Limping Tiger, Aching Dragon
Trip Start Aug 29, 2012
25Trip End Ongoing
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Huang Qian has been telling me for a while that I have "renpin problems", a kind of karmic imbalance. I insisted that this was superstitious nonsense; that the little difficulties I encounter in daily life are typical for anyone who lives abroad. It wasn't until the entire universe united against us for the first four days of the New Year that I started to believe her.
As the New Year holiday is a time for rejuvenation, Huang Qian and I decided to spend our three days off immersed in nature on Huangshan, China's famous Yellow Mountain, in nearby Anhui Province. The original plan was to wake up on the first day of the New Year in Huangshan Town on the train and climb the mountain early. The next day, we'd celebrate our victory by watching the sun rise over a sea of clouds from Huangshan. Then, we'd mosey on down and see what there was to do in the area and take the bus home. After all, the bus only takes 5 hours! It was a foolproof plan to start the year on the right foot.
Planes, Trains, & Automobiles
We boarded the overnight Shanghai-Huangshan Train at 9:45 pm on December 31. We took the twelve-hour train ride to avoid paying for an extra night at a hotel. Our plan was going swimmingly. Then, I took a second glance at the tickets.
"Um, so...these tickets only take us as far as Nanjing?" I asked Huang Qian. "Yeah, we'll buy tickets the rest of the way there. We can probably get sleepers!" she assured me.
We pulled into Nanjing after midnight. We got off and ran alongside the train to the only car with space left. As we ran, we caught glimpses of lethargic passengers stretching out on their spacious bunks in the sleeper cars. I crossed my fingers that the empty car would have the same level of luxury.
We ran up to our home for the next nine hours and doubled over, winded. When we looked up, we saw at least 150 people crowded into the car...all standing.
Rather than stand for the next nine hours, we elected to find a hotel in Nanjing and take a bus the next morning.
The information desk attendant insisted that we book at least a three star hotel because any lower would be "unsafe" for a laowai like me. We climbed into our fancy three star beds for a few hours of shut-eye, confident that on the next day, the very first day of 2013, everything would somehow work out. We would be alright.
A Cold Day in Hell
After bouncing around muddy countryside roads on the bus from Nanjing for five hours, we finally started our ascent. At the bottom, I asked Huang Qian whether Huangshan was a Buddhist or Daoist mountain. Every notorious mountain in China seems to be claimed by some religion. Huang Qian wondered out loud why Huangshan, presumably China’s most famous mountain, was left unclaimed.
As we climbed up, we discovered why Huangshan is neither Buddhist nor Daoist: it’s evil. It is completely unsacred. Sisyphus had a more comfortable mountain climbing experience. Every time we victoriously reached the top icy step of a mountain staircase, gasping for breath, we would turn only to face an even steeper climb.
Then, the sun started to set. We found ourselves without a flashlight climbing icy stairs in the pitch black night as the air got thinner, making it colder and harder to breathe. The snow shoes I bought on the way up for 10 kuai were no use now.
As we forced our frozen legs to lift us onto the last stair to the summit, we could suddenly see every star and the moon was bright enough to light our way. We made like wise men and followed the brightest light we could see…to a mountaintop convenience store where we snacked on spicy tofu, tea leaf eggs, and corn on the cob. The shopkeeper had never seen faces as rosy and satisfied as ours.
Three Hundred’s a Crowd
At five the next morning, Huang Qian and I threw on our layers, strapped on our snow shoes, and climbed for a frantic hour to catch the sunrise. How peaceful it was going to be! Just two lone friends sipping tea and eating tea leaf eggs as the sun rose over the mountain range!
We high-fived as we reached the Guangming Summit and looked around as we caught our breath. Every mountaintop as far as the eye could see was packed with the most dangerous animal we could possibly imagine: tourists.
Huang Qian fought for her sunrise photos, standing precariously on a rock and leaning on the guy in front of her, as I dealt with my first experience of altitude sickness. The hundreds of people on the surrounding mountains all started to yell and scream as the sun peeked over the horizon. I don’t know what they expected, but they seemed extremely surprised.
Back at the hotel, Huang Qian and I watched her sunrise video, mostly to make fun of the tourists. As we re-watched the sunrise on her phone, Huang Qian, perhaps unconsciously, began mimicking their reaction. "Waaaaa!!! Aiyooou!!! Wooow!!!" she yelled, as I rolled my eyes.
We climbed up and down mountains, waiting in line to walk up icy stairs and down through damp caves. “Are you a foreigner?” a tourist asked me in Chinese as we waited to ascend yet another frosty staircase. “Nah,” I replied sarcastically, “I’m Chinese.”
Limping Tiger, Aching Dragon
Finally back in Tangkou, the town at the bottom of the mountain, we checked into our 80 kuai youth hostel. The nice family who owned the hostel suggested we check out nearby Emerald Valley, where the fight scenes from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were filmed. Bursting with energy, we jumped into the car to explore yet another magnificent natural wonder and perhaps fight each other on top of a bamboo sea.
Jumping eagerly down from the bus, I nearly collapsed onto the ground. “I think I pulled something…or everything.” The dogs were really barking. Huang Qian climbed around on the rocks in the mountain stream as I limped up the path.
An igloo would've been warmer...
Back at the hostel, we warmed our hands around Huangshan specialty dishes and steaming hot pot. We played with the owners’ baby and they assured us that they turned on the heat and electric blankets in our room. With full bellies, we struggled up the three flights of stairs and opened the door, expecting fireside-like warmth.
Instead, we encountered a scene that can only be described as Dentyne Ice commercial-esque. It was colder in the room than outside. We put on our layers and climbed under the blankets. It wasn’t until this 24th consecutive hour of disasters that we became hysterical. Every time we sighed, our foggy breath would curl up to the ceiling. As we laughed harder and harder, the room fogged up. Huang Qian started boiling water and filling a basin so we could warm our hands with steam.
Mary and Joseph had a better hotel experience than we did. After we’d fogged up all the mirrors and the TV, the hostel owner arrived, baby in one arm, to assure us that the heat was working. The fog from our exasperated exhales decreased her credibility.
“I can’t feel…anything…anymore,” I said calmly, head frozen to my frosty pillow. Huang Qian’s shivers and panic came through in her voice as she begged a nearby Shanghai-style hotel to send a car to rescue us from our igloo. “Is your heat working over there?” she stammered.
The front desk people at the Ala Shanghai Hotel giggled as we rushed in. One amused hotel worker came to the room to turn on the heat for us. We were easily pleased, giddy even. “Look! They have two whole blankets on each bed!” “There’s a shower! A real shower! With hot water and everything!”
Later in the evening, Huang Qian posted glorifying comments about the hotel on Weibo, China’s twitter-like microblogging service. The hotel answered back immediately, knowing exactly who was leaving the comments. “We’re glad you like the working heat and that the shower was hot. Let us know if you need anything!” Our saviors!
Driving in a Winter Wonderland
After a delightful snoozefest, Huang Qian and I went to catch the bus back to Shanghai. “I have a bad feeling about this,” warned Huang Qian. “Don’t worry! It’ll be fine!” It was a straight 5 hour trip back to Shanghai. Even my renpin problems couldn’t possibly stop us now!
The snow started to fall as we rattled through the mountain passes. I grinned at the beautiful winter scene. My face started to fall as the snow kept falling. For hours. Soon, we were in the middle of a full-blown blizzard with a driver who insisted on driving so slow bicycles were passing us.
I wish there were a four-character Chinese saying similar to what my dad writes in the “comments” section when ordering pizza: “drive fast, take risks”.
As the five hour drive turned into a six hour drive, then a seven hour drive, I added Chinese flashcards on my phone’s dictionary app. I really have disaster, bad luck, and severe weather vocabulary covered at this point. The driver was lost. He called information and stopped to ask directions. We pulled Greyhound U-turns at three different closed highway entrance ramps. I woke up after 9 hours and looked out at the Pacific Ocean from a dirt road. “If he takes us to the airport, I’m buying a ticket to Kansas City so I can eat some of my mom’s spaghetti,” I swore to Huang Qian, in a daze. She wanted to go back home to Leshan.
At 1am, after 12 hours on the bus, we reached the outskirts of Shanghai. Even more hysterical than we had been in our igloo, we happily pointed out the Shanghai skyscrapers we had been so eager to leave just three days before. “You know what?” I said to Huang Qian as we reached the station. “I think I might have renpin problems.”
Luckily, as it goes with New Year celebrations in China, I'll get a second chance. This is the year of the dragon, same as the year I was born. That means, according to my Chinese friends, that I’ll have bad luck unless I wear red underwear all year, which I don’t. However, on February 10th, I'll be with my wonderful parents in Beijing. We'll make jiaozi with the family that owns the hostel and watch the fireworks from the rooftop. This dreaded year of the dragon will finally be over and maybe, just maybe, my profound bad luck will turn around.