Entrance to Heaven
Senlin Gongyuan was a ghost town this morning. Known as Zhangjiajie Village by some, the small town at the base of Wulingyuan Nature Reserve seemed to be more a setting for some bad horror movie than the booming tourist spot it claimed to be. Chinese New Year was fast approaching, and it seemed the entire town had disappeared for the festivities. The empty four-star hotels, now locked up with loose chains and wood planks, were wrapped in a thick blanket of gray fog. A single motorized rickshaw putters down the open street, vanishing into the dark nothingness beyond.
I had grand plans for the forest ahead. Nearly three thousand karst peaks dot the expansive area, thrusting upward toward the heavens while eighty some rivers and streams cut further away at the already breathtaking landscape. Or so the pictures had promised me. Before coming to China, Zhangjiajie was the only place I had in mind. Fascinated by Chinese traditional painting, and even more by the country's philosophical heritage, this area represented everything that had led me to study and live in Zhongguo. It was my mission to see every bit of this place. Before any good adventure can get started though,
it was time for breakfast.
As I walked down the desolate street, my heart sank further and further as my stomach grew ever more restless. Padlocks lined every restaurant door, sealing away the goodness inside. The fog thickened, and a proper start to the journey ahead seemed a vanishing hope. A shot of laughter cut suddenly through the air, and the promise of food returned. A small puff of steam could be seen rising from a shack in the distance. Noodles! Perfect!
As I edged closer, a family could be seen sitting in the semi-open air dining area. Huddled around a small hot pot and a few dishes, I passed by on my way to the kitchen. Before I could though, an elderly man in the group grabbed my arm, motioning for me to join his family at the table. With a nervous but giant smile, I humbly accepted, and was given a small stool at the end. To my right, the older man and his wife. At the left, a younger couple, likely their daughter or son and spouse, and a younger boy roughly my age. On the table, a vast array of who-knows-what, and of course,
a giant bowl of rice for me.
A local dialect was spoken through most of the meal, but enough Mandarin was there to at least give them my story and learn a bit about their family. They lived in Hubei, but the couple had returned to Zhangjiajie to visit their parents for the Spring Festival. The older woman relentlessly shoveled meat and fish in to my bowl, and when I tried to let her know that I had my fair share, more food was immediately on it's way. The grandfather ran to the kitchen and grabbed a small plastic cup, placing it in front of me. From under the table came a large bottle of Tsingtao, and we all enjoyed a 9am beer.
As we munched, a young boy of five or six ran in to play. The couple's youngest, he was a riot to watch as he darted around and under the table, then suddenly pulling large amounts of cash out of his jacket pocket. This was my first glimpse in to Spring Festival traditions. His mother and grandmother both pulled out more money and gave the little guy, now darting around with a fist full of
Renminbi. At one point, a Y1000 bill came out, something I had no idea existed until this tyke snatched it up with glee.
Once everyone had enough boiled chicken and beer, it was time for me to be on my way. I gave my thanks the best I could, and upon exiting, was given a cigarette by the boy. While not a smoker, I felt I couldn't turn it down after all they had given me. And so I headed to the park, cigarette in one hand, camera in the other, and to be honest, a bit tipsy. Here's to living the dream.
At the ticket counter, a rather strange thing occurred. The entrance fee for two days in the park is Y245, a bit steep but well worth it I gathered. Now as is the case with most places around China, a valid Chinese university student ID will nab some decent price cuts. Naturally, I asked if they had student tickets, which was met by a rather emphatic "You," we indeed do have. Fantastic, I slip my ID under the window. After a few minutes of confused looks and deep staring, I am told that, according to
my card, I'm not a Chinese citizen, and therefore not eligible for the price break... Did you really need the card for that one? Must have been the fluent pronunciation that confused them, I reassured myself.
Into the wild. I wish it was truly that epic sounding, but in truth, Zhangjiajie and the surrounding area has been turned in to quite the tourist spot. Little comfort has to be sacrificed while viewing these amazing peaks, but just in case things turned foul, I brought along extra warm clothes. A very good idea, I repeat, very good.
My first stop was nearby Huangshizhai, a mountain scraping just over 1000m above sea level. I headed straight for the path up, a 2-hour staircase straight up the side, twisting and winding through the forests below. At the outset, an amazing situation occurred: Absolutely no tourists. Taken aback for a bit, I was stunned by the pure silence of the trees around me. Spring Festival had sent most people home for the vacation, and luckily not to the sights. Slowly, the silence enveloping me turned to birds chirping, branches crackling, and my footsteps along every rock up. I stopped for a brief
moment to enjoy the quiet, enjoying my aloneness as fifty or so small birds shot in and out of a grouping of low lying bushes.
Now absolutely beat, I arrived at the top of Huangshizhai, greeted only by an immense wall of fog and a not-so-appealing sound. The tourists had arrived. I soon discovered why my path up was so pleasingly quiet - the tour groups all take the cable car to the summit. Bingo. Still, I enjoyed the solitude I had at the time, and that was a rarity to be treasured around here.
At the top of the "Star-Gazing Platform," I stared off in to the gray, imagining the thousands of peaks ahead. I had thought for so long only of this moment, and here I was with nothing to see. I waited and waited, and as if by some act of God, the fog began to part. Out from the blankness came five towering peaks, thin and elegant as they lay shrouded in mist. Below, a large valley had opened up, revealing the way I had just came up. For just a small moment, everything was as I imagined - perfect. Breaking that second was
something else fun - a tap on the shoulder.
Jackie was a 12-year old from Guangzhou. He and his family were part of a small tour group, along with two other small boys following him around. He shot forward with a booming "Hello!" soon followed by the other kids. Upon saying "Nimen Hao" to the group, it was revealed that I could speak a bit of Chinese. While they primarily spoke Cantonese, their Putonghua was perfect and we were able to make some small talk along with his parents. Soon though, it was time for their group to go, but not before extending me an invitation to join. Being that I could not see a single mountain now, I happily accepted.
For the next four hours, the boys and I strolled far behind the group, switching between Mandarin and English. Thomas, a rather rotund little 9-year old, gave me a brief course in Cantonese, including how to call out a cute girl and what a Yo-Yo is called, which would shoot from his hands every few seconds. At one stop, Jackie asked me about religion in my country, catching me quite off guard. Yet mostly, we talked about really nothing at all, and that was just perfect.
I followed them to their stop at the end of the trail where a bus waited to sweep them off to their hotel. Fantastic, I had went in the complete opposite direction of my earlier plans, now stuck without a way to go back. The sun quickly falling, I needed to get going, and fast. My map gave a trail northward that I headed straight for hoping to connect to my road into town. While I made good time through that stretch, one minor roadblock gave me some problems.
An elevator. Not just any elevator though, the Bailong Lift, shooting straight up a 300-meter cliff side while giving riders an amazing, yet terrifying, view. Walking down a completely empty hallway, I could feel that bad horror movie creeping back up to me. A few lights overhead flickered away as they died in the darkness. No one around and the World's Most Dangerous Elevator straight ahead. As I edged down further, I noticed a small group of men seated playing cards, waiting for their next victim to arrive. Luckily, their next victim got that Chinese citizen-only student discount, and I was on my way up.
Breathtaking, glorious, and...absolutely horrifying. The elevator was something out of a twisted dream as we bolted up the side. Deposited at the top of this towering mountain, I had but one choice - to head down the foggy road ahead. A bus stop marked the top of the lift, but at this moment, I was still unsure how the transportation system worked, blindly unaware that all these buses were for everybody, not just the Korean tour groups. So with a 6pm sun falling fast, I headed for the road, hoping that it would someday lead me to the glorious, hotel-laden end.
Bad decision. Nightfall was beginning to illuminate the foggy haze ahead with pure darkness. I continued to walk down the middle of the road, the yellow lines becoming the only color I knew. A black cave on the roadside could only be home to a mountain lion, so I imagined, and certain doom as it crawled out from its dark lair to find a small blonde boy walking aimlessly in its territory. A few crags shot through the haze, slowly fading from view as darkness claimed them as well. I would be next.
I stood silently in the road, weighing my options. According to my map, a wooden sign post put me far off my intended path, causing me to lose all faith in the shop I purchased it from back at home base. That, or I just was bad at reading maps. I noted an abandoned shack a little ways back just in case things got bad enough that any shelter would do. I stared in to the gray ahead, lost and nowhere.
A dim yellow glimmer suddenly broke through night. In the fog, it looked like the faint glow of a lightning bug. In my heart though, it was salvation - a bus.
I stood dead center of the road, hand out in a flurry of waves. Screeching to a noisy halt, the door flung open. I stepped up in pure joy and gratitude, saved by a midnight train (or 7:30pm bus, who cares).
"Ni qu nali?" the driver asked with a smile. "Where are you going?“
"Shuo shihua, Wo bu zhidao..." To tell you the truth, I don't know...
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