Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Zhangjiajie (Part 2)

I have mentioned before, there are places in Zhangjiajie park where not very many human feet tread. There are gorges where the only sound, echoing from wall to stony wall, is the call of the subtropical birds. These are places where perhaps the stealthy padding of snow leopard feet can sometimes still *not* be heard... just before the pounce.

I had crept away into just such a remote corner of the park, and merely by steadily climbing further and further away from the paved roads and snack stalls more easily accessible to tourists. There were, as far as I know, no other backpackers there. Considering later events, perhaps that is a good thing indeed.

In solitude I sat at the pavilion of the moon, a crag in that sliver shape rose above me. I rested, and allowed the sounds of the wilderness to immerse me. This pavilion sat on a sheer ridge between two different valleys on one axis, and below yet higher cliffs on the other axis. A stairway descended into a green abyss ahead of me. Descending those stairs, once my breath had been caught, I found that corner of the park which in my time there I always felt some claim to. There was, quite simply, no one walking, talking, or treading here besides myself. Rose red cliffs shouldered their way up through the greenery on either side of me.

Having reached the valley floor, wherein a stream rushed, I then proceeded to scamper like a lamed and aching goat up a trail that climbed up the side of a crevasse snaking its way from the main valley. I hadn't seen anyone in hours. I was beginning to wonder if this was a particularly wise turn of events, given that late afternoon was already upon me, but the map indicated that civilization (and the main trails) couldn't be too far away from me by now. Past trees rooted in the merest of cracks in the cliff walls, and up past formations with names like 'cat fishing' or 'tiger fights dragon', I climbed onwards.

On the upper trails of this particular canyon, I did eventually find humanity--whether I wanted to or not. Fortunately for me, I found an urbane woman and her young daughter, guided by a local fellow who was taking them back down the crevasse I had just climbed, and then further down the valley to where a little village could be found. I joined them, in hopes of a relatively cheap place to rest for the night, and my hopes were eventually rewarded. As we climbed back down the canyon I had just laboriously climbed up, I passed the time by teaching English words to the woman and her daughter. The daughter was somewhat reluctant--and very cranky from a day spent clambering in the wilderness--but the mother already knew a little English. As dusk descended, however, we had arrived at a little farm house-turned-motel. The prices were a bit ambitious for such a small, unkempt place, but then again: location, location, location.

Day 2:

The next morning I avoided the guide altogether by getting up around 5:00 am. Surprisingly, this was actually when I fell naturally awake--not a natural condition for me, as I'm sure many of you know. The guide had been keen to guide me around the park, make the best use of time, and get his cut of my money (through overpriced meals, no doubt). I was having none of it. It was fair enough that he and his friends were overcharging me for a convenient place to rest for the night--and a place to leave my larger backpack during the day, no less, since I was feeling stiffer this morning than the previous one--but quite another for them to expect to get anything more of me and the coin that dwelt in my pocket. I am, as you have already seen, quite capable to take care of myself, and not at all interested in guided tours--much less those in a language I barely speak.

The morning was humid, and, despite being cool, I soon grew hot as I hiked back up the valley--my valley. And here is where my real brainwave occurred. For I realized that not only was this an extremely remote part of the park where no one came, but also this was a time of day not likely to see travelers pass through these parts. And best of all, Chinese tourists can always be heard from miles away: shouting, scuffling, hooting, and generally attempting to show loud bravado in the midst of the powerful wilderness. So I sat down. I pulled off my shirt. I pulled off my pants. I was standing in my boxer shorts now, with my backpack slung across my back. Mischievous imps implored me to go all the way, to explore what Adam might have felt like as he traversed Eden, but I ignored them. This was quite enough. The chill morning air kept my flanks cool as I climbed up the crevasse. I figured that if I heard even a peep of human activity (as doubtless I would), I could be back in my pants and shirt in three twitches of a mountain lion's tail.

At the top of the crevasse I was rewarded with a skinny trail that snaked along the flank of the cliff, eventually culminating in a rocky promontory with glorious views and a wind that smelled sweet, that smelled of the vast lands it had traversed that morning. I sat down and began to make myself a well-deserved (so I felt) breakfast of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches as the dawn's light caressed the nobbly peaks and mountain ramparts on the opposite side of the valley. Oh yes, I did feel a bit of that 'king of the world' vibe that the movie Titanic speaks of. To stand naked (or half-naked) before the enfolding fury of nature's chasms, peaks, jungles, and winds... there are few such chances in life to let loose one's hair (figuratively speaking, in my case) and behave as a barbarian without a care for the judgments of society's mores.

(Below I will try to capture some small sliver of the feel of that place and time, with a series of pictures meant to emulate my view as I sat and ate sandwiches, from right to left.)

When breakfast had been finished, and I had drunk my fill of the winds, I clambered upwards and onwards. Not far above this place, I came to the first signs that other humans were not so far off--hoots echoed across the vastness of a labyrinthine system of canyons. The people were not close, but they weren't so far either. I pulled on my pants.

Helpfully, a pinnacle nearby had been scaled by ladders to allow for yet another superb view of the subtropical labyrinth. I was still quite alone, and could enjoy the view in absolute peace.

With care, and slow steps to savor it all, I walked along the dragon-backbone ridges towards the land of man and buses.

(to be continued)

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