High as the Clouds

October 5, 2015 — Huangshan City, Anhui Province

In Chinese, “Qiyun” means “as high as the clouds”. That’s true of Mount Qiyun, but only because the clouds slip down to meet it.

Rising just 585 meters above sea level, Qiyun strains, rather than thrusts, out of the dripping Anhui countryside. From heaven, clouds twist like the fingers of ghostly gods, stroking some of the mountain’s 36 ragged peaks and gripping others in a moist embrace.

For modern tourists, Qiyun is much overshadowed by its larger, far more physically impressive brother – Huangshan, less than 50 kilometers away – but through the passing of ages, the toppling and rebirth of dynasties, the wars that have riven China, Qiyun has stood as the epicenter of Taoism in southern China.

Perhaps it’s the millennia-old carvings of heroes and gods that glower out of Qiyun’s alcoves and caves that provide the air of mystery that have kept pilgrims climbing Qiyun’s steps since the 8th century. Perhaps it’s the natural scenery of the rocky peaks and the lush, river-split valleys below this one of Taoism’s four sacred mountains.

Or maybe it’s just the clouds, the way they wrap the mountain in their chilly fingers and cup peaks in their moist palms, deadening sound and fogging vision and spiriting visitors away from this world and its history, dynasties, wars, and concerns.

I read about Qiyun the evening before my last day in Anhui, and decided I wasn’t yet done punishing my legs. Getting there wasn’t easy, though. It was back to the early-morning bus station for more waiting and wandering and asking and wondering.

After a while, I learned that the same bus I’d taken to Hongcun the day before runs by the village at the base of Qiyun, but it doesn’t stop there. I’d have to ask the driver to make a special stop on the outskirts of town, then walk a couple of kilometers to the village.

I arrived at the crossroads an hour later, and the bus lurched to a stop. Sure enough, the peak to my left was “as high as the clouds”, and rain spit from the heavens.

Mount Qiyun is wreathed in clouds above a Huizhou village.

Mount Qiyun is wreathed in clouds above a Huizhou village.

As I walked toward the many-arched bridge that led to the mountain base, I stopped by a baozi shop to pick up some steamed buns and a local pancake filled with beans, peppers, and bean noodles, then promptly burned the skin off the roof of my mouth trying to protect them from the sog.

Compared Huangshan, the climb up Qiyun’s stairs was gentle and short, but in the rain and humidity, my pace left me sopping by the time I climbed to the main gate. From there, Qiyun’s paths wound along the cliff sides and up to its peaks. Everywhere, alcoves hid graves, altars, and shrines to Taoist heroes and gods, and hidden speakers whispered the plucked notes of a guzhen. Here and there out of the trees and rocks rose temples dating from the Song, Ming, and Qing dynasties.

Perhaps the spookiest place on the mountain was a huge, sheltered recess which housed a few dozen statues and carvings. I ducked into one cave, lined on both sides with the crumbling visages of ancient priests. The cave plunged into darkness behind a large altar, and I tip-toed in.

The darkness was encompassing, but in the back reaches of the cave, golds and whites glittered in the dark. As I stood, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the black, bats squealed and shuffled just above me. I began to make out figures in the gloom.

Gods, or demons, many armed and many eyed. Some snarled and brandished weapons. Other just sat and stared. Silence, except for the bats.

I battled a sense of unease that tried to force me back into the light, and tried to take it in. When I turned finally retreated out into the haze of murky daylight, an odd sort of relief washed over me, despite the thickening rain.

Out of the alcove, the path climbed to a plateau upon which sits an ancient village, its walls plastered white and its roofs black in the Huizhou style. The village clung to the cliffs, looking out on the river below which hugged the Anhui hills as it cut through more white-and-black hamlets. A giant yinyang was shaved out of the fields at the foot of the mountain, and all around clouds wreathed the trees.

More ancient temples were scattered among the Huizhou homes, many of which made use of their bottom floors to sell food and beer, souvenirs, or joss sticks for burning in offering to the gods. After clambering down one set of rain slicked stairs, I found some dinosaur footprints alongside a decorative archway that was more than 600 years old.

I spent a couple more hours climbing up and down stairs, squeezing between rocks, and stepping through temple halls before the rain began to fall in earnest. I tucked my camera deep in my bag and ran to the top of the highest peak. From the top I saw nothing but the clouds and heard nothing but the drip of the rain.

Spirited away, just as Qiyun promised.

Without an umbrella or a rain jacket, I ran the paths back to the main gate, then down the stairs to the village below. I only fell once.

I arrived at the crossroads where the bus had left me, and I stood in the drizzle waiting for it to return. I tried in vain to flag down a few passing tourist buses, then finally stuck out my thumb. Only a moment went by before a middle-aged woman pulled up and asked if I needed a lift back to Tunxi. I thanked her profusely and asked how much she wanted.

“Just pay whatever you think is fair,” she said.

As we wound along the country roads I dozed off in the front seat and dreamed of clouds.


A Dolphin God in the Waste

August 7 — Jiayuguan City, Gansu Province

We have bowed before The Dolphin and looked upon his heavenly kingdom.

Like Buddhist pilgrims, we twisted through Jiayuguan’s broad, empty avenues with no sure destination, assured in the knowledge that we’d know what we were looking for when we found it.

A sign: Above the tree tops floated a white globe, gleaming in the sun and impossible to interpret.

Like the three magi, we followed the shine in the sky and found our Lord.

In the middle of a leafy park in the middle of one of the world’s driest and furthest-from-the-ocean cities, The Dolphin rose out of a shallow fountain, perched on its tail fins, looming over all.

The only words we could find were: “What the hell?”

The Dolphin God

The Dolphin God

We approached it with trepidation. Beneath its cracked skin of interlocking white metal beams floated a gut-like atrium and an esophageal elevator.

We made an offering of ourselves.

As it turned out, The Dolphin was actually a gussied-up atmospheric monitoring station. Inside it was a small museum about China’s weather patterns and some exhibits on climate change, plus a collection of photos of the rest of China’s weather stations. Pretty normal stuff.

Atop the elevator, things got weird.

The Dolphin’s head is a 360-degree viewing deck, complete with heavy-duty binoculars. From the top, we could see why we’d had an unshakable feeling that something was amiss in Jiayuguan City.

Jiayuguan has a population of just more than 230,000 people, making it tiny by Chinese standards. But with a Dolphin’s-eye view, we saw the city sprawled out in every direction. Even stranger, it looked like the North Korean utopia realized.

Everywhere apartment blocks of disconcerting suburban sameness rose out of the desert, each red roof capped with its own solar-heated water heater. Tens of thousands of apartments, broken up only by huge, centrally located, hour-glass shaped nuclear cooling towers. Golden, decorative streetlights lining sweeping avenues.

Surrounding The Dolphin – again, in the middle of a desert waste – was a leafy and lush park that must have equaled New York City’s Central Park. It was practically drowning in streams, fountains, and lakes and overgrown in greenery.

And all of it was empty. No people in the apartment clones, no cars on the streets, no commerce anywhere. The infrastructure for perhaps millions, and all of it unused. The only thing that seemed to move at all was the steam drifting out of the nuclear plants. A heaven on earth, desolate.

We found the priests locked in ritualistic competition for their deity’s divine favor.

In the square below two groups danced, one next to the other, a narrow lane in between. Those in one group wore blue polo shirts, the other red. They stood in two blocks made of parallel lines of worshipers. In unison, they shuffled their feet and raised their hands and heads to the sky, keeping pace with the rhythmic, modern tunes that blared from speakers set up among them.

Each group whirled to a different tune, and as we watched, the music spilling forth from each amped up decibel by decibel in an attempt to out-loud the other. They pretended not to notice each other, even as they shot furtive glances scanning for any slip in synchronicity that could signal final victory. On and on it went as we slunk along in gap.

A man, not of that bizarre priesthood, approached me and asked where we were from. After a brief exchange in pleasantries, I told him the huge city looked empty.

“Does anyone actually live here?” I asked.

“No,” he said. “But someday they will come.”

Above, the dolphin reigned — still and omnipresent.

Worshipers compete for the favor of their deity.

Worshipers compete for the favor of their deity.

Peril at the Edge of the World

August 7 – Jiayuguan, Gansu Province

The edge of the empire.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

We stood atop the west gate of Jiayuguan fortress, looking out at the sands and mountains beyond. Through this gate, disgraced officials and scholars, poets and criminals walked out of the Chinese empire, banished into the wastes, most never to return.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

To the west, ahead of us, lay the vast wasteland of the western deserts. To the east, behind us, civilization.

Known as the “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven”, Jiayuguan is the most intact ancient military fort along the Great Wall of China. Located at the narrowest point of the Hexi Corridor – China’s throat – it was the first pass at the western end of the Ming Great Wall. Built in the late 1300s, its purpose was to protect China’s heartland from the “barbarians”, and for centuries it served as a key chokepoint along the Silk Road.

The fortress is massive: Concentric walls 11 meters high and 733 meters in diameter enclose an area of 33,500 square meters.  The walls, turreted at each corner, connect to the Great Wall and the northern and southern sides.

But where before those walls garrisoned China’s westernmost armies, today they garrison a tourist trap.

Dancers, juggles, face changers, and contortionists abounded. Camels waited for passengers. Dune buggies hummed out into the waste. And overhead some kind of lawnmower-powered hang glider buzzed the tops of the gatehouses.

The hang glider was omnipresent.

The hang glider was omnipresent.

Even when I found a quiet spot on a corner tower, it was all a bit much. The hang glider just wouldn’t go away.

So we circled the walls and headed for the Great Wall instead.

The western Great Wall little resembles its eastern cousin that climbs the shrubby hills outside of Beijing. Shorter and narrower than the famed gray stone wall, the western wall’s local-materials construction makes it a sandy brown mud structure, bonded together with straw. It follows the jagged curvature of the Gansu hills, making use of the local terrain to reinforce its defensive purpose.

We climbed the stairs of the open-to-tourists section to the topmost tower. From the roof, the purpose of the wall is clear: It commands hundreds of empty kilometers of flat, dead plains. Now, nuclear power plants dot the distance, but in the 16th century, no invading army could get even consider approaching the wall without raising the alarm and calling the garrison out from Jiayuguan.

From the tower, though, we spied something else: The dusty remains of skeletal pagodas dotting the steep and shifty hilltops around us. We had to investigate.

Picking our way along the treacherous, crumbling rocks, we wound along the hillsides passing whimsical shapes built by people who’d come before us with collections of the desert stones. We tried to convince ourselves that a fall down the jagged side wouldn’t be all that bad. In places, the trail narrowed to barely a boots width, sloping downward into the space below.

Periodically Matt would insist we go no further. As the man with the most mountaineering experience in our band, that should’ve given us pause. But Dave and I pushed ahead, dragging Matt, muttering this and that about “dangerous” and “hate” and “unstable traverses”, behind us.

At last we reached the splintering pagoda, robed in faded and unravelling prayer flags. Two other pagodas capped hills just below us. Between them, more lines of once-colorful prayer flags stretched like a cobwebs above decrepit temple buildings at the hill base.

To our north the Great Wall slithered up the peak from which we’d come. To the south, it slithered down another hill, then ran rail straight across the empty plain, out to the commanding Jiayuguan fortress, then disappeared into the desert over the horizon.

The Great Wall snakes along the hills, then connects with Jiayuguan in the distance.

The Great Wall snakes along the hills, then connects with Jiayuguan in the distance.

We snapped a few photos, then ambled and slid down to the peeling monastery.

A lone nun, bald and grey clad and trailed by a shaggy malamute, scuffled along among the sand-blasted buildings.

Then we had our closest call of the trip.

As we walked out of the monastery, Dave spied a trashcan for his empty water bottle. Nearby, a tiny mongrel of a dog lay asleep on the sidewalk. As Dave approached the trashcan, the dog lifted its head just a little, but when the bottle clanged to the bottom of the metal bin, he transformed into a demon.

With a snarl he tore from his resting place, flinty eyes locked on Dave’s ankles. With a yelp, Dave slung the bag off his back, wielding it like half like medieval flail, half like shield to keep the dog at bay. Whichever way Dave turned, the dog spun faster, yipping hatred all the way. Each time Dave turned to run, the dog was on at his ankles, forcing Dave to swing around once more and bring his baggy weapon to bear.

Matt and I looked on in horror and delight, flinching backward each time the dog spun closer us, unsure whether to gape or flee. Finally, with something of a strangled battle cry, Dave saw his opening and bolted toward us. On the tiny demon came, still, and the three of us sprinted around a copse of trees, dog in pursuit.  At last, Dave’s foe relented and broke off growling while we broke into nervous laughter as the terror faded into shame.

“Man,” Dave said, trying to recover some bit of his pride. “I just do not want to get a rabies shot in China.”

Dave retreats.

Dave retreats.