[Yes: it has been a long time since I last dispatched. And I am very, very sorry about that. However, the happy result of my failing you in this sense is that (with apologies to any readers I may have living in southern climes) chances are good that the weather is now cold and crappy wherever it is that you live. As cold and crappy as it was in Nanchang and environs back when the narrative I began so long ago began! In other words: you and my dispatches are now meteorologically synchronized.]
Last night, after the dinner on which yesterday’s dispatch ended, I watched Bayern Munich play someone—maybe Leverkusen?—until very, very late. That was fine. But as a result I now wake similarly late, have time for neither shower nor breakfast, and head out to find a taxi willing to take me to the two sites near Lushan that I haven’t yet seen but wish to: the Seven-Color Waterfall, and the Three-Step Waterfall. It is my hope that they will both be frozen solid and sort of ripply and glimmering and beautiful, as in many photographs I have seen of other late-winter waterfalls on other continents.
And it is well colder than yesterday (which, as you will remember, was colder than the day before, which, as you will also remember, was very cold indeed). The fog is the thickest it’s been yet. I wait at the waiting place, and a taxi comes, and he wants 300 yuan for the two-site roundtrip. So, um, no. But the next two taxis won’t go for any price. And the fourth taxi to come along says he won’t go to Three-Step under any circumstances—the road is apparently long and icy and bad—but for a hundred he’ll take me to Seven-Color, and wait until I am done looking at it, and bring me back.
He cannot promise that the waterfall will be frozen, but by this point I cannot feel my face or neck or hands or feet and no longer care. So we’re off, with the heater turned up to 11 and visibility at 5 or 6 inches. The ride is bouncy but not long. We stop at Hanpo Bridge to see its famous view and are able to confirm that there is nothing there but fog.
Farther along, and here now is the gate. I look out the window, and imagine the cold, and consider just sitting here in the taxi for an hour or so—but that would be wrong. The driver wants the full fare paid now, and I’m not entirely sure about this, but he promises he’ll wait, and his request is not unreasonable as there is apparently a tram that he suspects I might take to wherever it goes and thus stiff him out of the hundred. An impasse, but then he gives me his card, so, OK.
There’s a little snow covering the ice on the steps, making walking much easier, and those steps lead down and farther down for quite some distance. For the first time here in Lushan, I feel like a true numbnuts tourist, partly because my nuts are actually numb and partly because of the site’s trappings: the tram, two photo stations with their respective director’s chairs and shivering photographers, bits of litter, a handful of other tourists, and finally, there at the bottom, beside a little tourist welcome-station thingy, is the pool into which Seven-Color Waterfall empties, and this pool is dammed with cement.
But for all that, the waterfall is beautiful: it is, sadly, not frozen solid, but spills splendidly over the top, forks around a big rock, rejoins itself, and then rooster-tails out, and even though today it only has two colors tops, it’s still been worth the walk. And as I futz around taking pictures, the other tourists leave and the fog lifts a bit, so I take a few more, and then I notice a cliff rising up 50 yards downriver. It’s maybe 70 feet high, and at the top there’s a gnarled pine looking ghoulish in the mist, and scaling right up the cliff face is a ladder: stout wooden slats, metal cables to the sides. It climbs about two-thirds of the way up, and then sort of twists and crosses over a smaller pine growing perpendicular to the cliff, and continues along for a while parallel to the ground—like those ladders for winning prizes at the county fair—then disappears into a crevice, where, I assume, it straightens and heads up to the top of the cliff.
(The fact that none of this seems at all odd to me is sound supporting evidence for the Theory of Me Really Not Being Very Bright.)
And I think, OK, one last Lushan extreme nature adventure before heading on to Jingdezhen and the excitement of pale clay. I ditch my daypack and umbrella beside a big pile of what looks like extra ladder coiled in a mess. I start up, and the slats are icy but solid. Every 10 feet or so I test the ladder by swaying my weight back and forth, and it never budges.
Halfway up, there’s more ice than before on the slats, and now the ladder starts to twist away from the cliff face. I look down at the ground, then keep climbing. I reach the perpendicular tree over which the ladder bends, and rest for a moment there beside it, and put my hands out onto the county-fair part of the ladder, when it occurs to me that a ladder for climbing a cliff face shouldn’t actually have a county-fair part.
And I look farther out in front of me, at where the ladder heads into the crevice.
And I say:
Oh holy fuck.
I say this five times quickly.
Because the ladder doesn’t actually go all the way to the crevice.
It just kind of stops about 15 feet in front of me, resting in some shrubs.
And dangles there, unanchored, its broken ends brighter than they should be, given the mist and such.
So what looked like extra ladder coiled messily down at the bottom is actually the rest of the actual ladder, the part that used to go all the way to the top.
And if I’d put any weight at all on the county-fair part, it would have simply dropped.
And the only thing holding me 50 or so feet in the air over jagged rocks is the fact that the bit of ladder I’m standing on is somehow wedged between the pine I’m now clinging to and the cliff face itself.
And veeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeery carefully, I climb back down.
But not before taking some pictures, because, you know, what the hell.
And once I am ecstatically back on the ground, I have an ecstatic cigarette, and then run up to the tourist welcome-station thingy, and shout (probably still ecstatically, which surely ruins my intended effect of great and righteous anger) at the 18-year-old girl who sits and shivers inside, as if my epic stupidity were all her fault. And this, translated directly from the Chinese, is what I shout:
— That thing doesn’t have a thing!
And she says: What?
— The thing! It doesn’t have a thing! There’s no thing!
And yes: at some point I’m going to have to start learning some nouns.
But the girl recognizes that something serious is going on, and follows me to the bottom of the ladder, and says, “Oh yes, that ladder’s broken. You’d better not try climbing it!”
And I charade to her that I already have tried climbing it, and that it did not go well. She raises her hands to her mouth in shock, and then laughs for several minutes. I charade to her that it is now time for her to quit laughing, and that the very least they could do would be to put up a sign. And she says that there already is one. And I charade that there most certainly the fuck is not. And she leads me over to one side, where, fallen to the ground, under a tree and a bit of brush, totally covered with ice and snow, there is indeed a sign saying not to climb the broken ladder.
And back up the steps past the bits of litter and the photo stations and the tram to the parking lot where the taxi is waiting. And he gives me a look that says, “See? Still here!” And is a little disappointed, I think, by the lack of enthusiasm I am able to generate in response to his loyalty, though I am more grateful than I seem.
Back to the hotel to pick up my suitcase and check out, and from there, not to the bus station at which I arrived but to a little ticket office across from the park. The taxi driver says that the fare to Jiujiang is 20 yuan, that there’s a bus that leaves at 1:30, and lots of little minibuses that will pass by sooner. And just then one does, a sort of van with the rear third chopped partially off to form something like the bed of a pickup. The woman riding shotgun says the fare is 30 yuan, and the taxi driver tells her that I already know the real fare and to quit screwing around. She nods and smiles and does. The taxi driver tosses my bag into the bed, and I climb into the back seat, and now on to Jiujiang, and from there to Jingdezhen!
Except, not. We drive in small circles around Lushan for the next hour and eight minutes, hoping for two more passengers. We do this with the windows down, because the fog has returned in force, and with the windows up you can’t even see the sidewalk. And it turns out that on this very cold day, no one wants to go to Jiujiang except me and one chubby kid now sitting in the front seat between the woman and the driver. Finally, I speak up, and the driver says, “Yeah, I know, just once more around,” and at the end of it we find not one but two more clients. They climb in with me, and now we’re all jammed together, but at least the windows are rolled up.
“Much warmer this way!” says the driver.
And we drive and drive, two hours to do the 30 miles to Jiujiang because of the snow and fog and downed trees. For our amusement, the chubby kid starts to fall asleep: he becomes a bobblehead, and once actually collapses into the driver’s lap in the middle of an icy turn.
We arrive a little after 3, and there’s a bus leaving for Jingdezhen at 3:30! But it’s full! So I and the kid who’s accompanied me from the van (not the bobblehead, the other one) get in line for tickets for the next bus, and he handles the paperwork, but I get confused when he only buys one ticket, and ask him where mine is, and it turns out he’s not even going to Jingdezhen, is simply doing this to be nice.
He walks me to the waiting lounge and I thank him and offer to buy him a soft drink, but he says he’s late, and rockets off. I sit in the freezing lounge for 90 minutes with 500 other freezing people. Finally, the bus arrives, and it’s very comfortable and warm, and has a large TV showing the uncensored version of Shanghai Grand, complete with eye-gouging and blood-spurting for the kids. An hour and a half of that, and then a 500-yard mototaxi ride to a fine hotel.
A call home, a long nap, a shower, and dressed for a late dinner—too late, as it turns out. The hotel restaurants are all closed, and room service is done for the night, and outside it is so very cold, so when the woman at the reception desk suggests that I choose a container of instant noodles from the fine selection on the shelf above my minibar, that sounds like just the thing.
Now: because I don’t want you to think I am (Shakespeare’s-clock-in-Julius-Caesar-type-anachronism alert!) Freying you about that whole ladder thing, here are some of those pictures I was talking about.
The view up the ladder from the ground.
The coiled “extra” ladder on the ground.
The view along the county-fair part to the broken ends.
A closer view of the broken ends.
The distance to the ground at that moment.
Do Not Worry—We Are Nearly Done.