WITH HIS WIRY frame and grey hair parted above gold-rimmed spectacles, Bill Purves does not look the type to trek 2,000 kilometres across China's remote rural hinterland with nothing more than a change of clothes and a small knapsack. But this 58-year-old engineer-turned-writer is made of stern stuff. During a three-month hike from Guangzhou to Inner Mongolia, Purves forsook such comforts as a sleeping bag and tent to rough it in the wilderness. Why? So he could take a first-hand look at the life of China's peasants in the 21st century for his recently published book China On The Lam. 'I only took a mosquito net and a fly sheet for cover. I'm not afraid to rough it,' explains Purves, who speaks with a North American twang. 'I didn't want to walk around with a huge knapsack and draw attention to myself.' His self-imposed rules for the mammoth journey meant avoiding all roads, towns and tourist spots. That way, he thought, he would encounter the real peasants and avoid any awkward questions from officials. When dusk fell each night, the Canadian simply bedded down wherever he could find shelter, usually in a small copse and waited till daybreak. It was a simple plan for a no-nonsense guy. Purves walks and talks in similar style - direct and to the point. He doesn't tiptoe around the bush. His trip north may have fascinated him but as he sits in the cafe of Central's Fringe Club on a Friday afternoon, his main recollection is of being bothered by inquisitive locals every step of the way. 'There are no maps. I really had to ask the way from every person that I met,' says Purves, who followed trails northwards from Guangzhou, past Changsha, Luoyang and on to Hohhot, crossing the Yangtze and Yellow rivers. The trails have been used by peasants for centuries and are still in good repair. 'And I met a lot of people. Three or four every hour,' he says. People in each region spoke a different dialect, so he conversed 'in my broken Mandarin and their broken Mandarin'. It was enough to both help and hinder the adventurer. 'There's not many places in the world you can go and be the first white person they've seen,' says Purves who, for all his cowboy demeanour, quickly wearied of his status as an object of curiosity. 'All day long I would stop and ask someone if I was going the right way and they would tell me, but then they'd say: 'Where are you from? Where were you born? How old are you? Are you married? How many children do you have? How much money do you have?' And so on. They had the same 20 questions. So every 15 minutes I'm going through this catechism. 'When it was getting dark people would say, 'Come on in and meet my children' and stuff. They were very nice, gave you a beer, BUT [his voice raises to a screech] everybody in the whole village would come out one by one and ask you the same damn 20 questions. The whole night!' Purves gesticulates wildly, signalling his exasperation. 'Even when I went to bed people would come from the next village, wake me up to ask you those same questions. Staying in these people's houses was pretty stressful. I got pretty damn tired of answering those questions all day long.' So Purves, who had ventured into China to meet the people, found himself avoiding the subjects of his book. 'I'd get a lot of invitations, but actually it was my preference to crash outside,' he says. Each night, Purves would make excuses, wend his way from any inhabitants and find a cluster of trees to bed down underneath for the night. Purves insists his biggest battles were not against the elements ('I went during summer so it wasn't cold'), snakes ('they've eaten them all') or insects ('they use so much insecticide'). Instead, he struggled to avoid a diet of instant noodles, biscuits and counterfeit soda, the only produce available in sparse village shops. 'I craved a decent meal. So when people said, 'Come on over and have lunch,' I did. At least at lunchtime people are asleep so there's less risk [of being hassled] and I'd enjoy a hot bowl of noodles. Every few days I would come across a restaurant. Even there people come and sit at your table and ask you questions. I had to answer between bites.' Hence the title of his book, which Purves says means 'hiding-out, ducking and diving, being on the run'. Ducking his literary subjects was unavoidable given communication problems, Purves says, but it is ironic. His odyssey had been to complete a trilogy of books dealing with the lives of Chinese people. 'I'd done books on the working class and intellectuals and I wanted to do peasants,' he says. 'But doing peasants is kinda tough, you know. You can't just go out into the countryside and hang out. So this was a means to spend three months in the countryside.' Most of the observations he makes in China On The Lam are physical. He couldn't talk to the peasants about their views on modernisation or politics because it wasn't within the limits of his vocabulary. All he could do was watch. The result is that the book only scratches the surface of what peasant life is like in China. But he says he still gained valuable insights, mainly that modernisation, the opening-up policy and China's entry to the World Trade Organisation count for little in rustic villages. 'Now that China has had all this economic modernisation, renovations and reorganisations, it turns out the people in the countryside aren't touched by it,' he says. 'They eat the same diet, live in the same places and wear the same clothes. And they don't have two yuan to rub together.' There are small signs of a trickle-down effect, however. 'Some families have one member working in a city who sends cash home and they use it to fix up their houses: repairing the roof, building an extra room, running in electricity or putting in windows,' says Purves. 'We have no idea what it's like to be a farmer. Although regimes come and go in China, the farmer's problem is a crow that comes and eats your crop or the canal that needs to be redredged. The idea of putting glass in the windows of your house is a lifetime project. You put them in and, gee, it's a lot less draughty than it used to be. That's your horizon.' So cashless are the villagers that Purves couldn't get change for 100-yuan bills. 'You will find lots of people in the countryside who will say that things are worse than they used to be, that the Cultural Revolution had its advantages,' he says. 'The books you read like Wild Swans were the people who were the purged elite. But the guys in the countryside had an influx of teachers who knew how to write characters and could teach, of medics who trained up barefoot doctors and introduced the concept of the big rice bowl - the communal cooking system. They look back with some nostalgia on that. Now for medical care and school fees they have to pay cash and they have no way to get the cash. They go sick because they don't have any money, or even die.' Purves took a small tape recorder to record his observations. He says almost everyone was friendly, albeit firing those annoying 20 questions. There was no hassle from policemen or cadres. 'These days policemen have cars so they don't like to go out into the countryside,' he says with a chuckle. 'Occasionally you'd come across a security guard. Those guys had a little cash and might buy you a beer. It sounds great, but the beer of course is warm. Very grim.' Despite his many grumbles, Purves says his journey was exciting, seeing parts of the Great Wall and following a trail along the breathtaking Yellow River. He urges others to follow in his footsteps. The appendix to the book is titled 'So You'd Like To Try It' and sets out the bare essentials necessary to take and some tips on how to get around. 'You start out on any journey and you're a little hesitant. Once you do the first day or two and see that you can do it, then you get to really enjoy it,' says Purves, who has run marathons and cross-country races competitively for 35 years. 'The scenery might not be as spectacular as Nepal, but it's just as interesting.' Purves is a sinophile who came to Hong Kong in 1983, moving to Guangzhou to work in a factory for two years in the late 1980s where he gained the experience to write Barefoot In The Boardroom. His wife is a physiotherapist working for the World Health Organisation, mostly in China. A doctor friend of hers was the subject for his book Three Chinas, documenting the lives of intellectuals. With the China trilogy out of the way, Purves has written Living With Landmines in Cambodia and Mozambique and is moving on to new subjects. 'I am now writing a book for my fans, for my public,' he says half-mockingly, 'about the shipping industry.' It doesn't sound like a page-turner. 'I'm enjoying the research,' Purves says, talking animatedly of painting decks on ships and going along to a sailor-training school in Tuen Mun. 'You have to enjoy the research. You're not going to make any money writing books. If you wait to get rich, you'll wait a long time. You won't become that as a Hong Kong author.'