[NOTE TO THE READER:
Please remember that it is still February.
It is cold outside. Extremely cold.
You are shivering!]
Things begin with a pleasant early breakfast in the splendid company of my newly married friend’s father—he speaks convincingly and with great affection of carpentry and grapefruit and love. Then there is a hurried checking out and a taxi-dash to the bus station and some run-dragging of my suitcase through parking lots: I am very late for the day’s one bus to Lushan.
Lushan is a small mountain town that is said to be beautiful and interesting, with views, and a large amount of forest. I have not seen forest in a long time, and miss it, and at the bus station I stand around for 20 minutes because the bus has not arrived. Then it arrives but is not quite a bus, is more like a very long, very old van, with no room anywhere for luggage. Fortunately, my seat is in the very back, so only eight people are forced to navigate the short but challenging obstacle course that is my suitcase.
For a few hours I sort of sleep, and then for a few hours I sit and jiggle beside a soldier who leans his head against the seatback in front of him and seems extremely sad or about to vomit. The road goes upward, and we follow it. The road narrows, and we follow more slowly. Fog comes and goes. The temperature drops, and outside the conifers are loaded with ice and snow, and I carefully and surreptitiously close the window of the girl in the seat in front of me, my face preemptively set in an expression meant to convey that whatever just happened, it was an accident, and I’m as baffled as everyone else.
The girl does not turn around, however, and my facial contortions are wasted.
We stop at last. We are in the middle of solid forest. A kid sitting nearby tells me it is time for me to debark, so I drag my suitcase to the front, and the driver asks me what I am doing with my suitcase, so I drag it back, and ask the kid what the hell he was talking about, and now the driver is calling to me. I go, and he tells me that to enter the town of Lushan I will need a ticket. I ask him what kind of town requires a ticket. His mouth says nothing and his face says, “Oh, will you please just fucking do it already?” So I jog to join the few other passengers who’d already stepped down, and the ticket, required of all nonlocals according to a sign in the window of the ticket office, costs 100 kuai, and apparently there has just been an ice storm: every tree, every flower, every twig is encased, and everything is beautiful and silent except for the driver, who is honking at me to quit looking around and get back in the very long van.
Five minutes later we arrive in Lushan. A taxi driver charges me 10 kuai for the 300-yard trip from the bus station to my hotel, and I do not complain because it is cold and raining a little and foggy and I have no idea where anything is.
The hotel room is adequate, small but warm and dry. A quick unpacking, and out into the fog that is now composed of ice-dust, up the street, and left onto a larger street into something of a celebration: 20 men in bright gold outfits, freezing and sodden but enthusiastic, carrying the head and body and tail of a cloth dragon in writhing curves. There is also a band, 10 or 12 musicians, accompanied by Drunk Cigarette Guy, whose job is to be drunk and give cigarettes to everyone, even me.
The ice-fog is so thick that the dragon’s head and tail cannot simultaneously be seen, and then there are firecrackers, a thousand or so, and the fog is briefly replaced with smoke. More walking, past a park and its dozens of winter plum trees, each bright flower sheathed in ice. A tunnel, and the lower section of town, its few avenues separated by wide swaths of iced forest dotted with villas mainly of historical importance. I visit the one built by Chiang Kai-shek and named for his wife, but there is not much to see and so onward: more villas, sanitariums, rain now, and the site of the meeting in 1959 where Mao was demoted, and the other meeting in 1970 where, having regained power, Mao beat back the challenge from Lin Biao, who was strangely dead within a year, all of which is fascinating but again there is little to see except the buildings themselves.
On and around and down to the main walking trail, which, according to my map, leads along a narrow glacial valley out to the much vaster valley to the northwest. At the trailhead there is a store selling postcards and drinks and souvenirs, and slip-on overshoes made of reed or hemp, meant to be tied into place with twine. I can’t imagine my boots will need any help, and the woman wants 30 kuai per pair for the overshoes. As I walk away, she goes down to 20 but I don’t turn back around, and the trail is beautifully built, squared hunks of rough-cut granite for the steps, slabs of rough slate and patches of river stone for the flats, and it’s all covered by a quarter inch of transparent ice and I fall and break my ass. And then I hear laughter. It is the overshoe woman. “Forty kuai now!” she says. I stand and glare and turn and fall and break my ass again. And she laughs again.
This continues for some time.
Hunching carefully through the mud and snow beside the actual path, I make it down to what I have come to see today: a gorgeous, uncanny, massive natural bridge called the Bridge of Heaven. Unfortunately, by the time I get there, it does not exist anymore. (I later learn that it fell decades ago, though postcards of it are sold everywhere in town.) I look at the gap where it used to be. I can hear the river well below, and for a moment am alone with the sound of it, with the trees and ice and snow and fog.
Then a tourist group comes, not large but large enough, and I am not wearing enough warm clothing and missed lunch and so back into town to try for dinner. It takes a certain amount of uninteresting walking around through rain and snow but finally I find it: a restaurant called The Drunk Stone where I will be able to try cave-frog, as I have been told that I should.
The restaurant has 40 tables. I am the only customer, and it is as cold inside as out. There is an actual debate among the nine waitresses as to at which of the 40 tables I should sit. Then the owner comes out, notes my soaked coat and shivering, and waves me back to a very small room.
A coal stove is burning, and there is a table to one side covered with mahjong tiles, and a table to the other side for me. It is, I think, the staff break room. The owner takes my coat and drapes it over a chair near the stove. Then he asks what I’d like, and I tell him, and he tells me the regular price, and my face pauses, because this price is nowhere near cheap, and then he tells me the OK-you’re-right-it’s-winter-and-the-city-is-empty price, which we both agree is fine. And a beer is brought, and some dumplings without much taste, and some baicai. We chat a little and his wife comes, sits beside the stove, knits.
Then the frog dish arrives. It is a sort of thick stew with mushrooms and vegetables and frog bits, and is extremely good. The frog bits have many bones, but they are not sneaky like fish bones, and a pile of frog femurs and pelvises and spines builds beside my plate.
I ask the owner how big the frogs are before they’re chopped up, and he shows me with his hands: twice the size of a silver dollar, give or take, and there are four of them in my dinner. I ask if they really live in caves, and yes, they really do. The waitresses come and sit down. They are all politely interested in why I have come to Lushan in winter, instead of in summer when everyone else comes here to escape the heat everywhere else, and I explain about my friend’s wedding. I don’t mind the cold, I say, which is a lie, but sounds strong, practically virile, as I say it.
Now the cleaning staff comes, sits down in the last empty chairs. We all look at each other and smile. I wait for more questions, the usual ones, but no one asks them, and I am grateful. I eat happily and in peace. Then for a time we all listen to the coal as it burns, and think about the cold outside, and are glad to be here instead. In a minute I will settle the bill, and make the long beautiful freezing slippery walk back to the hotel, and be laughed at by the desk lady because of the ice and bruises on my face, and turn on the television to watch the Beijing Ducks beat the hell out of some team from Shandong who is not yet convinced of the importance of rebounding, but not just now, no, not just now.
Still More Continuation Is Destined Soon to Occur!