In a hungover, mildly existential New Year’s stupor, I bought myself a round trip flight to China. To my surprise, this impulsive decision was met with congratulatory praise. I couldn’t understand why people were applaudingme–all I had done was max out my visa card. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
It’s been 8 months since I embarked on this journey and I’m still trying to process it. I get mixed feelings whenever I look at the little bump on my upper lip. Some days, it’s a badge of honour–a proud emblem of my independence and untameable spirit. On others, (i.e. most), it’s an annoying reminder of my clumsiness and another excuse for casting directors not to hire me.
When I describe my trip to China, I tend to jump right to the part where I smashed my face, losing my two front teeth, seven stitches on my mouth (without anesthetic!), some hot bruises, a thumb that still hurts and a sexy concussion. Yeah, that hospital trip was a big part of the adventure, but a lot of other stuff happened too. I met incredible people and saw things I may never see again. How to encapsulate these three weeks of worldly as well as personal discovery?
Mount Huangshan. A mountain range in the southern Anhui province of eastern China, this World Heritage Site is described as the most beautiful mountain in China. I’ve always had an affinity for mountains, so this was definitely on my ‘must-see’ list. Aside from the Facebook video I posted (the one where I look tired and delirious), I haven’t told many people about this two-day epic.
Using journal extracts, I have tried to make this account as truthful and accurate as possible. The tense changes depending how well I remember things. Oh, and the italics mean it’s a journal entry…PS I’m not much of a writer…Okay enough excuses, I bring you: Mount Huangshan!
April 27th, 2016:
It’s early and the clouds are covering the sky. I wanted to go to Mt Huangshan yesterday, but it was too rainy.
Brave. I keep hearing that word over and over. I am not brave. I just don’t realize how insane my ideas are until after the fact. My massive Lonely Planet has been my bible throughout this trip. I don’t know where I’d be without it. The other most cherished item (aside from my passport) is my white figurine elephant. Given by my beloved amigas Kerri-Ann and Maria, they got it while they were travelling in Malaysia. It reminds me that I’m never alone.
I’m in a bus with one other passenger as we travel from our hostel to the entrance of the mountain. I originally planned just to spend a day exploring, but Lonely Planet recommended that I stay overnight at the Beihai hotel, where it is apparently the best location to watch the sun rise.
I get off the bus and am greeted by more fog. It’s cold and I’m not properly dressed for this damp weather. LP suggests that I stock up on supplies now as prices increase the higher up you go. I buy a cheap, large children’s sweater with a poorly printed image of Mount Huangshan on the front and as many nuts, milk-teas and water bottles my back can handle. Though I can’t see the mountain’s full size, the shape is intimidating.
Climb the mountain, Sarah. You can do it. Take as many stops as you need to. The weather is shit, but it will get better by the afternoon. Everyone is cheering for you. You can do it!
Once I’m set to go, I have to take another bus that will either bring me to the East or Western entrance. I refer to LP:
“The 15km western route has some stellar scenery, but it’s twice as long and strenuous as the eastern steps, and much easier to enjoy if you’re clambering down rather than gasping your way up.”
Pft, cable cars. If I’m going to walk down a mountain, I want to feel what it is to climb it first. Western steps all the way.
I purchase my ticket which, thanks to my student card, gives me a highly discounted rate compared to regular admission. I’m told where to find my bus, but already I manage to get lost in the station. As I meander outside, a man approaches me:
“Miss, are you looking for the bus that takes you to the longer trail?”
“Yeah, but I’m not sure where to go.”
“Not to worry, the line is just over here. Do you have a map?”
“I do, but it’s not very good–I can hardly make out the words.”
“Here, take a photo of mine, it’s very detailed. I’m a photographer and I want to make sure I take pictures of the best sites. So where are you from?”
“Canada, and yourself?”
We hop on the bus and away we go. As we are let off, I take a few photos before heading towards the ticket booth. When I reach for my ticket, it’s not there.
Of course. I’m always losing things. I check and triple check my pockets, wallets and bags…nothing. I go to the booth, hoping my tears of distress will prove that I had in fact purchased a ticket, but no luck. With the few words I’d learned, I ask if I can purchase another student ticket. Nope. Not a chance. I purchase regular admission and head inside. I sit down on some wet rocks and start crying. I know I’m overacting but I’m overwhelmed and sleep deprived and anxious about this climb. If I’m dumb enough to lose my ticket before even entering, how am I mentally fit enough to climb this monster? During my fit, a woman asks if I’m okay and if I’ve lost something. “No, I’m fine”. My response is cold. I don’t want her help. She looks at me, concerned, then walks away. I recover myself and start to walk.
I climb. And climb. And climb and climb and climb and climb. Sweat seeps through my first layer of clothing. Don’t stop. Keep moving. Need to see sunrise. I compulsively check my map wondering if I’ve climbed farther than I actually have. By no means am I an expert when it comes to stair climbing, but I’m not foreign to it, either. I ran up Mont Royal regularly when I lived in Montreal. What gets me is the steepness of these narrow stairs. It isn’t a gradual elevation, they just go…up.
Exhausted, I take another break. As I sit, a long, horizontal blob approaches me. When it draws nearer, I see that it’s a man balancing a large wooden pole on his back with buckets of supplies hanging from both ends. He’s absolutely soaking through the loose clothes that are hanging from his thin, yet strong body. My perspiration is a joke. I watch as he expertly climbs the tiny steps. Any sudden movement could ruin his balance. Not only is this man carrying an unimaginably heavy, awkward weight, but he’s also on the lookout for tourists. As people hustle by, they do not stop for him. No, he stops for them. Like a tightrope dancer, he skillfully maneuvers himself so that others can pass through. Without hesitation, he carries on. Surely there must be a better way to bring goods up the mountain…Couldn’t they transport supplies via helicopter? The man sees me staring at him and asks, “Miss? Water? Apples? Water?” I shake my head, offering an awkward smile. My ignorance is showing. What on earth am I doing here, by myself?
The hours tick by and I go into pilot mode: climb, avoid pole carriers, rest, drink water, urinate, repeat. Eventually, I reach “heaven’s passage”. Fenced by mountain walls, the path is illuminated whenever the sun passes through. Although the sun is blocked by clouds, I sense a brighter presence at the end of the passage. Halfway through, I start coughing wildly. I try to be discreet but mucus is pouring out of all my facial orifices. Tissues at this point are futile. Thanks to Papa’s genes I am infamously congested 365 days of the year. After this violent discharge, I feel light. I can breathe clearly. Inhaling, exhaling, I bask in wonderful, glorious, vast amounts of air.
I make it to Mercy Light Temple, a resting area where you have the opportunity to take a cable car further up the mountain. My brain is too hazy to make any decisions, so I buy two hard boiled eggs and a roasted stick of corn and sit. I’m uneasy. The clouds are worsening the further up I go. I see a group of people taking photos at one of the mountain’s landmarks, but it’s too misty to make out what they’re posing with. I don’t want to wait in line or pay for the cable cars, so I finish my small meal and head onward.
At each viewpoint, I pass in eager anticipation hoping that I will see something, but the fog overrules the mountain’s beauty. Why am I here? Keep moving. What’s the point? Need to see sunrise. My only awareness is of my body and the Sisyphean backpack slowly burying me into the earth. In a thigh-aching trance, someone taps my shoulder:
“I’ve been carrying this with me the entire way. You told me you weren’t looking for anything when I asked you, but I know this is yours. Here.”
My student ticket. I stare at the thin piece of paper as the woman walks away. My panic attack would have been put to rest had I simply told her what I was looking for. I wouldn’t have paid for another full priced ticket. I would have been thankful and relieved. Instead, I was too absorbed in my own frustrations to accept this kind stranger’s help.
I made it. Barely.
My brain can hardly think anymore. I think this was worth the trip, but I would never do it again. Everything happens for a reason, right? I think I’m just exhausted. I know this journey will find its meaning when I’m in a clearer state of mind.
Wow. This must be a record for going to bed.
China kicks ass but it’s also been kicking mine. Huangshan has been disappointing but also not. It’s been an experience, that’s for sure. Definitely the hardest part of the trip. I think Hangzhou/Beijing will be a breeze in comparison, but who knows.
I’m praying that the clouds clear a little so I can see the sunrise. Please, oh please God/Mother Nature, let me at least see some of your beauty.
April 28th, 2016, 2:36pm:
I sometimes worry that I won’t remember all the events that happened on this journey. But I guess as long as the feeling/impression stays, then I’m winning. I think the memories that really matters will stick, anyway.
At dawn, I saw the Aleph. What a spectacular sunrise. It was so quick, but in that moment I understood all poetry, art, and creativity. It was immaculate.
I’m halfway done my trip. Huangshan drained me mentally and physically. Who knows what’s in store, but I’m ready now for more of a vacation rather than adventure!
Sometimes the simplest metaphors are the most powerful: all day yesterday, I couldn’t see anything. I kept climbing and climbing, not knowing why or where I’d end up. I am so blessed to have caught some of this magnificent landscape. I’m also so glad I walked back down rather than take a cable car. It gave me the chance to experience all the hidden gems that were surrounding me. Sometimes, everything you need is right in front of you–all you need is patience and the willingness to see.
December 31st, 2016, 7:21PM:
2016 is almost over. This has been a marathon of a year for me (and the world, it seems…). I look outside my window and actually wish for snow so that it could cover all the shit and mistakes I made this year. But the snow doesn’t stay here in Toronto. It just melts.
I don’t know what 2017 will bring for me, but I can’t not let this year affect the woman I will become. China was too complex to simplify it as a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ experience. I’m still stumbling through life, but some valuable takeaways I can appreciate from this year are:
1) Don’t push yourself to exhaustion. It’s not sexy and you won’t work as well anyway.
2) Ask for help. The ones that matter will have your back when your boulder gets too heavy. Always.
3) Be aware. Fear is okay. Anger is normal. Anxiety and stress can be healthy. Acknowledge it, embrace it, and move on.
4) Petty things are petty and nothing more.
5) Don’t give your life to others. It’s not fair to them or yourself. Be loving, open, and generous, but know that your life is your own. Embrace the shit out of it.
6) Trust your intuition. The little voice we all have inside is right more often than we allow it to be.
Goodnight 2016. Thanks for everything.