Friday, May 29, 2009

Cong di dao shan tou - from the bottom to the top of the mountain

We had a work holiday today and it being a Thursday many people turned it into a 4 day outing. I went back and forth a couple of times about going “somewhere” before deciding that I had so much house stuff to do that it might be better to just find a way to enjoy the day without getting on a plane to an exotic locale. After all, I still had a pile of IKEA stuff to assemble, new kitchen ware to clean and put away as well as a load of laundry. The latter meant it was time to understand the washer and dryer. So staying in town was the decision.

But that didn’t mean that I had to turn myself into a domestic worker for a day, there were still places to be explored and what better day to do them. I settled on another trip to Da Hei Shan (Big Black Mountain) and enlisted a friend in the excursion.

Recall from one of my February blogs, I’d been there before in late afternoon when climbing the mountain was pretty much out of the question due to the waning light. On the way down I’d had that depressing experience of seeing those boys with the puppy, so I thought I’d try today to put a better spin on the place.

The day began with a thick chemical fog obscuring the sun and making it a bit on the cooler side. These morning hazes leave the sky a rather unappealing pale saffron color, but they do buy you a couple of hours of respite from the tropical heat. Although it’s just the end of May, it’s already turning into the seaside bamboo steamer that we know and love from the summer months.

Today’s holiday is The Dragon Boat Festival - 端午节 字面意思是龙舟节 - also called Double Fifth Festival, is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth moon of the lunar calendar. It is one of the most important Chinese festivals, following only the Autumn Moon Festival and Chinese New Year.

The origin of this summer festival centers around a scholarly government official named Chu Yuan. He was a good and respected man, but because of the misdeeds of jealous rivals he eventually fell into disfavor in the emperor's court.

Unable to regain the respect of the emperor, Chuan threw himself into the Mi Low River. Because of their admiration for Chu Yuan, the local people living adjacent to the river rushed into their boats to search for him while throwing rice into the waters to appease the river dragons. Although they were unable to find Chu Yuan, their efforts are still commemorated today during the Dragon Boat Festival.

At the center of the modern festival are the dragon boat races. Competing teams drive their colorful craft forward to the rhythm of beating drums. These exciting races were inspired by the villager's valiant attempts to rescue Chu Yuan from the Mi Lo. This tradition has remained unbroken for centuries although up here in the north, the holiday is little more than a day off of work for most of us and triple time for my pals at the coffee shop.

A very popular dish during the Dragon Boat festival is zong zi. This tasty dish consists of rice dumplings with meat, peanut, egg yolk, or other fillings wrapped in bamboo leaves. The tradition of zong zi is meant to remind us of the village fishermen scattering rice across the water of the Mi Lo in order to appease the river dragons so that they would not devour Chu Yuan.

The fifth lunar moon has more significance than just the story of Chu Yuan, many Chinese consider this time of year especially dangerous when extra efforts must be made to protect their family from illness. Families will hang various herbs, called Ay Tsao on their door for protection. The drinking of Realgar Wine is thought to remove poisons from the body. (Realgar by the way is a Chinese herbal mixture and it is added to flavor rice wine to create the festival concoction.) Hsiang Bao are also worn; these sachets contain various fragrant medicinal herbs thought to protect the wearer from illness.

I made a plan to meet my companion at Starbucks – where else – and to be on the road by about 9 or 9:30. It’s a walk of about 3 miles to the base of the mountain, mostly uphill and through the industrial districts that form the border zone between here and the next city over, Jinzhou. It’s not particularly appealing and it can take the legs out of you which is something to avoid considering that you’re about to climb a mountain. So rather than waste a bunch of energy, we decided to catch a cab to the lot at the base and to walk up from there. Faced with the prospect of trying to tell a cabbie where to go, I began the mental practice of giving him the name I knew, and that failing, telling him how to get there turn by turn. As it ended up, “Da Hei Shan” worked perfectly well and we were there in 15 minutes, only 14 kuai lighter for the ride. Arriving at the parking lot it was clear immediately why the driver knew what I was talking about – the place was mobbed with people planning to do the same festival day hike.

I paid the 20 kuai admission fee, collected our tickets and we were on our way. The stares began almost immediately, this being another one of those places that westerners simply don’t frequent. There is a new temple under construction just above the parking lot so we wandered in. The statues here were different than those I’ve seen in the past and I am wondering if this is one of those synthesized religious sites that counter the pure Buddhist presence in China. The most popular religion here in the north is an amalgam of Buddhism, Confucianism and the country-based Animist traditions. The few monks wandering around in the temple halls wore white pants and short black jackets with those traditional Asian button and loop fasteners. They also wore caps that brought to mind those worn by the holy men at the Shinto temples in Japan which got me to thinking that they might be throwing in that here as well. There is still quite a strong Japanese influence here in the north, and I suspect we were seeing some of that here.

You ascend the mountain via a narrow and deep valley in the rock. Between the vegetation and the landforms, you could easily be dropped here and think that you were in either Sabino or Nacapule Canyons back home. Short Live Oaks, or the Chinese equivalent, dominated the flora. Birds sang in the trees but there was no watching them from here. You see, Da Hei Shan has a dark secret – you climb it via hundreds of narrow stone stairs built for size 6 shoes, not big boys with size 10+ sporting lugged soles. No, you didn’t look around, you watched your feet or you end up on your face.

We passed a lot of Chinese tucked into little shady glens having a picnic or simply resting from the climb. While it was arduous, it was tempered by a nice breeze and a lot of shade. We climbed for 20 minutes or so, passing little faux pagodas by the side of the path and answering a constant barrage of “hello”, “how are you” and “nice to meet you” offered by the people we were passing. To listen to the English greetings, you might get the impression that these are the only things they pick up in English class. I always respond in English and follow up with Chinese that invariably gets them laughing.

We stopped for a family taking pictures of their little daughter and were invited to get in it. I swear my visage appears in more Chinese scrap books than I care to mention. The parents are always so grateful though and I always oblige.
Along the path some enterprising people had set up stands offering sausages, candy, ice cream and drinks – comfort food to take the sting out of the death climb ahead. It amazed me that people would lug this stuff up here merely to sell it to hikers, but such is their enterprising nature.

We hit tree line after a half hour of walking and the path changed along with the vegetation – it now went more or less straight up adding a second level of treachery. Now people started to fall behind as the going was very tough. A girl plopped down in the middle of a stair and began to exclaim, “Oh my God, Oh my God” over and over. This might not have seemed extraordinary aside from the fact that she appeared to be about 4. I had sincere doubts that she had any idea what she was saying, and our presence probably brought out the English that she must have picked up watching a western movie. Perhaps the heroine in some film, under some kind of duress had used the phrase and this munchkin had internalized it, finally finding what seemed to be an appropriate moment to give it a try. The climb was bad, but hardly “God” worthy. We got a good laugh out of it.

Midway up we came to another temple, this one quite fancy and a little more Buddhist in its representation. A guard was checking tickets at the entrance which set me to scrambling to find mine, and making me wonder how anyone could have gotten here without one. Some backcountry trail perhaps. There were four buildings around a center square and the incense smoke was thick and sweet. I went to each temple and visited with each Buddha. Off the side of the main plaza was a large Buddha done in white marble with a giant yellow cape draped around his shoulders. Surrounding him back the trees were smaller stone carvings of various monks, each sporting his own bright yellow cape. Very similar to the Hill of 100 Monks I visited back in November, only the clothing on these statues was fresh and the colors were vibrant, not sun-bleached and tattered like those at the other site.

Behind this statue was a large cubic building topped with a large golden Guanyin, looking out over the valley. We wandered off into the woods and found yet another small shrine containing three of the less strictly Buddhist statues. Two small plates had been left as offerings, one with leeks and the other with two eggs.
Finding the path out of the temple compound, we had our tickets checked again and then up and up we went, eventually reaching a switchback that housed a tiny shrine. A man stood in the shade selling red ribbons to tie to the tree – another prayer offered to a local deity. A cute little girl in a miniature prom dress climbed up on the shrine and stood there hamming it up for her adoring family.

At a small platform at the next switchback a young man tried to compel his Chow to keep walking. The poor thing’s breathing sounded like a death rattle and it was clear that it didn’t want to go on. With each pull on the leash, the dog settled further down into the sand colored dirt.

Some person with a sense of humor had at some infrequent interval scratched the number of stairs onto a rock by the side of the path – we stood at 600 and we had plenty to go.

After one last vertical set, we reached an opening and wandered along a road through the trees which led to a parking lot – looks like one can drive up here from the other side. There were quite a few more vendors up here; one even had pints of Vodka if you needed a hot afternoon buzz. And it was now hot, the shade having been left below. Off to one side was the road down, to the other a broad paved boulevard to a monument – the Reviewing of the Army Platform. I’d read about it - sometime in the deep recesses of time some local warlord had stood here to watch his army march through the narrow defile below. They met the enemy and were hacked to pieces. This big temple-like structure commemorated that event.

It was a nice change to walk along the flat saddle here at the top. Up a few stairs we found some marble statues of soldiers and horses and following the lead of the locals, we climbed up and had our pictures taken.

The view was incredible – the ocean in both directions, Kai Fa Qu, Dalian and Jinzhou spread out below. It would have been really nice had the smog not almost completely obscured the detail. Off in the distance was a steady barrage of fireworks, this being a big wedding day smack at the beginning of the big wedding season. In fact I had passed the fixings for one on my walk to Starbucks that put last Saturday’s event to shame. Twenty or more fireworks cannons, three giant red arches, more than 30 flower displays and uniformed guards shuffling the pedestrians on their way. The sounds of fireworks that would normally send an American running for a better view are completely ignored here – they are just so common.
The temple at the top of the stone platform was clearly Japanese – the decorations, carvings and paint choices were virtually identical to a couple I had seen last year in Kyoto. This place served to remind me of the history of the region and the parallel development paths between the two cultures, a shared experience that ended most violently in the 1930’s.

Heading down from the platform, we had to make a decision from a couple of choices – back down the way we came, up the next set of stairs to the summit or down the back side of the mountain on a nice, paved road. We chose number two, having not yet had our fill of climbing.

At the highest point, there are some cell phone or communications towers, listening posts I’ve been told. From our vantage point we could see another set of stairs heading up and they didn’t appear to be nearly as steep as the last set so off we went in search of the base. The initial climb on the road was tough – it was steep and getting hot. We stopped for a break at an overlook that had a nice breeze and enjoyed the view. A steady stream of Chinese offered more “hellos” as they passed, heading in both directions. Aaron stretched out and I sat watching the people. I glanced off to my right and caught a young woman who had been sitting next to me on the low wall now standing across the road taking our picture with her cell phone. She saw me seeing her and turned face and scurried off laughing. I asked her if she was taking my picture and her friend began to giggle uncontrollably, confirming my suspicion.

Having recovered 20% of our strength we started off again up the road to the stairs and reaching the base we realized a miscalculation – we’d made a bad turn somewhere and these were not the gentle stairs hugging the hillside. These were stairs that came out of a ladder factory but not daunted, we forged ahead, leaving poorly prepared Chinese in our wake. I will mention here that the Chinese do not prepare well for these kinds of outings. Most are carrying some sort of big snack like a loaf of bread along with a couple of Cokes in a plastic shopping bag. The women wear high heels and the men wear bedroom slippers with the heels tucked under their feet. None of them are wearing clothes for the effort; the women use umbrellas to keep cool and the men roll their shirts up to their arm pits.

This part of the climb was so bad that I simply concentrated on my breathing and on not falling backwards. The falling part was not made any easier by the fact that people in various states of cardiac arrest were stopping in the small pools of shade offered by the few trees that were near the stairs. This further restricted an already narrow path and caused a conflict between those of us heading up and the smart people heading down.

After a couple of short stops to gasp some air, we made it to the top. What greeted us there was more people wanting to take our picture, a couple of aborted conversations in Chinese and an interesting lesson in caste. An old man was wandering about collecting plastic water bottles – there were droves – and the guy next to me had an empty. Rather than hand it to the collector, he threw it on the ground at his feet forcing the old guy to bend over to pick it up which he did, but not without giving the guy a knowing look.

A group of four twenty something’s took turns taking pictures of themselves standing on a rock behind us and we finally snapped to what they were doing and invited them to sit between us and have another round taken.

It was time to head down and the stairs were far more enjoyable with the advantage of gravity as our friend. You couldn’t go fast, but at least you weren’t pulling yourself up with the non-existent handrail.

At the crossroads we made a decision – instead of going back down the way we came, we’d head down the nice road and come out at the other entrance to the park. From there it was a short hike on another nice flat road to the place where the taxi had dropped us off 3 hours earlier. This turned out to be a good plan marred by another miscalculation – the road was really, really steep and to get down we had to get in this shin-burning lope. I admired the switchbacks which had to be a 20% grade and thought about what an interesting challenge it would be to ride a bike up those corners. Taxis from the top and the bottom raced by blowing their horns constantly in hopes of clearing the pesky pedestrians off the road; for being a park, it was pretty chaotic. A family drove by in an SUV and a young woman in the front seat snapped pictures of us as they passed. Just a couple of Americans in their natural environment here in Safari Land Park.

Eventually we hit the bottom and wandered back towards our beginning spot through a tiny village. It looked as though most of the houses along the road were also converted into temporary restaurants, serving the visitors to the area. The women doing the cooking and cleaning were dumping the dirty water out of the windows into a gray water stream that ran along the edge of the road. The weeds seemed to appreciate the irrigation effort. Cordwood stood stacked at road in front of each tiny house, and dog was engrossed with something down a lane between two rows of homes. We passed an attractive temple but decided to save it for another time – we were done at this point.

It turned out to be a mile or so walk back to the start and we lucked out immediately – a taxi came up and I hailed it. Telling him where to take us was a bit more challenging but I got through and we were on our way. Halfway down he told me the meter would not be observed, rather we were going home for a fixed rate of twice what we’d paid on the way up. Well, it was probably a situation of him not wanting to go into town, as the money to be made was with the short trips up and down the hill. And it was almost certainly a case of him knowing he had us but for the price of an extra $2, it wasn’t worth the argument. As he dropped us off back in town I pointed to the meter and observed that it said 14 kuai. He looked at me with a stone cold stare and said “30.” I handed him a 20 and a 10 and got out, saying “goodbye” as I left.



























































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