Xiao Meili, right, walks with her volunteer companion Maizi down a stretch of road near Zhengzhou, capital city of Henan Province. Photo: CFP
Sleazy inns, swollen feet and constant diarrhea caused by unsanitary food.
The skinny 25-year-old hiker never expected a journey quite like this.
Xiao Meili began her 2,150-kilometer-long walk from Beijing to Guangzhou in September last year.
But the 25-year-old bears all the discomfort to call attention to sexual assault and gender equality along the road.
Labeling herself a feminist, Xiao gathers signatures wherever she arrives and sends them to the local government seeking information disclosure about child sexual abuse. She asks the local education bureau to set up an anti-sex abuse system in schools to protect minors.
Xiao was thrilled when she hit upon the idea of a long walk.
Most outdoor walkers are male, and the possibility of being raped or robbed on the road haunted her.
"China's traditional idea is that it is dangerous for females to travel alone outside. But conversely, so many sexual abuse cases take place in places we thought were safe like schools and buses.
"Females have the freedom to do what they want, and my walk could be a powerful rebuke to the outdated opinion that women are more easily sexually abused when they travel alone," Xiao told the Global Times.
"This is not an arduous walk. Each step represents a female protest at society."
Xiao Meili, born Xiao Yue in Sichuan Province in 1989, has been promoting feminist activities since she entered the Communication University of China in Beijing.
In 2012, she wore a wedding dress tainted with blood to protest domestic violence on Valentine's Day in Beijing. She wanted to remind couples that violence also exists in intimate relations.
She protested the inappropriate proportion of male and female public toilets by occupying male toilets in Guangzhou.
To protest gender inequality in university enrollment, Xiao shaved her head to draw attention to the fact that female enrollment is higher than male in some majors.
"I'm tired of people saying that females are the weaker sex. We need more equality," she said.
Her protests, combined with other's appeals, began to take effect.
The Guangzhou government required the toilet proportion of male and female to be no less than 1:1.5. Three language universities in Beijing cancelled their enrollment limits on the number of male and female students in 2013, which means the enrollment score would be same for everyone.
"People may not understand our behavior and think we are crazy, but when they look back years later, they will find out our endeavors were necessary," Xiao said. "As a responsible citizen, I cannot be absent from changing history. I am not afraid of being a minority."
Xiao Meili. Photo: CFP
On the road
After college graduation, Xiao chose to be self-employed. She opened a painting class and an online store on taobao.com, but the 3,000 yuan ($495) monthly income barely covers her rent and daily expenditure. When she decided to start walking, her travel expenses and zero walking experience became the biggest obstacles.
She asked for support online. Supporters can walk with her in different cities, offer a couch, or in a more direct way, donate money. She writes down her travel stories and uploads an expenditure statement online from time to time.
"Many volunteers came to join me, so I have not yet walked alone on the road," Xiao said. Xiao prefers female walkers, but if males are interested, they can wear a skirt and walk.
"Two brave boys accompanied me for part of my journey," she said.
To save money, Xiao limits her daily expenses on three meals for two people to 35 yuan, and accommodation at 100 yuan.
The low cost often drives them to squalid inns and once brought Xiao into danger: She was hit by an inn keeper in Hebei Province when she asked for a refund for a prepaid room. "The room price was too high and I wanted to change to a cheaper inn to save money," Xiao said. "The owner got furious and hit me in the face."
In addition to food and housing, the other major expenditure is medicine and bandages.
Without any walking experience, Xiao bought a pair of sneakers for the trip. Hours of walking soon caused blisters.
"I felt like a mermaid who just became a human being and every step on the road felt like walking on a knife. I later realized that for long-distance walking, the sneakers need to be a size larger."
After months on the road, Xiao is experienced at wearing bandages now.
"A more effective way to protect feet is to put a layer of cream on them, and wear stockings before putting on another pair of thick socks."
Xiao wrote her experience down on paper and shared it with Net users.
This trip is not very scenic because Xiao needs to walk an average 20-30 kilometers every day on the national highway. She stops a day or two in bigger places to promote her message and gather signatures.
According to a report from the China Children and Teenagers Fund, child sex abuse has a 6.7 percent to 21.8 percent occurrence rate in China.
"There were more than 100 cases of child sex abuse in 2013, and most of the abusers were school employees. In 26 cases, the culprits were teachers and even principals," Xiao wrote in a letter of advice to a local education bureau.
Xiao urges governments to offer follow-up protection for abuse victims and their family, and shield them from being hurt again by gossip and discrimination.
"People should be more tolerant to girls who have been sexually abused," she said. "But on the other hand, we should not overprotect them from the fear of sexual abuse.
"The government should ensure children's safety in a free living environment."
Xiao suggested education bureaus run sex education, gender equality and personal safety courses. Schools should have no fewer than two security guards who supervise each other, she said.
Most governments have turned a blind eye to her letters. In total only 20 out of 132 governments replied.
"They listed their current measures against child sex abuse and pledged to study my suggestion," Xiao said.
But more bureaus shrank from the responsibility and questioned Xiao instead. Xiao has got used to the rejections:
"Why are you doing this? Is it because you heard we didn't solve a child sex abuse case?"
"We don't know your intention, so we cannot reply."
"Though you have many signatures, most are non-local residents without hukou registration documents. We only accept an information disclosure request from a local citizen with a hukou."
But she still sends advice to each city.
"I hope my behavior can influence more people, and our efforts can finally push society to improve," she told the Global Times with great hope.