Conquering the Koguryo

Ji’an, Jilin Province, China

I know what Murong Huang’s soldiers felt when they sacked the Wandu Mountain City in 342 A.D. I’ve felt the pain of the mountain roads and the savored the taste of victory. Or at least, I savored the taste of free entry.

Wandu: The once capital of the Korean Koguryo Kingdom. Born in 37 B.C., the Koguryo survived some seven centuries of war before an allied force of China’s Tang Dynasty and the rival Korean kingdom Silla destroyed it at Pyongyang in 667 C.E. The Koguryo capital Wandu was founded in 3 A.D. along the riverbanks and mountain slopes that surround the contemporary Chinese city of Ji’an on the North Korean border. By the fourth century, the Koguryo dominated much of the Korean peninsula and northeastern China and were well-known for their skills in both arts – gilded jewelry and sculptures, and especially its dancing culture – and warfare. But it was in that century that the Chinese commander Murong Huang attacked the fortress city through the mountains from both the north and the south, captured it, and burned it to the ground. The fleeing Koguryo left their ruined city to the wild.

When I set off from Ji’an – perhaps the most beautiful city in China with its streams, parks, clean streets, polite populace, and river views of North Korea – for the few-kilometers walk up to the Wandu site, I did not intend to follow in Murong Huang’s footsteps. The path I’d mapped took me out of the mountain-hemmed city, along the river, and through a picturesque village that gave way to an idyllic countryside of farmhouses and cornfields in which birds flitted and chirped and insects chittered in the thick vegetation.

The path soon turned up a small valley carved by a creek. The creek, home to countless frogs both dull and bright, gurgled over rocks as it slipped out of the near-vertical, tree shrouded mountains above. At first, the path cut clearly through the bushes, an easy hike up the gully. I giggled as I walked, glorying in the sunlight and the water and the trees. Soon, though, the going got steeper and the way got murkier. In the trees above the narrow valley, I heard the ominous clanging of bells.

My steps, and my breath, quickened. Cows. I hate cows. I fear cows.

I climbed over a ramshackle wooden fence just as the path disappeared. My giggling stopped and smile drooped. I began to worry that I’d gone the wrong way.  But the bells still followed.

And then, there ahead around a bend, four bovine monsters lay in the grass. Beyond them, too, stood a bull, his nose ring tied to a horn by a series of menacing. makeshift rusty metal links. He eyed me and stomped the ground. But the bells behind me still hadn’t stopped. As I stood, petrified, the clanking grew closer, and at last, another handful of cows trundled out of the trees and blocked my escape.

There was but one possible path forward. Walking in the middle of the stream, I could wind past the cows, keeping a few spans between us. I started forward speaking softly and slowly waving my hands. The laying cows watched me and chewed the grass, swatting at swarms of midges and mosquitoes with their ears  and tossing their heads. I should’ve paid more attention to the swarms – a prophecy of things to come – but I had eyes for only the bull. He’d lowered his head and turned to follow me as I edged around. He snorted and stomped. When I pulled parallel with him, he came for me.

I took off up the creek, stumbling over rocks, not daring to look back. I tripped, picked myself up, and kept running. Locusts and frogs bounded out of my path, plunking off of my bare legs and hips. Suddenly something squirmed under my foot. I glanced down to see a snake writhing half under my shoe and half under the rocks, seemingly stuck between trying to flee and trying to lash out at its tormentor. I skipped to the side, kept running up the ever-steepening hill and reminded myself to pay more attention to the path under my feet; I had no idea what kinds of animals lived in this forest.

Soon, I could only hear the blood pounding in my ears and my ragged breath. I’d left the bull, and those horrible bells, behind. The bull and the bells, but not the bugs. I staggered to a halt to catch my breath, and as my bodily sounds faded, the buzzing closed in. Hundreds of insects swarmed my head and naked shoulders.  No time to breathe, I started running again. The swarm pursued.

Before long, the valley came to an end. The only choice was up — on all fours. I slipped and slid on broken rocks covered by a skin of dead leaves. Whenever I tried to tack horizontal, I found myself trapped by thorned and stinging plants which shredded my calves and forearms. When the Koguryo climbed these hills, they’d used spiked boots to keep their balance. I did not have those. For every meter I crawled up the slope, grabbing rotten tree limbs for balance, I slid half as far back down. Bulbous gray spiders skittered in every direction and bouncing grasshoppers crackled in rage and terror. The swarm did not relent.

A lovely walk in the woods had turned into my personal Apocalypse Now.

Finally, a rocky outcropping rose out of the mountain top in front of me. Like some kind of harried, gasping seal, I dragged my slippery body over the top and lay heaving for a moment on the stone path on the top. Then the swarm found me, again, and I took off along the path, skating on the phlemy, mossy stones and galloping up and down stairs. Through gaps in the trees I could see Ji’an down the valley, and there, up the river, the sand-colored burial mounds I’d been trying to reach.

I slipped, scampered, and stumbled, all while swatting at my head, just trying to outrun the bugs for another half hour or so – up and down and up and down and then down, down, down, until suddenly the trees opened up, and there I was, surrounded by crumbled city gates in an open field. A pink-shirted tour group turned away from an ancient watchtower to point at me and shout.

I walked among the Wandu Mountain City ruins for the next couple of hours, marveling at the engineering of the mountain fastness. As I looked at a map of the former Koguryo capital, it at last dawned on me: like Murong Huang more than a millennium before, I’d assaulted the ancient city walls from behind, then run along them and at last breached the city.

Murong Huang had sacked a city. I’d snuck into a UNESCO World Heritage Site without a ticket. Feats, one and both.

Later in Ji’an a grilled corn hawker would tell me I was the second white foreigner he’d seen in two years. The security guards at the Wandu ticket check gaped at me as I walked out the exit, covered in leaves, mud, and blood.

I like to think the Wandu guards 1600 years ago had similar looks on their faces.


Toward Heaven

Changbai Mountain, Jilin Province, China

I didn’t notice all the upturned heads until I settled into my seat. As the bus doors closed, I glanced up and saw the eyes of everyone around me flicking nervously toward Heaven. Like any good primate, mine did too.

Yellow jackets. Dozens of them smacked against the ceiling above. And the windows around. My eyes flicked back down to the faces of the people whose eyes were flicking. Their eyes flicked up and around and mine followed. No one said anything. My world quickly shrank to silent flicking eyes and the little electric pop of wings and carapaces bouncing against the walls. Everyone so often, someone would slap at their hair in a cautious panic.

At last, the engine fired to life, and I was glad I at least couldn’t hear the bugs anymore, even if I still see all the crawling, jerking eyes.

But the bus growled onto the road, and slowly the insects disappeared, maybe into the air conditioner. Nobody seemed to care at all where they had gone.

It takes two bus trips to get to the western slope of Changbai Mountain in China’s Jilin Province, the volcanic peak jutting up out of the dense forests that surround Songjianghe Village – or these days, Songjianghe construction site: “Where everything is half finished and the restaurants never open!” The first bus, the one with the wasps, chugs past the half built resorts of the future as it pulls out of a faux Alpish ski village that developers must hope will one day transform into a real one. It rolls past toll booths, peeling police stations, and dilapidated villages, as it follows the muddy Songjiang River, swollen with the summer rains and the last of the snow melt from Heaven Lake in the crater at the top of Changbai. The water feeds the lush grasses and fir trees that give way to painted meadows just after the transfer to the second bus. This second one is the more harrowing of the two, even without the bugs, as camel caravans of the green-sided beasts sprint their way above the trees and charge past each other on the curves of the twisted road that leads them to the top.

From there, its 1,400 steps dodging selfie takers and breathless Korean tour groups to get the rim of China’s largest, deepest, and highest crater lake – a multi-hued blue broth in a bowl of lichen and stone outcroppings at 2,744 meters in elevation. I ran those steps, and it was good that I did. I got about five minutes of mostly unobstructed view of the basin, half of which belongs to North Korea, before the wind smothered the view in clouds.

Heaven Lake

Heaven Lake




I’d be warned about the finicky nature of both the weather on Changbai, which means eternal white, as well Heaven Lake’s very own prehistoric lake monster.

I saw the weather but not the lake monster. I’ll blame the weather for that one.

Boats in Three Acts: Xiamen

January 22, 2018 – Xiamen, Fujian Province

“You can’t get there from here,” the woman at the ticket window said.

She did not look up at my outstretched arm, pointing across the bay. Nothing in her face moved, except for her lips. I stood for a moment and watched the boat docked “here” fill up with people, then rumble away, the start of a roughly five minute journey to “there”.

I turned back to the ticket woman, who still hadn’t moved her eyes from whatever was just below the window, out of my view, and I started to protest, having seen the boat go exactly where I wanted to go. She cut me off.

“You have to go to a different dock. Cross the street, then get on Bus 58. Go to the other dock.”

I sat down on a ledge not far away from “here”, and watched the cross-bay ferry arrive “there:” Gulangyu Island.

Gulangyu is a tiny, pedestrian-only island across the bay from Xiamen’s old town. The 2-square-kilometer island is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, attracting more than 10 million visitors a year who want to wander the lanes that wind past Victorian-era European-style villas, consulates, police stations and churches, many of them (at least I’m told) now converted into coffee shops and B&Bs.

Gulangyu once was a foreign island among a sea of Chinese. After the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842 that opened up both Fuzhou and Xiamen to foreigners, nationalities from across the world settled on Gulangyu, administering it with an independent governing council. Thirteen countries took part in its administration before Japan took it over entirely during World War 2, and for decades the British Empire’s Sikh police force from India patrolled the settlement.

My plan to take a ferry to an island for a mini vacation had fallen apart, and instead of relaxing anywhere, I’d spent two full days stuffed into the seat of one metal box or another. I had one last chance to make something of my island plan, even if were for only a few hours before we had to catch the train to Fuzhou to catch the bus to the airport to catch the flight to Tianjin to catch the train back to Beijing to catch a cab home.

But “here” I was, sitting on the dock. Again.

I’d been thrilled the night before to discover that our hotel lay just up the street from this dock on the bay, across which, in the dark, a cherubic light illuminated the hilltop church as if it were the painted head of a some medieval saint.

If Gulangyu is a Cavallini, Xiamen’s old city, then, is a Picasso, a jarring and disjointed amalgamation of geometries that together make an almost coherent, maybe beautiful whole.

Xiamen’s newly rebuilt main old town shopping street is a white-blasted assault, European buildings juxtaposed against the international and Chinese brand name stores fitted into their lower levels and people everywhere. But outside this artery, a network of capillaries branches out like spider veins, and it’s in there one can find the lifeblood of the city.

Xiamen Old Town

Xiamen Old Town

These vessels narrow, some to just shoulder width, and overhead, buildings and wires twist upward, competing for space, all of them colonized by moss-like laundry drying slow in the humid air. Open doors face the street, and families laugh over dinner in front of LCD televisions on sterile floors below their loft beds. Up that way, the Buddha’s face shines down the stairs, concealed by a whole garden of plants. Down this way, a man fries noodles for a customer through a cloud of shifting steam and smoke, while his grandfather in the back rustles Mahjong tiles with the neighbors. One doorway leads into a hotel, while another one opens into a convenience store and another into a schoolyard.

Some of these veins pour out into community parks, complete with a stage, a library, some art. Other veins flow back into the arteries, where crowds jostle for seating at Vietnamese restaurants or red-paper shops. Some veins empty into the local seafood market, where vendors shout through cigarette-stuffed lips at passersby, trying to sell one last octopus, crab, or turtle before they pack up their stalls, and sling water into the street to wash up the blood, scales, and guts. By daylight, fresh hauls of shrimp, eels, and shark will fill the street, along with the cacophony and the smell.

We spent the night swimming these lifelines, then biked through the burgeoning art and bar district before settling in to chat with the owner-brewer at Fat Fat Beer Horse about life in Xiamen (he likes it). By the time we biked back it was near 1 a.m., but I still planned to make it to the morning ferry. At least the walk to the dock was short.

Or so I’d thought, before I stumble trudged toward Bus 58, lids heavy, to take it to “the other dock”, wherever that was.

I got off the bus 20 minutes later. I’d seen a sign for “To GulangYu”, and I walked up to the ticket window at an even smaller dock than the first.

“Gulangyu,” I said. “One ticket.”

“Do you have the card?” she asked.

“What card?”

“So you’re a tourist. You can’t take this boat. You have to take the tourist boat. The local boat is 8 yuan. The tourist boat is 50. You can’t take this one. You don’t have the card.”

“But how do I get to the tourist boat?” I asked, after a sigh.

“Take bus 58.”

I wanted to scream. As I pedaled lethargically back to where I started, I was ready to give up.

No more boats for me.

I passed the stop where I’d first boarded Bus 58. I stopped and watched as the bus pulled in. People loaded on.

No, I thought. No more boats.

I looked across the bay at the island, the church high above the trees, tree which hid all but the peaks of those colonial buildings. I imagined walking under those trees gazing at history as I strolled, winding my way up the hill to the church — no bikes, no cars — and looking back toward Xiamen and its skyline. I imagined sipping a black coffee and sitting in the warm winter sun, gazing out over the sea. I ran to catch the bus.

I rode Bus 58 to its last stop. I arrived, finally, at the tourist ferry terminal. The boat tickets were sold out. I turned around and started my day-long journey back to Beijing.


Being watched at the Xiamen train station.