Stepping off the train, you know you’re not in Hangzhou anymore when the first thing you see is a big ol’ water buffalo ambling by in the nearby rapeseed field. And when walking out of the station, the small parking lot is filled not with cars but with wheat, sun-drying on the warm pavement. This is Yushan, a town in the northeastern corner of Jiangxi province.
We’re here now because we don’t want to be here this winter. Having sliced up China into 1.5 years of academic breaks, the Winter ‘12 slice looms ever larger and more overly-ambitious as the time approaches. So in order to pare-down our plans without actually doing any paring, we’ve decided to split off some of our winter trip’s closer destinations and make them individual weekend trips. In the next two months, we’ll be heading to parts of southern Zhejiang, northeastern Jiangxi, and northern Fujian to get a preview of inland southeast China. Remote, inaccessible, and not a major source of grain production, this area was historically a backwater of Chinese civilization. During the Communist Party’s bleakest days, they hid out from the Nationlists and Japanese in Jiangxi’s southwestern mountains, before embarking on the legendary Long Marchto their new base in Shaanxi. Today this area’s a unique part of China, with hundreds of unintelligible local dialects heard spoken amidst a gorgeous landscape of terraced valleys, sparkling rivers and high granite peaks.
Our first pick of trips was to hike Sanqing Shan, a mountain in northeastern Jiangxi named for the Three Pure Ones of Daoism. China has lots of incredible mountains claimed significant by either Daoists or Buddhists, and sometimes by both, but in our experience the Daoist ones are usually way better. My guess is that Buddhism, which came later, simply got second pick of China’s notable mountains.
Our train ride out of Hangzhou began typically enough, with all the passengers pausing their conversations to assess these foreigners. (The foreigner assessment process takes between 1 to 100 seconds, and involves: staring. Distance from the foreigners has an inverse relationship to the amount of staring time required.) Everyone’s conclusion, as stated one by one, was: They brought a baby. This conclusion, being so remarkable, could not be said enough times. It had to be affirmed and re-affirmed by all parties lest there be any doubt. Owen, as usual, showed cultural savvy by picking the oldest lady from the bunch for his most-favored smile treatment.
But while the train ride began typically enough, we soon encountered something new: ShamWows. Once we’d been moving for about 30 minutes, a smiling train employee in a fresh-pressed uniform strode into our car, put down his shopping basket and turned on his microphone, connected by wire to a speaker on his belt. Smiling to us all, he began a live-action infomercial, complete with demonstrated spills and quick clean-ups. For all the “beautiful women,” in our car, he even showed how said product could be used to wash their hair while riding the train. Commanding everyone’s rapt attention through wry humor, regular-Joe charm, and a subtle flair for demonstration, he showed the many amazing uses for the “Super Towel.” He was so good, there almost didn’t seem to be anything weird about the fact that the Railway Ministry, recently scandalized by high-level corruption scandals, held in contempt by most Chinese for its fault in the Wenzhou train crash, and turning huge losses on its high-speed rail investments, was now apparently in the business of home products direct marketing. But he made one mistake, and it doomed his efforts. Upon request, he passed around one of his Super Towels for all to feel and inspect, and the crowd’s opinion, as is so often in China, was unanimous: this was not a towel! They were being lied to! Feel it (it had a rubbery, foamy texture, not at all like the cotton towels they knew) – it feels different! The crowd quickly turned skeptical and mischievous. Thus when the train custodian / pitchman announced his limited-time, two-for-one offer, and asked, 那，贵不贵？“Now is that a deal or what?” The whole car, now one big peanut gallery, responded: 贵！“No deal!”
An hour later, another train employee, this time a stout woman, came through with a basket of Tibetan Buddhist good luck pendants. They were being sold to commemorate the fifth anniversary of the completion of the Qinghai-Tibet railroad, she said. A pendant would bring its wearer good luck. She quickly sold out of one variety and had to go back for more.
We enjoyed the rest of the ride relatively undisturbed, with Owen making us a couple friends before settling in to his nap. Upon arriving in Yushan, we were fortunate to catch a bus just as it was leaving for one of the villages we would use as our base for climbing the mountain. The 80-minute ride took us quickly along a heavily-potholed road as the low, late-afternoon sun cast its light across glittering rice paddies and golden rapeseed fields. The man sitting next to me, young and smiling, introduced himself along with his new bride, sitting one seat up. They’d been married three days ago and were going to their new house up in this valley, their old hometown, for their honeymoon. Upon learning I was an American student in Hangzhou, he told me he’d once been stationed there – he was a 1st Lieutenant in the 武警, the People’s Armed Police. Like many Chinese these days, he congratulated America for killing Osama bin Laden.
That night we stayed in a 农家 (literally, “farmer’s house,” a common type of bed-and-breakfast establishment in China, except that in China it’s dinner-bed-and-breakfast), and slept comfortably warm under heavy blankets. The host family was delighted to have Owen in their home, and happy that we could communicate, although we couldn’t escape their slight disappointment that we didn’t know any of their locality’s special dialect. This, we’ve found, is common: “Ah! You speak Chinese! But you don’t know any [insert podunk county]-ese, do you? No? Oh.” I think they also take some pride in that, just as their ancestors probably did throughout millenia of being ruled from afar by northern flatlanders.
The next day we set out to hike. On China’s famous mountains, much of the actual hiking is usually optional: for theme-park prices, you can enter the park area, ride a chairlift past all the long boring parts in the beginning where there are no good views, and then instantly find yourself making the final, glorious ascent on foot, fully energized by the expansive scenery below you and by the fact that you haven’t put in any effort up to this point. Chinese hiking also involves another aspect strange to Westerners, a phenomenon existing at the convergence of cheap porter labor, small-scale entrepreneurial spirit, massive crowds of hikers, and a culture of constant snacking: snack shops and even restaurants, existing every couple hundred meters along every hiking path. No need for trail mix here – just bring some money and one can enjoy hot corn on the cob, hard-boiled eggs, chicken legs, watermelon, fruit juice, baked sweet potatoes, beer, and of course the ever-popular hiking beverage of choice in China, Red Bull.
But while China’s hiking infrastructure always stands out, the pathwork at Sanqing Shan is uniquely remarkable. In order to give hikers the best viewing experience for all the strange granite formations around the three peaks (the love of 奇石 “strange rocks”in China is bewilderingly pervasive), the park bureau erected miles of walkway along the sides of sheer cliff faces. Combined with packed crowds, the sensation of being suspended in thin air by no more than a few inches of stone-supported concrete is thrilling.
And the views are great. While we weren’t always able to discern in the rock formations the “Monkey King Coveting His Treasure” from the “Mother Feeding Her Baby,” or the “Fox Gnawing on Chicken” from the “Oriental Goddess,” the cloud-wrapped peaks and scraggly granite slopes provided great sights on their own. And while Owen may not have had much interest in the “Pine Tree Bearing Child Prodigy,” he sure liked the smiles he got from other hikers along the way. Actually, he may have been their favorite sight that day, too, or at least their most-photographed one. All in all, a good Fall hike for the family and the first of many more trips to Jiangxi.