One question dominates thinking on the New Long March-how far? Not how far have we come since leaving Yudu in mid-October, nor how far do we have to go to Wuqi next October. Just, how far till the next rest stop. Unfortunately, this apparently simple question often sets us on a path not to enlightenment, but to mounting frustration.
For example, on a country road we stop a local man and ask how far to the next village. "What?" he invariably answers, understandably surprised to be addressed in Chinese by these two foreigners. "I said, how far to the next village?"
"Oh, the next village."
"That's right, how far is it?"
"Not very far."
We're tired. Already our nerves are fraying. "How far is "not very far"?"
"About 10 minutes on the bus."
"We're not getting the bus, we're walking. How many kilometres is it?"
"You're walking! You're not getting the bus?"
"That's right, we're not getting the bus. How far is it in kilometres?"
"It's only two yuan on the bus."
We control our urge to pick the man up and shake the answer out of him. "Please, we're not getting the bus. Could you just tell us how far it is to the next village? In kilometres."
"What country are you from?"
Sometimes we just give up and move on. We have, it seems (though we'd never thought about it before)，been brought upto expect a simple and direct answer to a simple question; our friends in the Chinese countryside, on the other hand, are in no hurry to get to the point.If we do eventually get an answer, it's usually in the old measurement of "li", a li being about half a kilometer. It's also something like, "More than 20 li." Vagueness is another thing we're not programmed to accept.
"More than 20 li - so that's, what, 21 li? Twenty-nine li? A hundred li?"
"Not as far as 30 li."
Thanks very much . When we set off on the final leg of our march to the county town of Ningyuan (in Hunan), we were told it was "more than 30 li". One hour later, it was "more than 20 li", which seemed about right given the pace at which we were walking. It then remained "more than 20 li" for the next three hours. Finally we came to the main roadswheres- joy of joys - there by the roadside was an honest-to-goodness, totally officially reliable kilometre marker . Now for sure we would find out exactly how far was left. The marker read "12 kilometres". Or in other words, more than 20 li.
We feel the best course is to ask several people and then average out their answers. In Wenshi, Guangxi, we arrived around 4pm and started asking about the distance to Lianghe,swhereswe planned to spend the night. The answers were: 20 km, 7 km, 18 km, 16 km and 15 km (this last estimate was brought down from 18 km after we looked sceptically at our advisor - it's possible to bargain distances as well as prices). The average was just over 15, not far off the real distance of 14 (as measured by the kilometer markers).
It's not only with distances that we find calculations are done in unaccustomed ways. If we ask people how old they are, there is often the same infuriating vagueness - "more than 20". If they are more exact, we have realised that - by Western standards - many people give their ages an extra year by counting themselves as one year old at the moment of birth. So while we would consider them to be, say, 25, they will say they are 26. People between 75 and 80 will simply say "80".
To be sure of someone's age, we must ask for the date of birth. One old man in Yanshou, Hunan, speaking about his uncle, gave the date of birth as "the seventh year of the reign of Emperor Guangxu". See if you can work that one out off the top of your head.