Travel Journals - China - 1985

excerpt from China Pennywalk

Up the Sacred Mountain

Our crutch has been the CHINA SURVIVAL KIT, a backpackers' guide covering everything from hotels to history. People who take tours see the China the government wants them to see and come back with glowing reports. Though our reports may not glow, I've loved being here because of the way we've traveled.

After fifteen and a half hours in hard seat, we arrived in Chengdu at 10:40 P. M. with no reservations. We were besieged by young rickshaw drivers anxious to pedal us and our luggage, which had doubled in Xian, to a hotel. We piled into three rickshaws and drove through the dark but active city, filled with bikes even at that hour. At last we straggled into the city's only hotel for foreigners, a thousand-room complex, the clerk of course said, "Sorry, no vacancies," and we of course refused to leave. Eventually a very expensive suite showed up, though no one had left, and later on two double rooms, only enough for four people, too bad there were five of us, too bad these were doubles, not triples, too bad a double room is not for three people. More discussions, until the clerk finally agreed to let us pay extra for the extra person. Is this a game of power, is that it, a game of power for the powerless? Perhaps I should have compassion for these powerless clerks whose only power is over us.

Eli wears size twelve shoes, not an Oriental size, so he has to have them custom-made. We took bicycle rickshaws to a shoe factory on the outskirts of town to order a pair. Sitting on the left side, I could see oncoming buses, trucks, and bicycles swerve to avoid us, and I suddenly realized just how much our lives depended on young strangers who wove in and out and made crazy left turns.

It took an hour of conferences for us to catch onto what no one had bothered to tell us: the factory made only women's shoes.

Back in the rickshaws, we wove through a crowded marketplace, everyone staring at the foreigners, hostile stares, the foreigners staring back. Lets get out of here, I was thinking, just as the pedal fell off our driver's bike. Poor guy, earning his livelihood with that flimsy, rusted-out vehicle. He worked at a repair shop for an hour and a half on a makeshift pedal that lasted, when finished, for less than a block.

Friday was a lost day. We spent the morning arguing. Sarah and Joshua wanted to climb Emei Shan, a sacred mountain about five hours from Chengdu. I wanted to fly right to Yangshuo, a small town near Guilin, and stay there. We spent the afternoon buying plane tickets. The government settled our argument, there are no seats for Guilin until next Thursday.

Saturday morning Sarah, Josh, and I left for Emei Shan. Since Adolph had the runs, he and Eli left a day later.

We weren't surprised that the hotel clerk tried to charge us a higher rate when we checked out, that the watermelon peddlers raised their prices for us, that the woman selling bus tickets pretended we weren't there. Chengdu was the most unfriendly city we'd visited.

The bus ride in the countryside had a nightmarish quality. The landscape was beautiful, lush green paddies, clumps of graceful bamboo, farm houses with thatched or tile roofs, stacks of drying rice plants, water buffalo wallowing in canals, mountains rising in the distance, ducks and cows and people. People farming, peddling, lugging loads, building roads, biking, bikers all over the place, that's why I couldn't enjoy the ride. The bus barreled down the narrow road that was bustling with activity, pedestrians, cyclists, cars, bus driver banging on his horn to tell everyone to get the hell out of his way because he wasn't getting out of theirs. The horn was loud, constant, grating on the ears and nerves, the seats were hard, the road bumpy, the air was rife with fumes.

Suddenly the bus stopped, I heard a gasp from outside and saw a cart rolling onto a human body, then people running, converging. I sat there, hand over open mouth. I could see one unmoving leg on either side of the cart's wheel and red behind. The crowd had closed in and was trying to lift the cart off the body. I don't think I've ever been more horrified.

Then for a moment I saw the victim standing, supporting herself against the cart, dazed, surely in shock. The red I'd seen was her blouse. As soon as she stood up, the bus driver took off. I had no idea whether or not she was still standing two seconds later.

For the rest of the endless bus trip, all I wanted to do was cry, though I didn't; all I wanted to do was take a plane home, though I couldn't. Josh, sitting right in front of the bus with a full view of the road, saw the accident happen. The bus driver had forced a man with a cartload of rice-bags off the road. The cart began to roll backwards down a hill; the man had to let go of it; it knocked a woman off her bicycle and rolled on top of her. The bus driver never even got out of the bus.

That's the reality of overpopulation, of the fight for space in China. Buses, trucks, cyclists, and pedestrians battle for every inch of road traveled. I couldn't stand being a part of it, I didn't want to climb a mountain, I just wanted to get out.

Josh said that every blast of the bus's horn meant death ahead, that we had no idea how many people were almost killed on that trip.

At a seedy hotel in Emei, I spent the night trying to figure out how soon I could leave the country. I never again wanted to walk in the streets there nor ride in a bus.

There was of course no way to avoid buses. The next morning we rode through a grey drizzle to nearby Jingshui. Then, leaning on bamboo walking sticks and wearing plastic rain capes, we began our uphill climb.

I wonder if many people made the pilgrimage for religious reasons in this country where temples seem to exist mainly as relics of the past. Some went to see sunrise from the summit, to look down on a rainbow of clouds below. Some went for the festive atmosphere. Whole families climbed, the elderly, the very young, all taking it in stride.

Last month Adolph suggested that we visit Tai Shan, a sacred mountain with 6000 stone steps. I'd replied that that would be like walking to the top of the Empire State Building four times. I'd somehow imagined that Emei Shan would have sloping dirt paths instead of steps. And I'd thought I'd be able to stop at any point along the way, find the road, and hail a bus.

However the road was on the other side of the mountain. And the path was mainly stone steps, more than 6000 I'm sure, uneven, treacherous, some narrow, some wide, some appearing unusable at first glance, many covered with mud. In fact much of the path turned into a waterfall in the rain. Whenever the narrow trail lead downward for a while, I knew what was coming next. For the general direction was up, steep steps endlessly upward. And even here there was the struggle for space. People passed on steps wide enough for one, knocking me in the head with their opened umbrellas.

We saw no other foreigners, except for overseas Chinese. Men, lithe but strong, carried the weak, infirm, or lazy in wooden frames mounted on their backs. Four yuan, they indicated to me. I probably looked as if I needed help. I wasn't accustomed to paths three or four feet wide with steep drops on one or both sides, and I can't conceive of traveling them on someone else's back.

Thousands were climbing upwards or rushing downwards, encouraging each other, trying to communicate when they saw us, motioning me to continue whenever I stopped to rest. And when I did stop and stand and look into the faces of those passing me by, I saw some of the most beautiful smiles I've ever seen.

One man repeatedly tried to talk to me. He wouldn't leave until a man from Hong Kong came along and translated.

"Where are you from?" he asked.


"Oh, America! Did you come by plane or train?"

Monkeys thumbnail

We walked 28 kilometers the first day. At one point I saw that everyone up ahead had stopped. I peered into the forest. Wild monkeys were swinging through the trees, chattering loudly, moving closer and closer to the crowd. One sat in the branches overhead and hissed when he realized we hadn't brought him food. Someone did feed them peanuts. They sat at his feet until his nut supply ran out, then grabbed at his poncho trying to find more.

The last few kilometers of the day were the most unbelievable, upwards, practically vertical, always upwards, around each bend more steps straight up, more curves, more steps, always expecting the top, always finding more steps. Finally we came to the monastery and the usual disorderly line, the usual mob scene, everyone waiting for rooms, drenched, shivering, exhausted. And elated.

Our room was spartan, three beds with three heavy quilts, stone floor magnifying the chill in the air.

My first project was finding a toilet. "Ce suozai nar?" Usually people understand; this time they didn't. Eventually someone pointed towards a building at the foot of more steep stone steps.

Others had rushed there ahead of me and hadn't quite made it; the place was literally a shit hole. The mud floor had piles right in the doorway and flies buzzing in such swarms that the air appeared misty. I had to balance on ledges, almost as intimidating as the ledges I'd faced earlier in the day, to maneuver myself to a usable stall. Under no circumstances could I return after dark, though I guess a fall here wouldn't be fatal.

Sarah crawled under her quilt. Too hungry to sleep, Josh and I were forced once again to fight for space in the ticket line, to squeeze past packed tables and join the crowds at the windows, everyone waving tickets, this window for food, this one for rice, that one for greasy chopsticks, to find room at a table, to find stools to sit on.

Our most memorable moment came later on when Sarah and I realized the significance of being unable to use the ladies room in the dark. The only safe spot we could find to pee turned out to be the ash trays.

Cool dawn. I pulled stiff wet blue jeans over leaden legs, forced damp socks and soggy sneakers onto swollen feet, and started out again, gasping for breath in the thin air. Pink clouds clung to the adjacent peak. The view was so spectacular, I was actually glad to be there, in fact euphoric.

The sunshine dried us as we climbed through nine more kilometers. Then I heard a car horn in the wilderness. So we didn't climb all the way to the top. Thirty-seven kilometers sufficed for me; I had no qualms about taking the first van down.

What do the Chinese do when they get the runs on a five-hour non-stop bus trip? I'm not anxious to find out. On the ride back to Chengdu, my stomach felt queasy. I took some Pepto Bismo, and it worked. Little things have made a big difference for us: Pepto Bismo, water flasks, tennis shoes, bamboo walking sticks, Eli's alarm watch that awakens us when the hotel clerks won't, the Berlitz book, herb tea bags, THE CHINA SURVIVAL KIT, toilet paper.

By the time we got to Chengdu, all we wanted to do for the next two days was to sit in an air-conditioned hotel room, with private toilet and shower, and wait for our plane to Guilin.

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