Monday, May 02, 2005

Up: The Mists of China Recede

My last adventure in China -- Huang Shan. Yellow Mountain. The mountain of pine trees and infinite steps, of movies, classical Chinese paintings and poetry. The most famous mountain in China outside Tibet. But first I would have to get there, and that would involve making my flight from Shanghai.

Which I missed.

I intended to take the 'maglev' to the Pudong airport, a magnetic levitation transportation system that whisks you to the airport in less than ten minutes. However, the kind folks at the Captain Hotel failed to inform me that it stops running at 5:30. The taxi I then begged to race me to the airport did just that, but not in time for me to make my flight. Letting fly a certain four-letter word that erupted from inside of me and practicing my sidekick against the nearest wall, I sulked in a cafe until managing a standby ticket for a later flight. Upon arriving at Huang Shan airport, it would still be a 90-minute ride to the hostel at the base of the mountain. The guy I spoke to at the hostel said buses run all the time from the airport to the mountain.

They sure don't, and I was facing a very expensive taxi ride. Doesn't anyone in China know anything for certain? After three and a half weeks, I shouldn't have been surprised, but I certainly was ticked off. Luckily, I convinced a tour group headed to Tangkou, my destination, to let me ride with them after pushing through their initial reluctance. I flashed a little bit of Mandarin and told them they could practice English, and they welcomed me aboard. Unfortunately, all I wanted to do was sleep but I couldn't muster the rudeness and I chatted with a few guys in the back until we arrived in Tangkou and I got to my hostel where I would sleep horribly for five hours before waking up at 6am to get an early start.

I sat down for breakfast at the hostel and it was decided that I wanted rice porridge, pickled cabbage and one hard-boiled egg. I liked the egg.

At the base of the mountain, I got my ticket and headed right to start climbing to the peak high some 1860m above, while most of the tourists went left toward the cable car that would whisk them to the top. Along the way I fell in with a couple groups of younger Chinese that wanted me to climb them, and I was happy for the company. Up we went through the forests of pine that dominate the mountain, legs grudgingly climbing stone step after stone step under the bright sun, sweat pouring down my face. Stone benches along the way offered rest stops we were only too happy to take. The views were very secluded in the early beginnings, and we would have to wait to be awed by the expanse of the mountains around us. We hit a fork in the path and while most people went straight, my little band of hikers was going right and so I followed, not knowing that it would add about three hours to my grueling day. I'm very glad I did.

The path continued up the side of the mountain and twisted in every which way. We broke through the main treeline and saw endless ridges and peaks in every direction, mountain faces smoothed by eons of wind, rain and snow (and more recently, spit). It was breathtaking and I understood why the Chinese people throughout the ages immortalized Huang Shan so -- the mountain demanded it.

Above and below, other hikers labored their way to the top. I didn't see any high heels like in Jiuzhaigou, but plenty of Chinese men were pounding the rough stone steps in suits and dress shoes. I was very thankful to be wearing my Asolo boots, unable to imagine what my knees would be like in a pair of Bostonians instead. One guy in particular was quite a mess -- overweight, gasping for air, suit disheveled, glasses barely staying on his wet face, looking like a wax frog that was about to give up, melt and run down to the valley below.

The steps got narrower and steeper as we kept ascending -- to where, I did not know. Missteps would be disastrous. Someone below said to watch your head. I turned a corner and decidedly whacked my head against a large and rather solid rock. Eventually we reached the summit of Heavenly Capital Peak, the most challenging of the three major peaks of the mountain. The views were tremendous and I felt exhilirated standing there at the summit marker under the noon sun on top of the one of the most beautiful mountains I'd ever seen. Unfortunately, as exhausted as I was, I still had miles to go across the mountaintop (or up, down, up, down and up again) before I could rest for the night. It was very tough going, especially when your breakfast consisted of rice porridge, pickled cabbage and one hard-boiled egg.

I left the gorgeous peak behind and made my way towards the Behai region of the mountain where my room at the Behai Hotel would welcome one tired and collapsing body. Along the way the scenery of ridges and pines was every bit as beautiful one minute as the next. I ran into my bus group from the night before and managed a meager smile and 'ni hao ma'. They probably thought I looked like a wax frog that was about to give up, melt and run down to the valley below.

After seven hours, I finally reached the hotel and had what might not have been the best shower in China, but to me felt like the heaven into which I had climbed. The sunset was hardly visible and might have disappointed those looking for the classic cloud and peak vista so often seen in the old paintings, but I was happy enough to breathe in the clean air and slump against a pine tree as the cool of night emerged around me and sent me off to sleep.

But not for long. I woke up at 4:30am and joined the other early risers to catch the sunrise, though the forecast wasn't too positive. Nevertheless, I ascended the peak outside the hotel overlooking the "Monkey Gazing at the Sea" rock and enjoyed the gradual lightening of the day from the dark blue of night, the sporadic parting of the thick mists that blanketed the area, occasionally revealing the multitude of peaks in the distance, and the quiet of my environment as more and more sleepyheads retreated back to the hotel, leaving me alone on top of Yellow Mountain.

As I watched the mists recede, I thought about how the same has happened for me in China itself, how this country I knew so little about has thrown itself open to me. More importantly, I thought about how the people have opened not just their eyes but their hearts wherever I've been, how they've showed genuine warmth and interest when they got over the differences between us. China is a different world, some would say a different universe and I'd be hard pressed to disagree, but I now feel like I'm a part of that world, however small. I now feel there's something I can go back to, something to which I have a small yet firm sense of belonging.

The sun is high up behind a thick wall of white clouds, and it's time to leave. Taking in the view one last time, I head back down the mountain to catch a plane back to Shanghai.


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