In the marshes of Baiyangdian, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness is the time when the reeds, each taller than a man, turn rusty gold and green and are ready to be felled and gathered. Piled high on flat-bottomed boats, they are slowly punted or rowed through a maze of canals to secret villages. Few foreigners have heard of the Baiyang Marshes which lie east of Baoding city in Hebei province, but every Chinese pupil reads a famous essay, Lotus Flower Lake, in primary school. It tells how resistance forces hid in the bewildering network of waterways waging a guerilla war on the Japanese. In the 1930s, the waterways linked Baoding to Tianjin and its port and were far more important. About half a million people still live in the marshes but after 1949 much of the marshes were drained and reservoirs were built on the nine rivers running off the Taihang mountains to the west. In the old days, the villagers were richer than now. The nimble fingers of the women wove reed mats and other goods which were in great demand. After the communes were established this kind of artisan work was banned as capitalist. The marsh dwellers had to concentrate on growing grain and the harvests were poor. By the time the orders were rescinded in the 1980s, water levels had dropped so low the government debated diverting water to preserve the marshlands. A few years ago, there was heavy rainfall and flooding so the marshes have recovered but the region, at least around Anxin county, still seems poor. 'No one wants the mats anymore,' complained the boatman who took me through the canals. People don't sleep on reed mats anymore and farmers prefer plastic sheeting to protect their vegetables from frost. Instead Anxin has turned to tourism. It takes just two hours to get there from Beijing along the motorway to Baoding and Shijiazhuang. Boats wait to take visitors around the mysterious and slightly forbidding marshlands. It is easy to get lost there, as we did, it all looks so alike off the main route. Curious signposts exactly like road signs indicate speed limits, one way systems and forbidden parking zones. 'Don't go so fast, can't you see people live here,' yelled one old man as our speedboat roared under a bridge linking two sides of a settlement. The tourism did not seem to be going too well. A fun park, complete with a Ferris wheel, built in the middle of the marshes was deserted. A scrum of boat-owners mobbed any tourist who showed his face and demanded extortionate rates. Still they are passport to an unexpected and unusual world. Amid the lotus flowers, fishermen glide silently in punts with perches of large black cormorants. Sadly, though, the waters have become polluted and strewn with rubbish. Villagers ignore the environmental slogans and throw their junk straight out of their houses into the canals. Rural factories, especially Hebei's paper mills and tanneries, have discharged so much that the fish are dying. Visitors who eat the eels, shrimps and freshwater fish leave feeling rather ill. And the natives themselves seem suspicious of outsiders. Locals say stories that the boatmen have a habit of taking visitors out to lonely spots and robbing them are true. 'If you don't pay up, they threaten to tip you out of the boat and leave you there,' said a local teacher.