Hikes are one of the best ways to see China. At least, that’s what we tell ourselves. We’ve always liked hiking, and apparently so too have the Chinese. In fact, when the very first (and very brutal) emperor, Qin Shihuang, decided to proclaim the unity of Chinese civilization, he did so by hiking up the tallest mountain in Shandong Province. Of course, whether he actually enjoyed the hike or just did it for a Putin-style photo-op is unclear. If he was anything like today’s Chinese hikers, he brought along a miniature boombox slung around his neck to play relaxing songs at maximum volume, a big camera (or cell phone) for taking pictures of all the leaves and oddly-shaped rocks along the way, and of course plenty of snacks. He also would have stayed on the peak to watch the sunrise, and later told all his friends that their hikes didn’t count unless they, too, caught the sunrise from the mountaintop. And thus it has ever been.
The Chinese really do love their mountains, and around here, just about every county has its own self-proclaimed “fame-winning” peak – a picaresque local crag that, at some point in the last 2,500 years, once played host to one or another much-talked episode of myth, legend, history or folklore. With the arrival of a couple autumnal months of cool, dry weather, we recently made two more weekend trips to nearby mountains. Being a couple of Chinese folklore Luddites, we chose one peak based on a second-hand recommendation and the other based on its interesting recent history. As usual in China, their names provided some good foreshadowing: Armed Barbarian Mountain (武夷山) and Do-Nothing Mountain (莫干山).
The first, pronounced Wuyishan, in northern Fujian Province, actually could not be considered ‘nearby.’ But one of the guidebooks (we’re glaring at you, Lonely Planet China, 2011 edition) promised that if we went in November or December, we’d have “one of the most underrated national parks in southern China” all to ourselves. These days we spring for adjectives like these as quickly as the rat in our kitchen springs for Owen’s leftover oatmeal on the counter (but that is another blog entry…or not). So, imagining ourselves as some kind of modern-day, living-in-China version of John Muir, delving into the backcountry upon hearing a few prospectors’ tales and stumbling upon the grandeur of Yosemite, we happily made the long, complicated train journey that lasted late into the night. (Note that our imaginary resemblance to John Muir had little or no historical basis.) Lo and behold, at our destination, we were practically the only ones getting off the train. Confident smiles all around – we’d have this place to ourselves.
We had a gorgeous long weekend to spend at the park, and we checked into place called the Holiday Hotel, waking up the guy behind the counter to negotiate a room and falling asleep in our hard bed around 1AM. We woke to find that the hotel was a massive, sprawling, industrial-feeling edifice with hallways and a cafeteria that brought me back to my days at high school in the former Soviet Union. It was cold, dim and concrete. We headed to breakfast. Turns out, we were just in time to join a massive tour group of chatty Shandong-ers. So much for having the place to ourselves, we thought for billionth time since coming to China.
The tour group members were friendly enough but apparently pretty annoyed with the low-quality hotel breakfast. We thought the breakfast was actually pretty good by hotel standards—buns, rice, noodles, repeat!—and from prior experience we knew it was good (and plentiful) by the much lower standards of Chinese tour groups. But Chinese travellers often willingly throw away their money and their freedom by joining tour groups that treat them like burdensome animals. They do this because they then get to travel with plenty of company and get lots to complain about. The result is an enthusiastic, cheerful marathon of competitive complaining, which is more of a national pastime in China than baseball in the US. (We witnessed this exchange on a Chinese tour group to the grasslands of Inner Mongolia: Young guy: “There is no Mongolian culture here. It’s all fake.” Old guy: “Oh yeah? Look around. There isn’t even grass here. They call this the grasslands and there isn’t even any grass. This is not what I call grasslands.” Young guy: “Yeah. And these aren’t real yurts.” Old guy: “The rice at dinner was really bad.”) In China, it’s not so much that misery loves company, but that company loves misery. It just makes for such great conversation. We finished our melanin-leaching food, bid adieu to our still-cheerfully complaining breakfast companions, and struck out alone for the national park. We figured we’d put some distance between us and the Shandongren, and have the place relatively to ourselves.
Our hike up began on pleasant, wide paving stones that wound through an impeccably-manicured (almost golf-course-like) lawn strewn with carefully-placed flowers. Tour groups surged ahead and behind us, their megaphone-toting leaders smashing what stillness remained in the crisp morning. Still, for China, it was pretty nice. Then we began the ascent. The wide path turned very narrow (just one American, or 1.5 Chinese, wide), and soon we were stuck at a standstill in a bottleneck that continued as far as the eye could see, which is to say: all the way up the damn mountain. We cursed. Owen yelled. The people around us waited patiently, smoked cigarettes, spat on the ground, took unsolicited pictures of Owen yelling, and in the case of one brave soul, jumped the barrier and tried to cut in line ten feet ahead, only to be shoved back to his original spot but unable to jump back over the fence. So peaceful!
The scenery, I should mention, was actually incredibly lovely if we put our blinders on and turned away from the teeming masses on the mountain. (A lot of people were trying to do this simultaneously.) After a solid half hour of human traffic jam, we broke free at the top, where we found a shady spot under an umbrella (c’mon, as if mountaintops in the U.S. don’t also have umbrellas, benches, hot-dog vendors and giant teddy bears for sale?) to feed a now-howling Owen, and decided to take the long way down. On the other side of the mountain, we were blissfully, finally, alone. We stepped slowly through cool, lush forest, savoring every quiet moment (though, to be honest, we could still hear the din of thousands of tourists issuing from the other side of the hill). We descended to what we hoped was an unpopular site, a Daoist temple, and continued to enjoy our solitude for a while until we happened upon a T in the trail, where we met a family of four: mom and dad, daughter and son-in-law. Both women wore 3-inch heels and everyone carried an umbrella. We all said hello in that hiking-trail way, and then we banged a right (to go in the opposite direction of them). The older woman called out, warning us reedily, “Don’t go that way! There’s nothing to see there! This [pointing in her walking direction] is the way to go!” Thank you, thank you, we said, it’s okay, we just want to go over here and look out at the river. “No, don’t go! There is nothing in that direction!” she protested as they picked their way down the trail. In China, even sightseeing is regimented.
We were officially off the beaten path now, and we high-fived, then descended the riverbank, forded the deceptively-high river (it looked knee-deep at most, but was in reality waist-deep…oops), and emerged at our own private, sandy beach on the other side. If we’d brought a picnic, we would’ve stayed all day. Instead, we took turns dunking our sweaty selves in the glacial water, then dipped Owen’s toes in and took a moment to say: this may never happen again in our remaining two years in China. Reader, spontaneous swimming in seemingly-clean water is not an everyday occurrence here. Most of the Chinese seemed amazed that we didn’t immediately die upon making contact with the water. Then, figuring hypothermia and death might take a minute or two, they snapped hundreds of pictures of what they were sure were our last moments.
It was lunchtime by now, so we crossed back and found ourselves some overpriced grub (including yummy, fiery fish-ball soup and roasted sweet potatoes) and sat down at a lovely pavilion overlooking the river. We were immediately approached by a waitress wielding a menu of expensive tea. Turns out the tea shop had arbitrarily claimed the pavilion in this free-for-all dining area, and the waitress was tasked with selling us tea. The least expensive option was $25 for some fancy thing we didn’t want, so we pretended not to understand. Nick even whipped out a terribly-mangled “Ting bu…dong? Is that right?” I just shrugged and attended to Owen, who was trying desperately to get his hands in the bowl of soup. The waitress stuck around for a long time, repeatedly showing us the menu and pantomiming, “Buy something or get out of here,” but we played dumb. (There were 10 tables in the area, and all were empty but ours.) Eventually, she sighed and left, but not before saying, “You’re going to leave a mess on the table, and we don’t want to clean it up.” Fair enough. After eating and wiping up—assiduously Leaving No Trace—we traipsed down the mountain, hopped on a park bus, and went back to our concrete hotel. The hard bed was a welcome comfort, and the solitude of our room was delicious. We didn’t venture out again until breakfast (buns, noodles, rice, repeat!).
The next day we decided to do the other most popular activity at Wuyishan: raft down the Nine Twists River on a bamboo boat. It looked pretty awful from our vantage point the previous day up on the mountain: hundreds of boats, all filled with people, following on each other’s tails. In actuality, it was extremely pleasant and, dare I say, peaceful. For over an hour, we sat comfortably in bamboo chairs with happy tourists as two men with poles guided the boat down the nine twists of the river. Some twists had small rapids. It was fantastic, and Owen didn’t even fall in. Afterwards, we drank milk tea while we waited for our driver-for-the-day to pick us up and take us to the train station, from where we took a 7-hour, hard seat, night train home. We arrived in Hangzhou at 2am, bleary but thankful for many things: one, that our train was full of college students who wanted to sleep (and not middle-aged men who wanted to eat, as is often the case with trains), two, that Owen is a seasoned pro now and was able to catch 5 hours of zzz’s facedown in the polyester train seat while terrible Chinese pop music blared and the food cart rocketed by every 3 minutes, and three, that our bed at home is relatively soft compared to a hotel bed. Success.
The following weekend, we made another getaway, this time much closer to home. We took a 45-minute bus to Moganshan, once the getaway of the likes of Mao Zedong and Chiang Kai-Shek. Tucked away in the hills, this resort town is the closest we’ve come to feeling like we were back in Vermont. It just required a little squinting to pretend the forest was oak and sugar maple, not bamboo and Japanese maple. We stayed at a small, inexpensive bed and breakfast (called a “farmer’s house,” and very common in smaller towns; we love these no-frills, comfortable, personality-filled inns where you are served delicious food and the only bummer is no private bathrooms).
It was lunchtime when we arrived, and the proprietor asked if we’d like to eat something. We said sure, and as we waited we watched a group of expats from Shanghai wrangle their fancy bikes: they were in town for a weekend of cycling through the verdant hills. Soon, lunch arrived: plate after steaming plate of vegetables, mushrooms, bamboo shoots, meatballs and of course white rice. Awesome. Who needs to order food when you can just eat what’s offered? Happy and full, we hired a driver to take us around to the sights for the afternoon and evening. And we saw: empty pavilions overlooking cold, foliage-covered hills in pink late-afternoon mist; a forest of stelae where we crunched through piles of leaves without running into another soul; a stone walkway around a mountain that, for 45 minutes, allowed us to walk in silence and idle chatter, with only our cold breath to keep us company; clusters of gorgeous old (some reconstructed, some not) buildings where the rich/famous/politically-connected stayed. We saw maybe 12 people total at all these sights. It was spooky. And magic.
At one point, wandering through the main village area, we saw a sign that promised coffee. No way, we thought. It was serendipitous: long night sharing a bed with the baby, cold day trudging around outside…coffee was a gift from above. We ducked into a freezing cold coffeeshop, doubtful that it was even open, given the total lack of tourists. We were surprised to see a guy behind the counter, bundled up in a down jacket and scarf and looking miserable. We ordered regular coffee with milk, only to be told: No milk. No regular coffee. Only Americano, for 45 kuai (around $7) each. We bit our lips and said okay, then sat down and waited while the barista cranked the frozen espresso machine into action. Our Americanos arrived in the world’s smallest cups, probably 1.5 ounces each of the bitterest, sourest coffee imaginable. We gulped it, and reminded ourselves, again, that ordering coffee here is the pinnacle of foolish: China is definitively not a coffee country, and it won’t be any time soon. Lesson learned? Honestly, probably not.
Slightly caffeinated, we continued our expat ways by eating dinner at an American-owned hotel-restaurant at the top of the hill. (We couldn’t afford to stay there, but dinner was reasonable.) We had hamburgers, spaghetti, salad, and hot chocolate, but surmised that we would have eaten better, and much more cheaply, at our farmer’s house B&B. Again, it’s best to go with what China does best. Lesson learned this time? Probably.
Post-dinner, driving back in the dark along leaf-strewn, winding roads down the mountain, we passed a broken-down tour bus. Nick asked our driver if we should stop and offer help, and he responded, “The bus is broken” without slowing.
The next morning, after a glorious slumber under the heaviest down comforter this side of the Yangtze River, we set out again, this time with no destination at all but a desire to see a bit of the village. We ended up climbing a bamboo-forested mountain on service roads and harvest paths, coming upon bamboo harvesters along the way: men and women walking under very heavy bamboo-bundle burdens, giving us big smiles and the occasional thumbs-up for Owen. (Minus ten points for using “bamboo” three times in one sentence, but honestly there was so much bamboo.) We broke through the forest at the summit into prickly brambles and a stunning view of the chilly valley below. Then we walked down and came home.
The following weekend we rested, which is to say: ate real Thanksgiving dinner two nights in a row, in excellent company. More adventures soon. Stick with us.