The train shudders to a halt, early morning intrudes on a restless sleep, and the call to wake throws my senses into a dream soup of screeching voices and clambering bodies. Apparently the screeching means “Dali! everyone off!”, and three bunk high beds are tussled about by departing passengers. Sleeping on a train had so far been quite enjoyable, but this time, the hard sleeper had become my nemesis.
Living in the west I have become accustomed to puffy pillows, room to stretch, and a matress at least a foot deep, how I now cursed my needy mind and body, refusing to switch off until those needs were met. “Screw you” it seemed to say, “Feel like shit for the whole day, serves you right for putting us in this situation”. There is no arguing with conditioning, and so sleep had been torturous in its absenteeism.
So we are here, the promised land, a new part of China, hopefully more authentic and real than the bustling cities so far ubiquitous in my travels through the orient. What wonders will lie in this new place? Google suggested a quaint artist colony full of charm and history. My eyes suggested a city built for practicality and charm be damned. Oh well, it is very rare a place presents its charm to you without first seeking it out. With that in mind (and the desire to sleep), it is onto a local bus in the search of a hostel, the 5 elements hostel to be exact.
The journey becomes a haze of industrial areas and suburban squalor, my eyelids keep dropping, desperate for a moments rest. By the time we reach our destination, I have had more sleep on this jerky “smokers are welcome” bus, than the 12 hours spent on the train. Climbing out I am presented with something more authentic than I have so far seen, cobbled streets are surrounded by buildings with that uniquely Chinese look, the kind you see in any Chinese restaurant around the world. The ugly necessity that is most new building projects in China, has given way to old world charm and grit. Ancient looking women walk around in traditional dress grinning from toothless mouths, the only give away to their modernity the little trinkets they are attempting to sell to passers by. “Now we are getting somewhere” I tell myself.
It takes little time to locate our guesthouse, and weariness caring little about price or value, has me booked into a private room with en-suite within a few minutes. A 10 yuan cup of coffee, 2 fags and a comfy bench take the edge off my rattled brain and sends me to a point of relaxation not far from the edge of sleep. I bid farewell to Marty (my travelling companion), and retire to the double bed with its sleep of death chalkline already drawn in my minds eye. I accept the thank you’s and apologies of my irate body and happily depart the land of the living.
The streets of Dali
As I wake the reality of where I am sets in. Dali, China. No longer burdened by weariness I shower and brush my teeth for the first time in two days, washing the grime of dirty clothes and endless cigarettes from my soul, body and mouth. Time to explore. Marty is up, and already deep in conversation with Google. We greet each other with the touched fists of acknowledgement, share some meaningless banter about sleeping, and head out to see if Dali lives up to expectations.
Wandering its streets, it soon becomes apparent that although classical in its appearance, it is anything but, in functionality. The Chinese government, ever aware of potential within its people and property, has managed to keep Dali’s outward appearance of classical China, while turning its innards into a retail outlet of tat and shit. On the surface, it is still one of the prettier places I have seen in China, this old city has, however, long since sold its virtue to the trinket whoring tourists keen to commemorate their visit. “Oh well”, I think to myself, “China is a forward thinking nation, it is to be expected”.
Back at the guesthouse, I ask the ever informative Google what I should see around Dali, and he reliably informs me that, for a price, I can see cultural and natural wonders, wrapped in a ribbon, and served in a way which makes it easier, albeit, less authentic, to enjoy. For some reason, the overpriced and heavily watered down offerings do not pique my interest, and I spend the next two days relaxing, working on my software, playing pool with Marty, and eating mediocre meals.
Google had previously told me of a place with incredible natural beauty, in this place I could apparently hike the side of a mountain, breath fresh air, and most importantly, experience China. So with a little bit of skepticism (Google had been wrong before), I speak with Marty, and we decide to head out to Lijiang, and from there, the infamous, Tiger Leaping Gorge.
I pack my bags, and we catch a small bus to the promised land, the bus passes out of the old city, and into modern Dali. My lungs burn as I try to breath through pollution so thick it turns color to grey, and air to mud. “How do these people survive this?” I wonder, and then watch a group of locals smoking cigarettes along a highway thick with fumes.
Eventually city gives way to towns, towns to villages, and villages to huts strewn along the mountainside. The air clears, and my tobacco covered lungs start to crave their nectar once again. What better way to celebrate clean air and beatific surrounds than with an addiction feeding puff stick?
The short bus journey, although not hugely comfortable, is relaxing and enjoyable. With music playing in my ears, and scenery filling my gaze. I disappear into a mindless thought chain, concoctions of a ridiculous, angry, happy, vindictive nature tangle within my brain, vying for my attention, forcing me to calm them by will, by a soundless chant or focused breathing. How hard it is not to think, and how much harder not to think negative thoughts. In the midst of adventure, in the center of living a dream, the mind still wishes to force upon you the trivial and obscene vagrancy of living. What bizarre creatures we are, able to acknowledge the importance of a singular moment, yet barely able to appreciate its existence.
It is with this battle of wills, conscious versus sub-conscious, that I pass the time. I tell myself that although difficult, to think like this has some value, as it is only when you acknowledge the inward turmoil, that you have any chance of winning against it. I feel as though my minds increasing assault, is akin to the war for a persons soul, the devil fights harder when his prize is slipping away.
The Cut of your Jib
And then, I am here, Lijiang, the next candidate for China’s vestige of past glory.
Marty and I share a taxi with a young Canadian guy, shorter than average, and sporting the bravado which comes with overcompensation, he is not altogether unpleasant to talk to. He has just completed the Tiger Leaping Gorge high pass, the mountain trail which passes, as the name suggests, higher up on the mountain, as opposed to the easier, less scenic pass along the bottom of the gorge. This high path, is the one I have chosen, and so I question him with regards to getting there, and to its difficulty. “The hostel can organize your transportation to the starting point”, he suggests. “And it’s hard, I made it about a third of the way up and then got a mule to the top”. I had heard about the mules from Google, he had said how over confident tourists started with thoughts of scaling mountains easily, but were broken soon enough by the realities of the gorge, in particular the 28 bends (or 24 depending on your sources), and how most relented to the mules and their masters, who followed not so quietly, until you broke to the promise of being carried to your destination. I already knew this would not happen to me.
One of the reasons I chose to do this hike, is because I have become lazy. Once upon a time I ran races, built muscle, and maintaned my shape. Now I smoke too much, eat too little, and stare at the computer screen instead of exercise. It is not that I don’t enjoy these pursuits, more that the idea of inability is more than I can bear. In my younger days (being all of thirty one now), I could do all these things and maintain a level of fitness which should have been impossible with my lifestyle. Now though, exercise is more difficult, smoking has more of an effect, and regardless of how little I eat, I am still putting on weight, damn you to hell cellular inefficiency.
“I need a test!”, is what had been running through my mind before this venture. Travelling itself tests your ability to cope with new situations, but I need something else. I need and want to prove to myself that I have the physical and mental endurance to achieve what should not be achievable to someone like me, someone who is a health hazard waiting to explode.
wandering around Lijian it becomes apparent that, although even more charming from the outside, it, like Dali, has sold its virtue to tourism. And not as one might expect, to Western tourists, but to Chinese tourists, more afluent and able to explore their own country than ever before, they have embraced the notion whole heartedly and travel with an enthusiasm apparent by their filling of restaurants and guesthouses in every locale. Still, it is a nice change to be surrounded by local tourists, as opposed to the foreigners like myself, looking dumbfounded and ridiculous in our lack of understanding where we are and whom we are among.
Needing to eat, Marty and myself wander into a restaurant among many other restaurants, and peruse the menu, nothing jumps out as being of particular interest, the usual rice dishes are on offer, chicken this, pork that. And then I spot something, a meal called “playing in the dirt”. “Why not?”, I ask myself, and with the usual pointing and charades that accompany any interaction in a land with very little english, I have ordered the mystery dish. Two smokes and a sprite later, the giggly waitress brings me my food, and despite it being in front of me, I am still incapable of identifying it.
Wielding my chopsticks as daggers rather than eating implements, I pop a morsel into my mouth, and, although not horrible, it has a strange texture, and some chewy bits, on closer inspection it would seem to have tastebuds! So, I deduce, duck or chicken tongue, interesting. Another piece appears shrivelled and skinish, not unlike the foreskin of some tiny animals genitalia, but it tastes good, so I devour that, and the more identifiable skin of some poor creature now lacking its epidermis. All in all, a succesful meal, yet not one I would order again anytime soon.
Always Go to the Toilet First
We head back to the hostel, its newly built walls empty aside from the owners and ourselves, and go straight to bed in anticipation of the coming days activities. Sleep mostly eludes me, this time from the dog which barks at nothing and the chatty locals engaging in what sounds like heated conversation (which I am informed is not, that is just how they talk). I open my eyes, pack my bags, and wait for Marty to finish his preparations. Deciding that the remedy for the tiredness threatening to dampen my spirits, and the preparation for a hard days hiking, is a cup of coffee and a puff stick. I head out to where we catch the bus (and they have coffee), letting Marty know that I will meet him there. The terrible twosome do the trick, and I am raring to go.
We jump on the bus and settle in for what I assume to be a half hour journey, 20 minutes later my bladder starts to let me know it is full and wants to empty. Assuming we are almost there, I tell it to make preparations and let some urine move into position. It is after this unfortunate error in judgement, that I find out the bus journey is actually three hours long! It is with this agonizing realization that I endure another two hours of nearly soiling myself repeatedly, before our driver decides to pull over for a toilet stop. Apologizing profusely to my bladder and imploring it to hold out just a little longer, I am the first off the bus, and completely ignore the polite way of disembarkation. I walk in a smooth unnatural motion, trying to avoid any sort of bouncing which could result in disaster. I make it in time, and manage to retain some semblance of dignity, relief!
Back on the bus, I am free from the indignities of the human refuse system, and allowed to be embraced by my minds inner turmoil once again.
The Journey Begins
We arrive at the final point, Tiger Leaping Gorge, disembark, and without any pomp or ceremony, begin our hike up the hill. There is much that can be said for the natural beauty of this place, about the waterfalls crossing the path in a manner unfriendly to health and safety requirements, or of the mule people, who seem to taunt you while you walk, waiting for that moment of weakness to pounce and relieve you of your money and pride. There is an amazing view across from our side of the mountain, of craggy peaks reaching into the sky, and clouds which kiss their tops, creating the small waterfalls which feed the river far below. As much as I enjoy the scenery, this walk is about overcoming my limitations, pushing myself beyond my capabilities, and then pushing some more.
The road starts as a slight incline, and then dissapears around a bend, as I round the bend I see the slight incline become a dirt path with a less slight incline. Around another bend the dirt path becomes less path like, more of an incline, and the challenge begins.
After a few hours of walking up these twists and turns, my lungs have started to burn, I am so glad I did not have that other fag I was contemplating an hour ago. My left knee aches, my feet have the start of blisters, and the sweat is pouring from me, onwards and upwards. I tell the mule man to “Piss off”, knowing full well he can’t understand me, he just grins, with a grin that says “Not long now” and lights a fag. I knew that I would not give in, and began to relish the point where he would realize, that despite my being on the verge of death, this time he was wrong about who would or would not cave.
The mountain seems never to let up, I don’t understand why you would build a path, that goes up and up, then comes down, and then goes up again! It is while contemplating this that we reach the start of the 28 bends, a grueling uphill challenge that seems never to end. A group of hikers in front of us have already relented to the mountain, and ride at a relaxed pace on the backs of the waiting donkeys, laughing at their unsteady climb, obviously relieved by the end of their uphill battle. My lungs burn and I struggle to catch my breath, the rain sets in and helps to cool me, but does little to alleviate the increasing pain in my legs and feet. The mule man starts to get nervous as I keep pushing on. I reach the final bends, breathing hard and flushed with blood from the exertion, I see his grin change and he heads off to find some other unhealthy tourist to follow, “That’s right, on your horse mate”. I made it, despite the option to give up, I never once considered it, this was my challenge, and I made it!
There is still another hour or so of walking, and despite a few uphills the hard part is done. This gives me the opportunity to flit back into my mind. The chatter starts again, and I do my best to remove it with the breathing meditations. Flushed with pride, I try and focus on the beauty around me, try and live in the moment. With relative success, I all but hobble into our Guesthouse on the mountain for the night. I buy a large bottle of water, a can of coke, take off my shoes, and sit down to relish the cigarette I so rightly deserve, so this is what being healthy feels like.
Don’t Buy Boxers in China
After wiping myself down with a few wet wipes, changing clothes and declaring myself fresh. We order dinner from the hostel, and sit with the other hikers. At first questioning the all round enjoyment of the hill, then moving onto the more pointless part that makes up 80% of conversation, the where are you from’s, and what do you do’s. For some reason I enjoy this more tonight than on most occasions, perhaps because of the mix of people. Israeli’s, Americans, Canadians, French, German, and of course Australians. Each has a different view on things, and it makes not only the conversation more interesting, but the nuances behind the conversation as well. I watch and listen to the Israeli couple, so obviously the alphas in the group, interesting, good talkers, and keen to include everyone. The Canadian with the out-there hairstyle, young and energetic, keen to join in and very amiable. The Asian looking american and his friend the German, both studying in Beijing and seemingly very comfortable and capable in their surroundings. The two young french guys, nice, but in the din of multiple conversations, mostly unintelligible.
And then me, Tyrhone, occasionally adding to the conversation, but mostly listening and evaluating, considering our divergent paths, what was being said and why, where it was coming from and for what, and wondering if despite the conversations, they are having the same thoughts. I sometimes feel alien in my interactions with people. My thoughts focused more on the reasons and validity of the conversation than the conversation itself. I wonder if everyone feels this way?
The meal ends and the days activities brandish their outcome, an early night for all. I retire to the shared dorm room with Marty, the Canadian Keenan, and a group of Chinese people, who I acknowledge with a “Nee How”. We set about preparing for bed. Keenan has a level of self belief I have never had, it makes him interesting to be around and talk to. He also apparently is not at all shy and strips down to his skin tight boxers for bed, exclaiming “Don’t buy underwear in China, even the big is small”. We chat for awhile about random things, he is studying genetics, I am building a game, cellphones mean no one has to be on time anymore, my dislike of Facebook, and how it makes seeing people in the flesh somewhat redundant, etc.
It was with this last remark about Facebook, and his response, that I suddenly felt that I am getting older. “I don’t know how much older than me you are, I’m 21″, he quite innocently remarked,”But Facebook is a good way of organizing things these days”. Oh that’s right, you were born in the early 90’s and are studying genetics. I remember when guys born in the 90’s were going through puberty and finding self love for the first time, what the hell happened!? I suddenly felt a little awkward, should I be acting my age? Shouldn’t I be talking about some sort of man bullshit that guys in their thirties are supposed to know about? How is it that I can relate to a guy in his early twenties? And genetics, what the hell did I do with my twenties? I got stoned, went to the gym, and uh, well that’s it.
Despite the differences, I like the guy, and bid him and his tiny boxers goodnight.
The Tigers Rock
The morning comes, and with a renewed confidence in myself, I drink a coffee, have a smoke, and once Marty is ready, head out for the 2 hour mostly downhill conclusion to the hike. The scenery is more attractive here, possibly because the walking is easier, and I enjoy the solitude of the hike (Marty and myself hike at some distance from each other, probably for the same reason of trying to enjoy being alone in a place like this). I pass a waterfall over the path, which although lightly flowing, still flows over the edge of the precipice, no wonder they close it off in heavy rains. It occurs to me after awhile that I am no longer noticing the electrical poles and water pipes that run, even here, throughout China’s landscape. Thousands of meters up in the mountains and China’s growth is still apparent. Somehow it adds to the mountain, not to its natural beauty of course, but it is very representative of China, and therefore very fitting and almost natural to see it here.
Two hours later, at about 11am, we reach the bottom, and book our tickets back to Lijiang. I have a coffee and a smoke, and decide that if I truly want to test myself, I should do the hike down to the bottom of the Tiger Leaping Gorge ! Marty decides he has done enough hiking, and will occupy his time otherwise, besides, he saw the Canadian coming up from the Gorge (he had left very early that morning), and he had said it was tougher than the previous days hike, though shorter.
Tough be damned, I had made up my mind! And so I head for the stairs reaching down to the bottom, ready to embrace my fate. Not half way down I realize my fate is going to hurt like hell. The stairway is a mish mash of rocky outcroppings, and the path varies from 45 degrees to 90 degrees. My legs begin to shake as my calves and quads give out, no choice now. Down, down, down I go, using my hands to stop me tumbling over the edge, stopping occasionally to give my trembling legs a break. And then… Tiger Leaping Rock, in all its glory! I pass a sign that says in broken english “Warming, don’t come, danger”, and carry on past it.
“I just walked down thousands of steps, i’ll be damned if I’m not going on that rock!”
I cross over loose rocks and small boulders, slide and jump onto a giant boulder jutting out into the surging river, and stand triumphant upon its surface. Looking a little further downstream, I see another boulder with a bridge, the bridge is broken by the heaving water and missing half its components, now only reaching halfway across to the shore, water splashing over its Gnarled remains.
“Ahhh, so that’s Tiger Rock. F*ck that! This’ll do me just fine!”
Water crashes around me with a power I have never experienced, despite the somewhat protective chain around the boulder, it would be so easy to slip in, and there is no way you would survive. The thundering water falls over the rapids, sending plumes two and three stories into the sky! It crashes down into hidden crevasses, and pounds into rock, slicing at its surface, ensuring that one day this place will be no more.
I start to think about how fleeting my life is in comparison to this spectacle, about how this water has flowed through here, and carved this rock for thousands, if not millions of years, and will continue to do so, in this place or another, long after I am gone. I feel, standing here, watching the power of this natural scene unfold,that this is my taste of immortality. The future will happen here, as the past has happened here, and from this moment on, our paths are inextricably intertwined. Somehow, for some reason I cannot explain, this is my forever…
“Now, I wonder if there is an easier way back up?”.