A Surprise Journey Up a Mountain

I didn’t mean to end up on a horse.  I was just going to climb the mountain that lurked over the hostel, sometimes brandishing plumes of white clouds in the dead of night, like eerie ghosts trying to reach for more company in the grave.  Ilove that about mountains: the way they seem so close, but never connect no matter how quickly one walks toward them.

But yes, the horse.

Iwas trying to get up the mountain, but was failing to find the entrance, since one must pay to climb, and must climb along th proper path.  Iwalked past a movie studio, along another path, through an area brimming with Yunnan countrymen saying "horse?  Horse?"  as they offered deals to ride one up the mountain, me firmly saying "no, no, no" since they were a little superfluous in my book.

And then, as soon as Ithought "never!" with the horse, Imanaged to strike a deal with the horse-wrangler, and was soon bobbing along the back.

As a kid, Idon't think Ioften asked for a horse, already knowing that it was a little too much for someone who didn’t even ride teh Razor Scooter all that often.  A horse just seemed improbable. So at first, Itried to hate it, since it was so touristy, so expected from a visitor to do.  I wanted to be different!   But without concsious effort, my thoughts shifted from “…and to think Iactually decided to do this!" to "wheee!  I'm on a horse!"

As we rode, the dirt came up in miniature explotions of dust with every fall of hooves as the mountain road inclined, and Ikept thinking of myself as an explorer, as a pioneer or an elf or anything that didn't remotely resemble a tourist being led by a much tougher countryman in a wide-brimmed hat.  Along teh way, there were gravestones perched in the dirt, dried riverbeds, and skitters of clouds scrapng along the sky.  Talking muffled down to nothing until we were in a canvas of pine trees, the padding of hooves, and occasionally, telltale trickles of streams. I was grinning like an idiot, and by the time Idismounted at the Cloud Path, Iwas already lamenting teh phenomenon of fast-moving time.

But time can move at a horse pace, too.  If you let it.

Getting Dali’d

I woke up at 8:30, but somehow, it was 1:30 in the afternoon and I’d only made it as far as the roof of a coffee shop.  True, I was in the company of a French man who very much wanted “real” coffee, telling me that he had a 6th sense for finding good relaxing coffee places.  All the same, this is a recurring pace of life over here.  Get up, muse about the beauty of the mountains, meander down to the Old Town to grab something to eat, and then think about the next step.  But sometimes, there is no next step.  In fact, that was what seemed to be happening in the coffee shop, us sitting there sipping coffee, remembering that we had intended to get to a nearby village.  It seemed so far away, the moments hanging in the future, and the coffee was RIGHT THERE.  So we sipped and chatted, and then eventually made our ways to the village to meander, make some more coffee, and sit in the sun.
 
It’s not that we’re lazy.  Well, okay, we’re maybe a little lazy.  But it’s a slower city, a place for people to be lazy and not worry too much about it.  I sleep in, and then consider examining nature.  I start adventures in the afternoon and when I’m tired, go back to the hostel or hang out in a restaurant.  And there’s nothing about the local people, the food, the sun glinting off of rooftops that tells me I should feel guilty about that.  
 
The French man (named “Remy”) told me this slowness, this desire to linger a little longer, is called getting “Dali’d,” which is when the slow pulse of the city beats in time with meandering feet.  Dali is not the place for people running th length of a stopwatch when travling.  Because it seems that the whole point of Dali is to stretch without point at all.  At least Ihope so, since that’s what I
ve been doing.  My first thought upon getting to Dali was “What should Ido?"  After spending a few days here, I can safwly say  that there is only one thing to do: get Dali'd. 

 

Down the Country Road

I’m not really sure what my plan was, but it involved renting a bike and going someplace I hadn’t been before, which isn’t hard to accomplish in Dali.  I found a place that let me rent a small shifty-wheeled creation for 15 yuan all day, hopped on, and promptly neglected to look even once at the directions to Lake Erhai that the hostel had provided me with.  I knew it was down the hill, and that was good enough for me.  

 
I coasted down the hill as workers unloaded big parcels from trucks, women sat by blankets covered by small trinkets made by hand, and the blue blue sky challenged me to find better company than its clouds.  I got to the bottom of the hill and as soon as I crossed a highway, there I was buzzing along on a bike as anonymous as a bee’s wing along a thin road.  The mountains were on either side of me, and this field of farmland, workers bent over in pointed hats sifting through their crops, was like the comma between peaks.  
 
My rental bike was in for a ride, one that it probably was not bargaining for in the first place, as I decided to take it on thick-stoned paths, vibrating and jarring along as workers barely looked up from their work.  I took it through winding villages, where a sudden turn ended me in someone’s walkway, children trailing behind with open mouths.  I meandered it through small dirt paths, over larger rocks, splashing through puddles, and dragged over roadblocks.  The road dwindled, widened, and coursed over and around like a wild river, and we rode it as far as the wheels would take me.  In the end, we two survivors of curiosity, battered and dusted over, returned to the Old City.  And in those motes of dust, we brought that country road back with us. 

 

Dali–Monsters in the Dark

I had this brilliant plan to sleep in the seated area of the train and arrive in Dali, just in time to see the sunrise.  It would be romantic, me standing there on what I assumed would be a tall surface with the wind sweeping my not-matted-down-by-the-train hair as the orange cracked the sky open.  I had it planned, which of course meant that I’d pictured it a lot, but hadn’t actually plotted logistics.  As it turned out, the train arrived in Dali at 4:50 AM, and everything was as dark as the back of my eyelids.  The moon was cookie-cutter perfect in the sky, and I could see stars, but I was also blurry from sleep, and had to wait about 1 1/2 hours before the bus to the Old Town showed up.  Could I have taken a taxi?  Of course.  Am I willing to spend 40 RMB on this taxi?  Take a moment to picture how many plates of dumplings or noodles, or fever-dreams of Sichuan cuisine that could be.  That’s my answer.
On the bus, I watched the moon trail behind us like a paper kite.  I think I used to watch it do this as a kid, so it was like dreaming almost when I saw these looming black knuckle-like shapes blot out the bottom of the moon.  I looked around wildly for the sun to make an appearance, but that wasn’t it.  There was something in the dark.
I got off of the bus, and proceeded to blunder around with my backpack which I\d already determined to be too heavy, when the town started to turn grey, rather than pitch-dark.  We were cold, me and the other blundering passengers, and I think this added to the chilling effect of seeing the first fingertips of golden-red tip into the sky, like a swimmer cresting up from the water.  It started at the top, this gold-red, and it was then that I beheld the behemoths–these walls of rock shielding the town of Dali all around, and as the sun blinked and staggered its way out of bed, I saw the second wave of light touch the tips of them until they were red now, and the rest jutted out in crevices and fingers of ridges planting into the earth.  I turned back around and there was the sun, pinking the sky, and on the other, the rising, rising bedrocks of the wild.
I hadn’t spent a lot of time looking at pictures of Dali before coming, because I didn’t want to raise expectations.  So it was downright shocking to say the least to watch this shroud of pink-grey lift and reveal a sprawling expanse of mountain-scape that was at once beautiful and terrible to behold, like the end of a sentence.  I was so in awe that I neglected to take pictures, instead getting smug about my sleep-deprived, but altogether more aesthetically-pleasing entrance into Dali.  An end of a long jangling night on a train, the mountain the crux of the next moment beginning.
And the sun just let it hang there, like a phoenix drenched in flame.

Forest of Stone

When I saw the crown of rock pillars sluicing up from the ground, my first thought was “I must go and poke it.”  It was mysterious, irresistibly displayed for all to see, and furthermore, climbable.  So I raced up the grass hill toward the red earth.  The soil in Yunnan is this intoxicating rich red, dry and in small pellets that crunch underfoot–a satisfying sound for recently-broken-in hiking boots.  I relished the crinkle of the ground as the rocks came closer, soon brushing under the tips of my fingers, and then clenched in my hands.  I raised one boot, and then the next as I went higher along the base–not quite climbing the pillar, but being damn clear that it would be scrabbled along nonetheless.  My imagination crafted all kinds of snakes and monsters crashing down from the trees as I took the Mufasa way up, awe-struck by the blue, never-ending sky.  A rustle of dry grass, a shadow in the rocks–it was as though I was in a Halloween corn maze.  The only difference: I would be eating leftover Chengdu meat candies instead of the sticky Honey-O’s my dad would later tell me he loved to take off of my hands.
I spiraled around until there was more of a clearing.  And then from the top…I saw the REAL Stone Forest.  Except that it didn’t look like a forest, but more like a petrified fortress toppled by misfortune, voices frozen in stone.  Endless nonsensical pillars rising from the ground, like some weird Dr. Suess creation, without the whimsical colors or creatures.  And TONS of tourists with megaphones, whereas my anonymous rock was devoid of all people, other than a homeless man trying to sell broken pieces of fake jade.
Reluctantly, I climbed down, and made my way to the real monsters in The Stone Forest.  They probably could have held more snake potential.  But I wouldn’t give them the satisfaction of being scared.  My imagination seemed more capable of doing that.

Chengdu–THE FOOD

Picture it: a bowl of red oil with small flakes of red and dull brown spices floating in it, grains of salt and other ingredients caking the bottom.  Tofu, plump, dripping with water and splitting with even the most delicate touch of chopsticks, dip into this sauce, and then the kaleidoscope of flavors whirring and buzzing, zip-rocketing all throughout the body.  One need not slather the sauce on, only one small fleck is enough.  This can go with sweet dumplings, the juxtaposition of sweet and spicy like a ferocious tango between two equally swift-footed partners dipping and swaying to take the lead.  It can also be used with vegetables, or even just popped into one’s mouth, if daring enough to try.
Then move onto the vegetables, some sprinkled with peppers, some shining with oil, some in deeper red sauce, some plain and ready to find its flavor-potential.  These can be mixed in the steaming bowl of rice, or they can be grabbed straight from the bowl with wooden chopsticks clinking against the edges.  Some vegetables radiate with spice, others have a faint sweetness to them adding a surprising contrast.  A cup of tea rests by the bowls, hardly touched from the vigor that is Sichuan dining.  Potato slices cut into crinkles and draped with the red tang that makes it sing, noodles lurking in the depths of this same flavor concotion, dripping once on land and easily slapping the senses with enough sense to know they’re being rewarded for a lifetime of diligence.  It’s all in there.
After the meal, why not?  Move onto a snack, a “小池” that makes the rice crackers I’m used to look weak.  Some slabs of meat marinated in sauce, fried, and served on a stick, some pancake-like sweets that can be made spicy, full of meat, or sugary depending on one’s mood that day.  Fried eggs, roasted nuts, sugar balls, small bowls of spicy noodles, a one-person hot pot full of sliced vegetables swimming in flavor, sticky rice wrapped in dried leaves.  There’s never “nothing to eat” in Sichuan.
The words “I’m hungry” carry with them a distinct shiver of glee as a Sicuanese thinks of what food to have next, or wonders what their stomach will be rewarded with, and I can understand why.  After only four days in Chengdu, I feel it, too, and enjoy the spring in the step of the person eager to show me their favorite food and watch me try.  I’ve been let in on a delicious secret of culinary proportions.  And it smells like peppercorn.

The Mountain’s Answer

We were in Dujiangyan, the sometimes forgotten city outside of Chengdu where small snacks, city-scapes, and mountains wait for visiting feet.  I woke up to clean, crisp air that reminded me of the first bite into an apple, and followed my friend’s mom and her friends as they walked me to the base of 青城山 (Qingcheng Mountain), a Daoist landmark.  There had been a 5.4 earthquake there a while back, but it hadn’t brought down the mountain, only rearranging the stones and inviting more to climb and lay down sticks to commemorate the resilience of stone.  The gate was covered in impish figures in the clouds, painted in bright colors with faces wide in either surprise or horror.
 
As we climbed up the slick dull-red stone staircase, the surrounding mountains rose like jagged teeth, snagging on the sky. We were in a tunnel of green, water dripping in this cave of pine trees, ferns, palm trees, and moss.  I had to walk sideways at times, my Western feet too wide for the stairs.  We all paused as shouts from other climbers lingered in the air.  My guides too, yelled into the trees.  But we heard nothing in return.  When we got to the top, we saw a sign, saying that people often liked to shout from that spot to hear the mountain’s answer.  We’d been testing the echoes all the way up the mountain with shouts, whoops, and song lyrics.  There, I took a deep breath and drained my lungs, scraping whatever sound I had out.  I didn’t know the question, and I didn’t hear an answer.
 
“Hmm, this one’s no good,” Wu Dan, one of my guides said.  “Let’s keep looking.” 
 
So we climbed along even thinner stairs, pausing by cliffs, drooping under low-hanging rocks, admiring old temples, and all the while shouting to find the answer from the mountain.  Sometimes it rang right back, sometimes it was as sonorous as a gong, and others it fell flat as if plugged up with a stopper.  As the morning drifted into afternoon, our shouts shifted to groans or occasional “Are we there yet?” as we thought of food and our aching feet.  Soon, we stopped yelling altogether, and we were silent, walking back down through the green, me forgetting why it was so important to make noise in the first place.
 
And so, 青城山 kept its secrets that day, and I, the traveler, left the question hanging in the water dripping from the trees.