The Yellow Mountains

Thousands of feet high towers the Yellow Mountains,
With thirty-two magnificent peaks,
Blooming like golden lotus flowers
Amidst red crags and rock columns.


Once I was on its lofty summit,
Admiring Tianmu Pine below.
The place is still traceable where the immortal
Before ascending to heaven made elixir out of jade.


Now you embark on your journey there alone—
Another Wen Boxue I happened to meet—
Who’ve been to Five Mountains for beauty of nature,
Leaving behind countless ranges of hills.


Homeward you go back to White Goose Ridge,
Back to drink from your Elixir Well.
If by chance I pay you a visit,
I expect to be met by your light carriage.


Eastwards from Lingyang you bend your steps,
And pick your way through fragrant bushes,
Many a stream and many a ford,
Peaks upon peaks shutting out the sky—


That’s where I'll call on you some other day
Across a bridge that spans cliffs like a rainbow.
—Li Bai (747 AD)


As an exercise
, I will introduce Anhui in the style of Lonely Planet: If you have time for one province in Eastern China— If you are in Shanghai and looking to get out— If you want to get your hands on real China— If your eyes are hungry for a feast— If you possess a sensitivity to the willowing beauty of nature— an affinity for fairytale mountaintops— If you want to see the mountain of mountains— If you have ever wanted to tumble headlong into a painted Chinese landscape—then come to Anhui!

I came by way of thumb and bus to Tunxi, an old town just across the border: a transit town of urban sprawl, but all white stone at its heart—and in that old town I found a hostel by following a German named Peter off the bus from the station. I met a Finnish girl named Ainou, and an Australian, a slow drawling Queenslander named Andrew, and went with them the next day out along roads rimmed with wheat, drying on the hot asphalt, to the village of Hongcun.

The town is shaped as an ox, with a hill and two trees for a head, the neighborhoods for flesh; canals are intestines, the pools the organs; and the South Lake is the hanging stomach, the four bridges four legs. Painting students lined the southern bank, like so much trampled earth, stroking out the guts of Hongcun with watercolors and lead. They could be found infesting every nook of the town.

Hongcun has long been famous among painters: the straight lines and minimal adornment of those stark white buildings, and their reflections in Moon Pond, make fine contrast for plum blossoms in the elegant watercolors of the Ming and Qing masters; and the great artists of today are those who can reproduce the ancient styles, with only the subtlest variation. China is more about preservation and fine-tuning than innovation, generally synonymous with aberration: stand on the shoulders of giants, to use the old metaphor, but do not reach too far out. (The history of China was always perceived as a downhill slope from the days of the Duke of Zhou and the Four Dynasties, though the communists have since exchanged this declining idea for one of modern perfection, perhaps preemptively.)

We had lunch in the store of an old Manchurian named Lu Gong. His wife carved rice noodles off a cold jellied block, to mix in bowls with carrots and cucumber and soya. A dozen chicken wings fried slowly over a pile of greasy tea leaves on a kerosene stove out front. To the wall clung a poster of his old business—a tented street stand in a Dalian square, where Lu Gong served out some thing pancake on a spinning grill, whirling in darker hues in spirals like tree rings.

The chef was presently in the dregs of his second afternoon pint of rice beer. He wore his hair in a ponytail down to the small of his back, and a long wisp of beard clung mossy to his chin. His face was old and lined with tragedy. He rambled about China, and Aino could understand only a little of what he told us—“Something about schools?”—but the letters he produced, from a Californian industrialist and including some amateur photographs, told the rest of the story: a failed business and the quiet dignity of livelihood once possessed by the broken man before us.

As I scrawled out this story, seated on a rock on Moon Pond, Ainou told me that I looked like a poet. I took it as meaning more, coming from a Finn, who are a poetic race. Like all Finns, Ainou required coffee and cigarettes and had a passion for horses, passed down from Attila. I think it is the Hunnish blood that makes the Finns such a somber race. They spend all their time gazing longingly at their lakes or at the sea, ruminating on some genetic memory of bare horseback and open steppe. She wants to ride one day from Beijing to Finland, and took the Trans-Siberian train that long, long way last year. Once some band of Finns rode all the way from Helsinki across Russia and Turan and Mongolia to Peking and right into Tienanmen Square, where the horsemen were arrested by the Chinese police. I find tragic endings appropriate for some people.

I never wanted to go to Huang Shan: to the Yellow Mountains north of Tunxi, as marvelous as the Li Bai poem from which they get their name. No, I thought it overpriced and not worth my time. Then there was the dwarfish Israeli patriarch on the bus to Tunxi who called it the most beautiful sight and his favorite place in China, and the Chinese woman in my dormitory who cried, “You come to Anhui and you no go to Huang Shan! What is wrong with you?” Peter of Cologne was heading up there, the day after I went to Hongcun, and under the duress of potential regret, I elected to join him.

The expense had deterred me: thirty dollars to enter, twenty for a dorm bed, three for a little water, and much more for even the meanest portion of food. I overcame this by buying a load of apples, nuts, and instant noodles the night before, and by resolving to sleep outdoors under the free and open sky. The ticket price I deferred by pretending my driver’s license was a student card—an easy trick in China, where no usher can read the Roman letters.

The mountains rose above us, and the trail was paved with stones and stairs. Peter and I huffed up the first steep climb, between two high ridges to Bright Peak. The cable-car takes ten minutes, the pedestrian two hours; but the weather was good for this effort: high enough to be cool and windy, even in the brightest sun.

Most of the peaks of Huang Shan bore the names of what they vaguely resembled, such as Incense Burner Peak, Eyebrow Peak, or the Immortal Pointing the Way, and I looked back and forth between the rising wonders and a map of their names, making unsure guesses.

“There’s Dog Watches the Moon.”

“Yes!” cried Peter, with tangible sarcasm,—“it’s also a crocodile, a panda, a dragon! Maybe if I was drunk I could see these things.”

I thank Fate for not making me a prudent German, nor a Chinese porter. Despite the cable-car, men carry most of the water, rice, eggs, gasoline, and other sundries needed at the hotels on top of Huang Shan, hung from sticks balanced across their back. They are paid fifteen dollars a day for this hard service. For a while we followed a team of a score of men yoked to a metal pipe, two feet across and twenty in length. They grunted and heaved and cried, “One, two, three!”

While we were waiting for them, and watching with awe, Peter met a Quebecois woman who was hiking the mountain alone, and I an American girl doing the same, whose name I later learned was Lizzy. We convened again at the Bright Peak, where the cable-car lets off, because clouds were gathering and we wondered if it would rain. Those clouds dispersed, and it remained a sunny day. Peter told us of his plan—why do Germans always have one?—to hike around the Western Sea, a great canyon reputed as the most beautiful part of the mountains, before returning to the hotel at the peak, and we all agreed it was a good one.

The landscape, as we set out, looked imagined: a dream of China’s legend. High granite bluff swelled like waves or stood in weathered pinnacles amid pine forests of a deep and mellow green. The sunlight rolled in and out like the tide, behind the shadows of clouds carried fast on the wind. We four went towards the Western steps and stood on a rocky prominence, looking across at a cliff ridged like the pipes of an organ.

The two women and I marveled with exceeding marvel at the grand perspective, but Peter cried, “What? It’s all the same. There are some rocks, there are some trees.”

“Wow that’s Teutonic of you.”

“I’ll get you a beer to help with that.”

We two Americans provided a lot of sarcasm, especially Lizzy. Lizzy was born in a stoned, slow-toned region of California, and studied literature at UC Santa Cruz, but three years in New York City have added just as much to her character: Californian freedom and New Yorker frankness. She ran a business there, working with hippie yoga instructors too lazy or gregarious to make money off their lessons. She was not so surprised at how long I’d been on the road, though she asked, “You come from a hippie town in Oregon?”

“Not really.”

“I love good trails,” Lizzy said later, as we strolled through a pine wood,—“they always suggest curation. Like someone designed this to accommodate the view. ‘Well, it’s out of the way, but they just have to see this!’ It makes me feel loved, because he wanted to show us what he saw.”

On the trail went, off between great peaks and pinnacles, shaped like nothing else on earth, and rising up like breakers in a storm, so I knew how Li Bi guessed they stood thousands of feet.  The Tianmu pines coiled out from them agelessly, and the wind was soft as a whisper through the green forests around the trail.  Shuffling feet, eyes upwards, and a sense of voyaging.  Where the trail peaked and looked down on a green valley, there was a white pavilion and a placid lake, and through two craggy bluffs, the great rift canyon they call the Western Sea.

At the northern tram station Lizzy turned back toward her hotel at the base of the mountain, and I kept on with Peter and the Quebecois to circle the Western Sea. A stone path had been built that jutted out of the side of the cliffs and wound around its rocky spires, then climbed down in windy steps, a thousand feet to the bottom of the gorge, before climbing back out again to the so-called Fairy Bridge. The Quebecois said, “If I knew this went down into the gorge—” but Peter and I cried, “We know!” It was much more strenuous than the flat circling route we had anticipated but also extraordinarily beautiful and entirely worth the rigors of the thousands of steps, and who knows how many workers fell in their making. Even the German confessed his wonder.

“You know, this place is really fantastic—the caves, the stairs, the views. I thought it would be just another mountain, but this is one of the most beautiful places in China.”

“China lucked out on those. Europe has the Alps, America the wilderness, but this is really special.”

“Yes the Alps are beautiful. Most people say the Alps may not be the highest, but they are the most beautiful mountains in the world, especially the Italian side and Tyrol. But this is just . . . different. It’s Chinese. It looks like China.”

So we climbed back up, toiling up the steps to the Bai Yun, the White Cloud Hotel, where Peter, the Quebecois, and nearly everyone else on the mountain had reserved rooms or beds for outrageous prices. There were fancy chambers and rugged dormitories in three buildings set fifteen minutes walk from Bright Peak, where the sunrise was famously magnificent. Presently the lowering sun turned all the white granite to red and the trees to a deeper hue of green, and brought a cold wind up from the valleys below. I went to the hotel store and rented a black coat of Siberian thickness for fifty yuan, with a boiled egg included in the deal. I stood in the courtyard, in the windy gloaming and the frosty fog that had suddenly descended on the peak, and after all preparations had been made, I began to doubt my plan.

I slept for an hour on a forgotten ledge next to the stairway between two wings of the lodge, with my knapsack for a pillow, then slunk through a window into the Activity Center in the basement of the plebeian one and slept there in warm contentment, after hiding from the man who came in to turn out the lights. At dawn I left my lodgings by the same window and, after the white-cloud sunrise, broke my sunset on an apple, an egg, a handful of nuts, and a can of sweet red bean rice porridge, which I ate as if it were beans at a campfire.

“Sweet beans for breakfast,” said Peter,—“very British. Disgusting food they have.”

The day’s task was to climb down the mountain, amid crowds that expanded and contracted in size by some mysterious order, under rocks that looked like China, and the Lotus Peak, its many petals in three layers formed by sets of oblique joints in the granite; Peter, the Quebecois, and I went down long winding stone stairways and past dozens of porters with great weights of eggs and oil; our way not entirely known; but eventually and gratefully we came to a bus back to town; then a hot shower, hung laundry, noodle bowls, and Wi-Fi. O what it is to come home from the wilderness!

There was an alleyway in Tunxi called Food Street, lined with barbecue stalls, milk tea shops, and noodle bars. The street around the corner from the hostel was lined with nicer restaurants, and in front of each a perverse sort of pet shop: cages of hens, pheasants, rabbits and snakes and tanks of fish and eels, all ready to order. These seemed to sense their inescapable fate with a restless and palpitating fear.

My last night in the town I had dinner at a place across the road from this shambles, with the residents of my dormitory: an Englishman and his Hungarian girlfriend, and a pretty Chinese girl named Li-Li. We shared several dishes and afterwards Li-Li muttered something and then vanished from sight.

“Is she going to pay?” wondered the Englishman.

“I hope not,” I said, “but yeah, probably. My God. Chinese people are too nice. If you don’t jump up and pay right away, they’ll buy you everything.”

“No way. Why would she pay for all of us?”

We discussed it further until Li-Li returned and sank into her chair and said, “I paid.” Then we all got out money and paid a fourth of the bill each, giving her the cash. Thankfully she did not resist.

Li-Li was excitable and interested in music and travel, pining for India and East Africa and South America and everywhere, really. She knew Tom Waits, and I asked her about herself until she became adorably bashful. I told her I wanted to go to Tai Shan, the Great Mountain, because of a famous poem on the peak by Tu Fu (which will appear in the epigraph of a later chapter, I am sure).

“You should have seen Tai Shan before coming to Huang Shan,” said Li-Li,—“there is an old saying . . . oh, how can I say in English? ‘Once you have seen Tai Shan, all other mountains look like nothing. Once you have seen Huang Shan, Tai Shan looks like nothing.’ ”

“Well I guess I can skip Tai Shan then,” I said.

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