Teaching in Wenzhou / Travel: China

Don’t Look Up (or, What Moses Felt)

It’s been a week now. The pain in my calves has gone away, so I feel that I can write about this with some amount of perspective other than “IT HURTS! IT HURTS! IT HURTS!” or the more elaborate “SWEET LORD OF HEAVEN WHEN IS THIS GOING TO END?!!!”

Wenzhou is surrounded by mountains. If you go a certain distance in any direction you’ll come across them. You need not even wander far. Within the city itself you will often find them sort of in your face. They’re a stiff set, these mountains. None of that jagged yet gentle majesty commonly associated with their kind. Wenzhou’s mountains are monoliths of hard rock that make little attempt to be charming or inviting…sort of like its’ people, one might say. One.

Going back to those beasts of nature, then, that’s probably why the paths up the Da Luo Shan mountain are designed to facilitate the quickest and most efficient route to the top rather than the pleasant or scenic. The point is to get in, get up, get down and get out. (I realize that last sentence practically begs for minds to dive into the gutter.)

PART 1: GET IN

This part was actually dull. It consisted of a nearly two hour public bus ride to the outskirts of Wenzhou, courtesy of a bus driver who seemed to have some kind of vendetta against society in general and his own Soviet-era vehicle in particular. On the other hand, the tuk-tuk driver who escorted us from the bus terminal to the base of Mount Da Luo Shan left no specific impression on me in the thirty minutes that the ride took, probably because by that point my chief concern was if and where I would get to deflate my bladder before starting this six hour climb.

PART 2: GET UP

Yes, six hours. Three up. Three down. Except the words “up” and “down” quickly lost all meaning. As a fellow-climber sagely observed midway through, when we no longer knew which direction we were headed in: “Mountains are not the way they’re usually drawn in pictures.” That cute simple triangle shape? Forget about it. I don’t need to scale another mountain to know that all a damn mountain is is one false summit after another. Sort of like life, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Long long ago, visiting some part of northern Ethiopia, I remember seeing the country men hop hopping a zigzag path down the Bati or whatever hills. This zigzagging looked like a waste of time, like those maddening just-duck-under-me retractable queue lines at airports, where you have to go all the way to the one end and make a teensy little turn and walk back all the way to the other end. I still don’t see the point of those (Well, technically, I refuse to. Maximum use of space, I get it.) But, not too far into this climbing adventure, I understood that those balager fellows weren’t doing some kind of obscure indigenous mountain dance. The pattern is necessary. Still, Entoto has got nothing on this Da Luo Shan Motherclimber.

(This is what wine does. Makes you go waaaaayyy off topic.)

Anyhoo, the quickest route where Mount Da Luo Shan was concerned, as I mentioned, amounts to three hours. One way. See, that’s the thing about going up a mountain, you also gotta come down sometime unless you’re willing to consider a serious lifestyle change. That’s not a farfetched notion either. Many was a time when I just wanted to give up and let nature take Her course with me. I believe I even gasped out something along the lines of: “Go on without me! Tell them I loved them! My family! My friends! That I always loved them!” to my climbing mates while sprawled on the hard ground. Oh the drama.

“One false summit after another”, I was saying. Because initially, I couldn’t imagine how it could take anyone three hours to climb this:

Sure, it looked like a thousand steps at least. But that’s do-able, even for someone who has turned down many a decent apartment here because it happened to be on the stratospheric sixth floor and the building didn’t have any elevators. (My current one is on the third, thank you very much.)

Let’s back it up for a slightly better angle…

A little ways in, I was feeling very proud of myself, growing pain notwithstanding, so I thought I’d take this little snapshot.

The surrounding view wasn’t much. In comparison, Wenzhou itself starts to look like Addis. Still, it seemed worth recording, in a bland “I was here” kind of way.

Shortly after this is where I started to taste blood at the back of my throat.

Which is why I decided it was a good time for a “before” shot of my brand-new Made In China Fake Nike hiking shoes (but really just an excuse to sit and sit and sit).

Shoes which had better grip than you would think. Grip that came in quite handy when things started to get a little dizzying.

(W. T. F????)

Even before our Chinese guides told us what those structures all along the sides of the neighboring mountains were – old style graves – I had an inkling. If you ask me they all died trying to climb this here mountain.

A death that one of our party seemed to be on the verge of.

Unfortunately, “No Man Left Behind” didn’t apply here. I made my way around him and soldiered on, believing that, with all this behind me…

…and only this ahead of me, the end was near!

The end was near all right. Just not the end of the mountain.

This is what met me just as I negotiated the “summit”.

Over the next two hours of this track of misery stuck on repeat, I developed my own little mantra of “Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up. Don’t look up Don’t look u Don’t look Don’t loo Don’t lo Don’t l Don’t Don’ Don Do D D D D D D (…flatline)

It was the strangest thing. As far as I was concerned, I was dead. But one foot continued to put itself on the next step and haul the rest of me after it, then the other foot would put itself on the next step and do the same. All sounds disappeared except for a raspy loop of inhale/exhale (mine, I think) and all sights disappeared too, except for the row of rocks that was immediately before my downturned eyes. My eyes refused to see anything else but that one row which my feet intended on climbing next, and then that one next row, and then the next, and then and then and then…The world was reduced to breath breath – step – breath breath – step -breath breath – step – breath breath – (spit blood) – step. It got a little Zen after a while, actually.

When I finally did lift my head and look up, and that only after multiple promises that the “hardest part is over” and that there would be “no more stairs”, I was blessed with this glorious vision.

Looking behind me at the way I came,  it was as if those stairs were just a horrible thing of the past, a distant memory.

And it was this tricky ability of the body to quickly forget even recent agony that got me fantasizing about a future of mountain climbing all over the world. My Inner Extreme Adventuress had been awakened! She had been fast asleep, comatose you might even say, but now she was roaring!

I visualized myself giving up all worldly belongings and attachments for a life of bare bones mountaineering. I saw myself hanging by the tips of my fingernails off the highest summits of the Himalayas, hopping from platform to platform on the Rockies, standing solo on the peaks of the Appalachians, spitting blood through the Andes, all like a true daughter of the Rift Valley, all as if I had done all these things already and only needed to reconfirm that I could do them again. I was pumped!

And when I’d finished with mountains? Why, deserts, of course! Cross the Sahara. Yes. Ambling along on the back of my ancient camel, our silent spirits in sync, together “speaking the language of the universe” (thanks Coelho), my head, nose and mouth wrapped in a grimy netela, eyes flawlessly framed with kohl…the Queen of Sheba incarnate (minus the caravan and the worldly goods).

I no longer cared if Mount Da Luo Shan seemed to have no end. In my mind, I had already finished it and moved on to greater challenges.

(P.S: This is why going with a guide is highly recommended. That white area on the right is supposed to be a map.)

By hour three, the face of the mountain changed again. It looked like we had entered a maze.

Too, it dawned on me why Moses took forty years or however long it was to do the Mt. Sinai thing. My hair wasn’t in any danger of turning white, as his did, but the fine salt crystals that my drying sweat left on my skin were starting to give me a glow. A halo, if you will.

So I thought I’d complete the prophetess look with a nice naturally curvy staff.

And just like Ole Mo’ I came upon a camp. (I wonder if they’re worshipping a golden calf down there.)

Did I mention? The only other life form we came across (apart from other hikers) was a lone Praying Mantis. Seemed fitting at the time. I forget why. I think the sun and exhaustion had me “thinking thoughts”.

One of the most fun things (yes, fun) about this whole trip was that the landscape kept continually changing. My favorite part was this series of narrow edge walks with the mountain falling away to one side and a nice safe ditch on the other side, into which you could hop and continue your journey in absolute walled-in safety. But who wants absolute walled-in safety? We’ve already established that I am Extreme Adventuress of the Himalayas, Rockies and so on.

Besides, it reminded me strongly of a similar walk I took along the top of a narrow wall somewhere between two underground churches at Lalibela. I’m on record as having commented, at that time, that such a heavenly place was an ideal one from which to depart this world.

Well, I can’t say the same celestial mood applied here, but the similarity made me wish it would keep going. Who knows, maybe it would end in Confucious’s motel in the sky?

These may look like stairs but I promise you, they weren’t. (If I can lie to myself, I can lie to you!)

I’m sorry, I can’t help it. Just one more. Indulge me. I’m going to be famous someday, on the cover of National Geographic Adventures.

PART 3: GET DOWN

Around hour five I stopped taking pictures. Put simply, I got pissed off. Plus, I needed both hands and both sides of my brain. To call it “going down” seemed like a sick joke when all we seemed to be doing was either going further up, or negotiating nonexistent semi-paths through thick bush and wooded forest, or slip-sliding along sheer drops where the only footrests available were the ones you imagined there. The engineers, if they can be so called, did not seem to have put half as much thought to how people would get out of this mountain as they did with how people would get deep in it, what with those stairways to heaven and hell.

After this obligatory stop across the “Dragon’s Backbone” (that’s our guide on the fifth vertebra from the left), it was finally announced that we had reached the bottom…we were almost home free!

Almost. There was still the small matter of the final set of stairs…

…which continued on like this for the next hour.

And Voila! The first sights and smells of civilization!

(You see the other pair of donkeys up ahead? Well, they came out of a side path onto the path I was in, and I was following them when this other pair clattered up behind me. Somehow, the idea of travelling between two sets of heavily-laden donkeys on a steep downhill path seemed like a bad idea, so I stepped aside and let them get ahead of me too. The view was also much better from here.)

As we neared the end of our road, for real this time, we passed by those mute reminders of the end of another kind of road, and I couldn’t help but send up a prayer of thanks that it hadn’t been necessary to dig one up for me on this journey.

PART 4: GET OUT

Like good exodus-ers, we made a beeline through the town of Cha Shan and straight into a restaurant. There, we spent our final ours of triumph fervently worshipping at the altar of Lazy Susan, had her spinnin’ and spinnin’ and spinnin’!

Turns out, after you get a couple of bottles of beer into them (and mind you a “bottle” here is half a liter, but it doesn’t take much anyway) and they start to turn a lovely shade of pink, Chinese boys are all right after all. In fact, after this, a lot of things aren’t seeming so bad any more. For one, I figure if I can survive a journey the end point of which, the types of landscape involved, or the capacity of my body to endure I had no idea about, then I can easily sail through eight more months in the semi-hospitable environment known as Wenzhou City.

Meanwhile, I’ve committed to walking at least one hour every day. You know, in preparation for my projected life plan of mountaineering and desert trekking.

And also because somewhere between the nonstop noodles and fried rice and fried dumplings my ass has become a serious contender for the largest landmass this side of the Yangtze.

Oooh, the Yangtze….Whitewater rafting anyone?

(Tell me this isn’t calling your name…)

 

 

 

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