And today is—how to say—even colder. And far, far foggier. Which you would not think ideal for the longish view-strewn walks that are today’s itinerary, and yet: perfect. But first breakfast, which is like a surprise gift from someone who really doesn’t know you very well: a hard-boiled egg, and stewed ginger and black beans, and green beans in a sweet sauce, and a glass of hot milk that I make into coffee, kind of.
Then out to a store for an umbrella, and again with the guys and the dragon and the firecrackers and the cigarettes, but this time to the northeast side of town and up to the top of a ridge. The main trail getting there passes among small homes ranging from rustic to ramshackle, bits of trash here and there, broken shingles tossed onto tin roofs; it gets smaller and smaller until it isn’t there anymore, and up and up along side trails through the grass and bushes and pines and again everything is thick with ice.
Beyond the ridge there is a valley, and another ridge, and more valleys and ridges, forever, from what I can see. I walk east along my ridge, then north down a thin official trail, deadly with ice and sheer drops to either side. I fall a lot and occasionally to the edge and beat the hell out of my new umbrella, and then sort of hop rock to rock out to the Watching Cloud Pavilion, which itself is a bit charmless but perfectly placed on its point. And I sit there and watch, as indicated, clouds, and wait for the fog to the lift again, which it does, partially, at times, whenever the wind rises. It’s not raining much anymore, and the bit of view to the east is gorgeous, though Hawk’s Mouth Precipice, which I have climbed here to see, mainly cannot be. And my pants and gloves and martyred umbrella freeze quickly to the stone bench, so back along the ridge and down through the old houses.
And it is time for hemp slip-ons: the ice has won and I have lost. Several stores on my way through town do not have them, but there are hundreds of pairs at the trailhead store, the same place I visited yesterday, and here again is the woman who wanted 30 and then 40 yuan and laughed and laughed and laughed as I fell. She does not recognize me, though just now I am the only Caucasian in town. I ask her how much the slip-ons cost. Fifteen yuan, she says. And, hearing this, a young Chinese man standing a few feet behind her straightens and looks at me, is obviously discomfited by the fact that his countrywoman is trying to roll me, albeit less avidly than yesterday: he flashes me crossed index fingers—Chinese for "10"—then turns away as the storeowner spins to see who or what I am observing so closely.
And 10 is what I pay, though the slip-ons are, it turns out, worth a thousand, or would be if they lasted a bit longer: this next walk is seven hours of forest and ruins and fog and it is now time to start.
On and down and up and along, and the entire trail is beautifully built, invisible against the valley wall, covered with ice, of course, but the gripping capacity of my slip-ons is one degree past believable. There are terraces built out over the edge so that the beauty of Brocade Valley and its millions of wildflowers and the Jiujiang fields beyond might be marveled at, or in my case, given the fog, imagined. A small tour group comes up the trail toward me, and they are slip-on-less fools; I help them past a slick spot, a hand lent to each, and the group’s one army officer turns the help into a handshake, and fair enough.
Then I see no one for six hours. You do not need a detailed description of each of the minutes those hours contain, though I would very much like to give them to you. Let this suffice: total silence except for my falling noises once the slip-ons start to slip off in the middle of hour four, and the occasional shush of wind, and the occasional hush of snowfall. Visibility ranges from 6 inches to 1,000 yards, but is generally 10 or 15 feet. There are occasional footprints, half-filled and glazed over, from yesterday or last week. Each ice-covered tree is filigree. Past the Youxian Stone, the Guanmiao Pavilion, the Fanqing Spring, and the Buddha in his cave at Laojun, where tourists can lounge in director’s chairs stationed at the edge of the chasm, cigarettes cavalier between their lips, so that their picture might be taken, or so I guess from the sample pictures stapled to the side of the booth, but there are no photographers here now, no tourists but me.
I may also have seen the famous Stone Pine—it was on the map—but did not recognize it as such.
And so past the Immortal’s Cavern where again there are picture-taking facilities but no one doing so, and out to the Imperial Tablet Pavilion, across a parking lot, and to a narrower, steeper trail that no one has used in some time. The fog hides me from the drop-offs; the woods are still locked in ice. A few small terraces and temples along the way, and then a complex of sorts: the Circular Buddha Hall, the Heavenly Pool and its pagoda, the Tianxin Terrace.
On my map, things are straightforward, and in the world they are less so. I end up enjoying the wonders of the Tianxin Terrace several times—the round door, the open stone court, the rainwater-filled walk I walk over and over. I enter it unintentionally from many different angles, through various entrances, and each time am surprised. My slip-ons are loosening; I tighten one successfully and break the twine laces of the other, and my right foot becomes progressively less useful. Finally I find the right path down past another terrace into the forest and through to Dragon Head Precipice.
I sit at the edge of the precipice, and stare at the fog that fills it, and slowly unpack the lunch I have brought, which consists of Skittles. I call each color a separate course, and break icicles from the nearest pine for my beverage. I think about the valley and its depth and breadth and silence, and about the fact that I am alone here, seeing and not seeing it.
(Am I making too big a deal of all this silence and aloneness? Perhaps. But remember, I live in Beijing. The only way to be alone for any length of time in Beijing is to wait until the elevator doors open, push everyone out whether they were planning on exiting at this floor or not, threaten them with bodily harm until the doors close, wait for the elevator to ascend exactly half a floor, and then press the emergency alarm button. Then you can be alone for a few minutes, until the building manager calls the technicians. But the alarm is very loud.)
More walking, a missed turn, a side trail that ends at a drop-off, careful one-footed backtracking to the main trail, some slipping and some sliding and some falling and some profanity. My body is now issuing regular updates about impending system failures—knee, ankle, groin. Apparently past the Sleeping Dragon Pine, and what is it with these famous pines, that they are so hard to recognize as such? Finally, to the Hanging Bridge, which is superb in the fog, both ends invisible from the center.
According to my map, there is here a road along which I will be able to hitch a ride back to Lushan, taxi or truck or bus, whichever comes first. Unfortunately, the map is incorrect. I recross the bridge twice to make sure. The road does not manifest itself. There is noise on the hill above the trail, however, so I walk up, and find a dorky-ass-looking cable car, and the only other option would be walking back the same seven hours in reverse, and now the twine ties on my one remaining slip-on break. The cable-car tender promises me that the views are spectacular, and that at the far end of the ride there is a restaurant and the road I am looking for. So, OK, 30 yuan.
Except there are no views of anything but fog, and because of the lack of visual references, it is impossible to judge speeds and distances: for all I know, the cable is only 10 feet long and the car itself moves very, very slowly.
And at the far end the restaurant is closed but the road is open. I wait five cold minutes. Still no cars, but the fog lifts a bit, and parked a ways up the road is a van with a driver waiting inside. I walk to it, and the driver says yes, there is room, and yes, back to Lushan, but not until his tour group returns from wherever they are, and even then slowly, stopping at sights. For a time, I think the better option is to wait for a car to pass.
None do and so yes, all right, and thanks. We exchange cigarettes. We wait and talk. He loves Lushan, would live nowhere else, and now his group comes and we drive along a road that is theoretically two lanes wide but because of the snow-loaded trees bowed over and into it is actually sometimes one lane and sometimes none.
We stop so his group can see the Immortal’s Cavern and have their picture taken, except the fog still stifles everything, so I assume they will only look. I buy another set of slip-ons at a kiosk, and the driver tells me that in the ’50s they were all anyone here had to wear—no shoes inside them, no socks. He tells me of other good spots to see farther outside of Lushan, and writes down the names, and is sorry to hear that I will be leaving too soon to see them, though Jingdezhen is also very nice or so we both have heard.
He puts in a tape of Buddhist monks singing, and says it will put me at peace. He is right. Then he offers it to me as a gift. I decline, because being at peace makes me nervous, and thank him, and say that I will pick up a copy at the next music store I find. He says they can only be bought at the monastery where the monks live, and I say I will just have to go then.
And his group comes back, and they have indeed had pictures taken, and I look at the pictures, and they are inconceivable: each of the tourists sitting at the edge, and beyond them the sky is perfect blue, and Brocade Valley is in gorgeous full flower.
I look outside the van. The fog has not gone anywhere or thinned in any sense. I check the pictures again, and of course: a digital background, the valley as it is when there is no fog or clouds, and these people have paid for photographs of themselves posing in front of something they’ve never seen.
The driver has not heard of the restaurant I’ve chosen for tonight, and drops me off on a random corner. I thank him with cigarettes and he drives away. No one in the vicinity of the corner has heard of the restaurant either, and the phone number I have no longer works, so it is time to exhibit flexibility. Which I do. And the place where I end up—coincidentally, the closest restaurant to my exact location at the moment it begins snowing so hard I cannot see my shoes—is much smaller than yesterday, but here too is a coal stove—the waitresses mix coal and water to form sludge, and spoon the sludge into the stove, and I am not sure why—and here too are locals sharing my pleasure at being inside rather than out. I am offered more frog, and mime how pleased I would be to order it if I had not had some just yesterday, and am unsuccessful in determining which other local delicacies are on today’s menu, but the waitress brings me a nice stew of something that is hard to chew and something else that isn’t, and crisp greens dressed in a peanut-flavored sauce, and some five-star pork, the chunks of meat and fat already separated one from the other, and everything just now is perfect, or would be if the stove were a tad more enthusiastic.
This Is Going to Keep Happening
Until You Make It Stop