Roughing it out in China (2005)

by Tan Lay Leng ©

Eight of us, having trained (more or less) by going up and down stairs of high-rise housing estates in Singapore, are all set for the grueling adventure in China of scaling 3 famous mountains.

After flying into Shanghai at 6am on China Eastern Airlines, we immediately caught a minivan with our big backpacks into the city centre to get a train. Shanghai has definitely transformed beyond recognition since my last visit in 96. It was already full of skyscrapers then, but now it’s totally crammed with blue-green glassed towers vying with each other to cut into their fengshui to carve out the best luck and position. I can’t possibly recognise them as they’re all so characterless, save a few such as the Shanghai International Convention Center (twin globes of the world that are lit from inside thru the glass walls), and the bond exchange tower with a lotus-flower top supposed to calm the razor-sharp force of the clamour of buildings trying to kill each other in their power.

The experience that struck me most was the train ride. It’s a torture (more than the climbing and lugging of huge packs) as it’s full of cigarette puffers, despite being air-con and supposedly smoke-free. The train is not too bad, and we’re duly impressed by this diligent enthusiastic boy who was sweeping up litter and mopping the aisle every other hour. What can’t be stomached was the spitting on the floor habit of even your well-dressed urbane type. Don’t understand how they survived SARS. Toilets are of course to be given a big berth where possible. Salespeople push carts hawking snacks, lunch, dinner, souvenirs, cards, what-have-you and even a bona fide advertisement and demo of hemp socks that resist fire and odour.

After 10 hrs, arrived at our first gateway to Taishan, the most famous Tao mountain. We took a van up to the half-way point, except for one hardy chap who decided to climb up. Then we boarded a funicular car up to the summit. Day was sunny and could see every crag and bush on the granite top. Booked a surprisingly comfortable (heated water and toilet) and old authentic lodge, then went around the summit with monasteries, temples and ancient-style hotels. They all looked as if they’ve been around forever, and trying to imagine that era evoked a strange feeling of sharing space stretching back into eternity. Time seemed to have blurred at remote spots where tourists were not seen, and it’s easy to think you’re back in the past and some gungfu character would appear anytime. There was a partial eclipse of the full moon that night but no one was the wiser as it was a tiny bit and easily mistaken as cloud.

Early next morning throngs of people trudged up the mountain to catch the sunrise but it’s cloudy. However, we did see the globe after it cleared the low-lying haze 1/2 hour later. Not spectacular, no sea of clouds that everyone hoped for. We walked down about 3,000 steps to the mid point to catch a bus, then train. Luckily we managed to upgrade our ‘no-seat’ tickets to sleeping berths so were able to have a good night’s rest despite being cramped 3-deck in the economy or ‘hard’ berths. The 3 guys who went for 1st class had to forked up 2x what we paid, but it’s more privacy and much more comfortable.

Wudangshan, another taoist mountain with famous pugislistic background. Unfortunately it rained the whole day. We boarded a cable car but couldn’t see much due to the mist and clouds. Even so it’s an interesting sensation of gazing into whiteness at the summit. The inhabitants are genuine taoists and dress up like what you see in movies. They meditate and maintain the place, while catering to tourists, a strange coexistence of old and new way of life.

The cloud-shrouded peaks lent a mystical and timeless sense to the place, esp when I walked down steps (nicely done stone ones with balustrade) on a hardly-used route. You couldn’t hear a thing, not even a bird, and it’s no wonder hermits retire to such forsaken sites to gain enlightenment and become deities. Chinese legends abound with such tales. It’s a tranquil yet surreal atmosphere, infused with an aura of haunting supernatural, that conjured up spectres of gods and ghouls.

Coming down, we could see the biggest man-made lake in the world. The water dammed up from the river is so expansive that it is able to fulfill the needs of the neighbouring three provinces. To give a perspective, you can travel more than 24 hours by train to traverse just one province. Beijing, located some 500km away also receives its lifeline from this unpolluted source.

We stopped at a small town for a night to catch our connection the next morning. After resting a few hours in a sleazy railway hotel, we boarded the mother of train nightmares. We couldn’t get a confirmed seat, and not much point upgrading to a sleeping berth since the boarding time was 3.30am, we decided to try our luck. With our bulky backpacks, no chance of us being first to enter the train, the seats which were fully taken up by snoring slumberheads. Even those not sleeping refused to give up extra seats they occupied with bags or other stuff. Two of my companions managed to get seats by being more aggressive, while I parked half my butt against the legs of a girl stretched out on 3 seats. Since lights were on throughout, I just read to while away the uncomfortable ride. The rest had to stand or lean against doors and suffer smoke at the intercompartments for 5 hours. We finally scrambled for free seats at the next stop when people alighted.

The 17-hour or so but seemingly lifetime discomfort thankfully ended. We stopped at a largish town Yingtan for the day. Rested in the hotel after checking out the weird animals being sold as food till we went up the train, this time happily with a hard seat.

The Yellow Mountain, Huangshan, is popularised by emperors who made pilgrimage for longevity and other favours, it has been spruced up to cater to international and local tourism. It’s quite an easy walk up, 3 hr, as long as it took for the slow cable car wait and ride. Deng Xiaoping has been up and down by foot when he’s 75, and has declared it a national monument. The place is full of groups of local & foreign tourists, plenty of swanky hotels, so not much chance to have peace or quiet to savour the out-of-this-world perception. Prices are pushed up by the commercialisation, a double-decker bed in a 16-bed room cost Y160 per night. Taking a joy (or enforced) ride in a sedan chair for the hedonistic or weak-kneed probably costs Y500 or more. Wow, you could get a helicopter spin with the price!

But this mountain, comprising 72 peaks, is the most unique in terms of its sharp jagged faces, rock formations resembling animals and fairies, sheer cliff drops and impossible winding steps to seeming unscalable pinnacles. They make me think of movies where suicides are romanticised by plunging into bottomless ravines hidden by swirling tendrils of mist.

Alas, we didn’t get the much-anticipated sunrise as it’s hazy and cloudy. With all the ascents and descents, probably made 10,000 steps on the second day and my toe nearly dropped off. Recommend you try this mountain if you have the chance.

After the hard part of climbing, it’s to the lowland of Suzhou. This time the train journey was pleasant as we had a confirmed hard berth. We knocked out with satisfaction to a good night’s sleep to reach our next destination. Stayed at 2 olden villages, Zhouzhuang and Tongli to get a taste of original whitewashed houses and nicely kept canals, the main transport for many families. They are interesting, especially shops still retaining old trades of making shoes, hardware, medicine, wines, etc. A glimpse into how China was 300-400 years ago. The splendid and spectacular spacious mansions, resplendent with gardens, patios, porticos, yards, pagodas, trickling water and pools full of carp, artificial rocks, sense of how the wealthy really enjoy life in their fantastic fiefdom in the old days. Even temples are privileged in such luxuries. How nice to do nothing but sit beneath rustling bamboos and read or write poems in the middle of the day — that’s the vision of such picture-perfect scenes.

Anyway, the last stop was Shanghai where we captured the scintillating night skyline at the Bund, and shopped like crazy for really cheap warm clothing, knick-knacks and other stuff. I managed to have a quick spin in the downtown area with my relatives there, it’s so built up now, but still retains some conserved low buildings in the old part of town. The subway is quite efficient and a good way to move around.

That’s long enough a tale… till my next adventure. But one thing for sure, I’ll stay away from trains in China for a while and take my chances with crazy drivers of coaches the next time I visit.

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