My brother and I then decided to head out to Huangshan (Yellow Mountain) to hike the famous peaks. In order to get there we took a twelve hour overnight train from Suzhou. Unfortunately our beds were right beside a room that seemed to serve mainly as the spitting room. All through the night, we’d be awoken from sleep by the sound of loud horking. What’s with Chinese people and the constant spitting? This is a puzzle we tried to solve several times during the trip. Is it because of the smoking? Is it poor appetite? Either way, we did not get a good night sleep that night and arrived at the base camp town of Tunxi in a grumpy mood.
We spent the first day touring a small medieval village a couple of hours away called Xidi with an American from the hostel named Michael. Michael cannot speak a word of Chinese and he was traveling by himself; I think that is really bold. China is not really an easy place to travel without Chinese. Other tourists I have met told me it is the most difficult place in Asia they have travelled. According to them, other countries are much more approachable not only because the English is much better. (I have a theory it is because China does not need English, especially in tourist regions. It has so many of its own people, now newly rich, but constrained geographically (it is hard for Chinese to get visas) and so they profide enough of a market that tourist industries never really need to learn English to get by.) But also, China is just so massive it is hard to get an understanding for it or a real feeling of the country in a short time. My Estonian friend Kaisa says China is a country that grows on you. At first there are things that you just have to tolerate but after a while you learn to appreciate. Either way, people that come here without Chinese are going to flounder for a while.
So Michael joined Dan and I while touring Xidi. The village was crawling with art students painting the architecture and scenery. Every corner and alley had them sitting on stools painting landscapes. I asked them what they were doing here and they told me they were student from Harbin doing an art tour around Huangshan, painting some of the more beautiful towns and mountain ranges.
The most interesting part of Xidi was a small restaurant that we had to ask a local in order to find. She took us down some strange winding alleys and over bridges that looked no sturdier than pizza boxes. The restaurant had no physical menu. Instead when it was time to choose what we wanted they took us to the kitchen and showed us the cupboard full of food. We were expected to choose our dishes based on sight. There was even a dead skinned chicken laying in a bowl with the head still clearly attached. I told the cook in no uncertain terms that we wouldn’t be having the chicken thanks.
After Xidi, we planned to spend a day touring a small wilderness park we left michael on the foot of the mountain fully intending to meet up with him. Unfortunately however my phone died and we saw that was not a possibility. But strangely enough, a couple days later, when we went back to the hostel to get our things we found a note left in our bag from Michael, with his contact information and everything. Somehow he remembered which bags were ours and had the idea to leave us a note. It was a real surprise.
New friends joined up with us on our travels, two young Chinese guys from the China’s coast. Dan was pretty sure one of them had a thing for me because he was always blinking awkwardly. He seemed to have something in his eye, but only when he talked to me, so he was constantly squinting and blinking and it made me nervous to talk to him. Also at one point, we found a swimming pool and decided to take a swim. The pool had been out of use for quite a while; the bottom was murky and slimy. So we didn’t swim for long. And when I got out, he took a picture of me from behind in my bathing suit without me knowing. Dan caught him and told him off. And the whole thing left me with a strange feeling.
The best thing about the park was definitely the wild monkeys. Walking through the woods, Dan heard them chirping first and he hushed us quickly. The Chinese guys guffawed, there’s no way we heard monkey. But sure enough just a few moments later we saw them through the trees. Some other tourists caught up to us and started throwing candies at them. One of the Chinese tourists, standing directly in front of a large bilingual sign NO FEED MONKEY, threw an apple at them. The monkey clutched the apple just like a person would and started taking bites out of it. The monkeys were really close to us and I felt partly touched, because they were so cute; and partly frightened because they periodically bared their teeth at us.
The Chinese guys told us later that we should not have stood so close to the monkey. Monkeys are vicious and have often attacked people they told us. So now, many people through rocks and sticks at the monkeys when they see them coming. I’ve seen the way Chinese people treat their pets, and so I have a feeling I know who started the war. The Chinese guys just looked at me half puzzled half pathetic; the same look I get every time I tell someone I am vegetarian.
The next day, we had planned to climb Huangshan with them. But unfortunately, I was struck with the worst food poisoning I have had in China. I threw up more than twenty times in three hours. (I blame a tomato and egg soup – because Dan was fine). Every time I moved I need to be sick. The guys told me foreigners have weak stomachs and that the Chinese stomach is strong. I told them, my body’s immune system is strong. Their bodies just keep the toxins inside, because the environment in China is so dirty there is no other choice, and that’s why they die so much younger than westerners. I guess it was harsh but they caught me at a moment of weakness; and I resented their obvious feeling of superiority. So overall, I was glad to see them go.
For a whole day, I laid in bed, trying to recover, reading and watching terrible Chinese television that I can’t understand. Dan tried to cheer me up by playing one of our childhood favourite games. We mute the sound on the television and invent the dialogue.
The following day, we climbed up Huangshan. The mountain range is the most famous in China and the subject of countless landscape paintings. The views were exquisite, easily the most beautiful sight I have ever seen. And to our great surprise, the path was a never ending staircase all the way up. There were little stands along the way where you could buy snacks and drinks. For two Canadians it was strange to wrap our heads around it.
However, I still found it quite challenging. I was feeling not quite recovered, like I might vomit at any moment; but Dan was playing his harmonica and chugging beers all the way up. We were quite the pair. When I felt tired Dan would play me a song to cheer me up. And feeling sorry for myself was made a bit harder by the fact that there were porters carrying incredibly heavy supplies and sometimes even people up the mountain. They were these wiry tanned men, all muscle, working one of the hardest jobs imaginable. Some of them were chanting songs in order to keep up their energy. It was really impressive. They did so much work for little over 6 CDN dollars a day.
Finally, we made it to the top and the views lived up to all of our expectations. It was spectacular. Dan and I sat together silently watching the sunset. Both of us wrapped up in our private worlds. Dan writing down song lyrics, and me trying to be present and capture the stillness of the moment. The mist crept silently over the mountains and it felt like if we could just reach an inch further we would be able to touch the clouds.