I should like to say a word here about the roads in this province, or perhaps the absence of roads. They had been execrable, the worst I had met, aggravated by heavy rains. With all the reforms to which the province of Yuen-nan is endeavoring to direct its energies, it has not yet learned that one of the first assets of any district or country is good roads. But this is true of the whole of the Middle Kingdom. The contracted quarters in which the Chinese live compel them to do most of their work in the street, and, even in a city provided with but the narrowest passages, these slender avenues are perpetually choked by the presence of peripatetic vendors of every kind of article of common sale in China, and by itinerant craftsmen who have no other shop than the street. In the capital city of the province, even, it is a matter of some difficulty to the European to walk down the rough-paved street after a shower of rain, so slippery do the slabs of stone become; and he has to be alive always to the lumbering carts, whose wheels are more solid than circular, pulled by bullocks as in the days long before the dawn of the Christian Era. The wider the Chinese street the more abuses can it be put to, so that travel in the broad streets of the towns is quite as difficult as in the narrow alleys; and as these streets are never repaired, or very rarely, they become worse than no roads at all—that is, in dry weather.
This refers to the paved road, which, no matter what its faults, is certainly passable, and in wet weather is a boon. There is, however, another kind of road—a mud road, and with a vengeance muddy.
An ordinary mud or earth road is usually only wide enough for a couple of coolies to pass, and in this province, as it is often necessary (especially in the Yuen-nan-fu district) for one cart to pass another, the farmer, to prevent trespass on his crops, digs around them deep ditches, resembling those which are dug for the reception of gas mains. In the rainy season the fields are drained into the roads, which at times are constantly under water, and beyond Yuen-nan-fu, on my way to Tali-fu, I often found it easier and more speedy to tramp bang across a rice field, taking no notice of where the road ought to be. By the time the road has sunk a few feet below the level of the adjacent land, it is liable to be absolutely useless as a thoroughfare; it is actually a canal, but can be neither navigated nor crossed. There are some roads removed a little from the main roads which are quite dangerous, and it is not by any means an uncommon thing to hear of men with their loads being washed away by rivers where in the dry season there had been the roads.