We were driving back from Chenhe today, a mountain village in the north of Hanyuan County in our organisation's battered old Beijing jeep, going too fast (Lao He our driver always goes too fast) along the windy concrete surfaced road that follows - indeed has collapsed into in places - the Liusha river back down the valley to Fulin the county town.
It was a beautiful sunny evening, the rice in the paddy fields ripe with the harvest just begun. We had passed through Jiuxiang famous locally for its fruit trees. The roadsides were lined with stalls set up by farmers to sell the new pear crop. I had a lot on my mind - some stuff has come up at work and I was feeling a bit introspective.
We rounded a bend and immediately could see that something was up
. A crowd of people
filled the roadside nearest the river, and there were a number of vehicles
"There's been an accident
", said Lao He, "Let's stop and see what's happened."
my conditioned reaction
to a road accident is to drive past if there's no obvious need for you to stop and help, and we were certainly not the first on this scene
As we slowed to a halt past the crowd, you could see a green tarpaulin
spread over a what was obviously a body
. There were blood stains
spreading out from underneath, soaked into the concrete surface of the road. Someone had been killed.
We stopped and Lao He went off to ask. I held back a bit. In this part of rural China, a foreigner is still a big event and I didn't think it would be appropriate to create any fuss. The sound of sobbing
rose and fell from over by the dead person
. Standing back as I was, I was struck by the extreme range
of responses on display from us, the crowd
. There were the people grieving audibly and incessantly - family and friends I suppose; there were smirking teen boys, some of whom cycled over to gawk at me instead; there were government official types getting out of fancy cars and looking serious; people passing by stopping briefly and then heading on, farmers leaning back on the parapet settling in for the duration; Lao He straight off into the thick of it, me hovering on the fringes.
Lao He returned, armed with the doubly distressing news that the dead person was a child. A big truck had come too fast round the corner, and had struck three children on their way home from school. There was this child dead, one in a critical condition already on their way to hospital, one not so bad. The truck hadn't stopped - Lao He thought the driver probably hadn't noticed.
We drove on, still too fast. Children ran about on the roadsides heedless, as usual. Vehicles in various states of disrepair, tyres untroubled by tread, trucks, tractors, three wheelies, careered cheerfully about with no strict sense of traffic regulations. As we got further from the scene of the killing, its special atmosphere was diluted into the everyday scenes of people coming home from the fields or sitting chatting by the roadside in the warm evening sun.
I think I'm right in saying that there are more deaths on China's roads per capita than anywhere else in the world. Certainly I've seen more fatal accidents in the few years I've lived here than the thirty I spent in the UK. Here in the countryside you hear horror stories of half a village being killed in one go as the truck they are hitching a ride into market on overturns on some winding mountain road. English children don't play outside so much these days for fear of the car. Here I see children tumbling about happily by the roadside all the time, or trekking home from school laden down with books, even tiny three year olds off on an errand to the market.
And this young one I saw today will not go home again.