep gullies.

This wheat-growing land was formerly given over to the cultivation of the opium poppy, and for miles over the plain the wonderful iridescent bloom gave the appearance of a sea of changing light and shade as the wind passed over it.

In the year 1908 a proclamation was issued forbidding the growth of opium under penalty of death, and so vigorously has the law been enforced that the poppy has completely disappeared from view, and no man is bold enough to openly grow that which has been forbidden by the authorities.

For ten months in the year brilliant sunshine can be counted upon, and during that time, except for dust combined with heat or cold, the physical condition of a journey may be comparatively easy. Ease of mind, however, can only be attained by the philosopher who, putting away all thought of unseemly haste, shares the Easterner's pleasures of observation, contemplation, and wayside intercourse.

The journey from Taiyueanfu to Hwochow is accomplished in five stages, and nothing will induce the carter to shorten or change them, though hours may have been wasted in some narrow gully where, spite his warning yells, his cart met another at a point where advance or retreat on either side were alike impossible. After fierce recriminations the two men each produce a pipe, and it is good practice for the impatient Westerner to see them sit on their heels and talk the matter over. Time passes, but the carter is untrammelled by any artificial measure thereof, and after endless discussion, amid comforting whiffs of tobacco, he proceeds to think of a plan whereby the deadlock may be overcome. How they manage to extricate themselves, one never knows! Some of the bank comes down, yells and shouts do their part, and at last the traffic, which may now amount to fifty waiting carts, slowly passes by. It is an everyday occurrence, and you ask, "Why do they not widen the road?" "Nobody's business," is the reply. "Who would spend the money?"

It is, however, the rainy season that reveals to the full the horrors of Chinese travelling. The loess is slippery beyond description, and the litter or cart in which you travel may be stuck for hours in a pit of greasy mud, black by reason of the coal dust so plentiful throughout the district, so deep that nothing but the mule's head is visible, the plunging body being hidden in the black mass. Your only hope at such a moment is to throw yourself with the grace of an expert gymnast on to the bank, thankful if you escape unhurt and only bespattered by mud. These pits are carefully kept in condition by a small group of men who appear, as by magic, to offer assistance at the suitable moment. No plight, however, excites their pity sufficiently to induce them to render help apart from a pecuniary reward of an exorbitant nature. Once within the city gates there is hope that you will soon find a shelter. You will have accomplished "the stage" which has been allotted from time immemorial. Marco Polo himself followed these stages in the year 1280 as we do to-day in the twentieth century.

The main road runs through the city of Hwochow from north to south, and many inns invite the traveller to rest, the red scrolls at the door assuring him that "From the four seas men all gather to this great hotel," and that the fame of its food is far-reaching.

Crossing this road from east to west is another important street where the official residence is situated. Here, most of the large shops are to be found and in the centre of the city is a fine tower, but all the smaller streets are alike, running between blank walls, from which access to as many as twelve courtyards may be through one small door. Numerous pigs walk unhindered up and down, acting as scavengers, and as such are not unneeded, for every one throws the refuse of the household out of the court door, caring nothing for the convenience of the public.

Parallel with the Yamen street is another important thoroughfare known as Prospect Hill. Here stands the largest and most important temple in the city, and almost next door to this, with the money given by his wife, Mr. Hsi secured small premises and announced that he was opening an opium refuge, and was willing to receive patients. Particulars as to rules and expenses were widely published, and in this place the first results of the love and self-sacrifice of Mrs. Hsi were seen.

chapter i mrs hsis gift
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