Why do I keep going to Hunan? My trips to the province, the birthplace of Mao Zedong, tend to end in disaster. Trains are missed because of misinformation, places advertised as open are closed and the people seem to be so proud of their very mediocre and over-vinegary food that they don't feel they need Sichuan restaurants.
On my last visit, I got the worst flu of my adult life; flu so bad it must have been shark flu, at least. A perfect storm of construction dust, being frozen to the bone day and night (Hunan people, thinking they live in the south, don't believe in indoor heating) and a death-walk among people spitting incessantly was unleashed on my immune system, knocking it to the ground, stomping on its face and laughing.
In bed shaking with fever after the terrible, freezing, two-day journey home to Hong Kong, my thoughts turned to the Long March. How the hell had as many as 6,000 of the 86,000 Red Army marchers survived? I couldn't even manage a single day of trekking in the scraggy, foggy mountains of Zhangjiajie while breathing in noxious fumes before I collapsed, whereas those Long Marchers were at it for a whole year! And while wearing, presumably, crappy shoes and clothes, sleeping outside, trudging through snow, being bombarded by the Nationalists and starving.
Although the numbers vary significantly depending on the source, it seems that fewer than 10 per cent of those who set out in October 1934 made it to Shaanxi province after this terrible 6,000km to 9,000km (depending on the source) trek. Evidently Mao was one of them.
Mao was made of steel; that's how he survived to enable China to be dirt poor for another generation or two. Interestingly, several biographies I have read about this epic walk claim that Mao was often carried, lying on a litter, across the most difficult mountain passes. For years I thought that surely couldn't be. One, because as such a great leader he must have walked prominently, setting a good example, and two, because how would it even be possible to carry a man that big across such terrain?
But when I arrived in Hunan I realised, halfway up the steepest part of a four-hour hike, that carrying people with workable legs is indeed a thing. My friend F and I were confronted by an army of carriers so persistent that we were tempted to pay them 100 yuan (HK$120) to haul us along, just to stop them haranguing us.
If we had done so, perhaps I would have avoided the flu. It worked for Mao, didn't it?