Wednesday, March 4, 2015

新年快乐: Siguniangshan 2015

The paradigm to which a man ascribes his life tunes the strings of his soul to certain pitches. If the words scribed below strike a principle pitch that echo overtones of amen, then you too have a paradigm of adventure... And we salute you.

    - Benjamin Whitmore, reckless mountain pilgrim


     - Reuben Haggar, slight-more-cautious wilderness pathfinder

They had to go. They simply had to. No choice in the matter at all. And so they went, the two of them, the guitar player and bass player, the Missourian and the Iowan, the bread and the butter. Off they flew in a heap of coats and hiking stuff on a Sunday night during Spring Festival vacation, bound for Chengdu in Sichuan province that night, where they eventually ended up in what on Baidu was listed as a hotel but what in reality actually appeared to be the spare room of some super nice, I'll-come-find-you-on-the-side-of-the-road-where-the-taxi-deposited-you lady's apartment next to a long distance bus station. The road, it seemed, was to be paved with adventures of every different shape and size on this particular journey.

Well before the sun made any semblance of an appearance on the horizon, the super nice, I'll-come-find-you-on-the-side-of-the-road-where-the-taxi-deposited-you lady proved that she was also a super nice, I'll-walk-you-to-the-bus-station-and-help-you-get-bus-tickets-and-then-make-sure-you-get-on-the-correct-bus lady. And they were off, heading north into the darkness, rain pouring down like questions in a eighth grade English classroom on the day that a poetry-writing task is assigned, not quite sure as to how long they'd be on the bus (5.5 hours), how much their elevation would change during the bus ride (4,000 meters), how many of their fellow passengers would ralph before the journey was done (several), or where to get off the bus (the bus driver told them: Rilong Township).

They disembarked on the side of the road, the bus nearly roaring off before they were able to grab their heaps of coats and hiking stuff from the undercarriage. A youthful-looking university student got off the bus with them, and there they were: the middle of some sleepy mountainside town. A few questions brought them to their hotel; a few shaky exchanges in Chinese (let's be clear: it must be said truthfully that all their exchanges from here on out were in shaky Chinese) brought them to their room; a few minutes later brought the aforementioned youthful-looking university student into their room, inquiring as to whether he could hang out and explore with them, since he'd come to the region alone. Thus, the size of the group exploded from two to three, and they saw the day out by exploring Rilong, eating tasty overpriced down-home food, planning the next three monumental days of their fateful lives, and taking li'l naps. The two unshowered Americans also spent a substantial amount of time discussing what to call the new third member of their entourage. The name that stuck eventually was Notorious Big*, and he was referred to as such for the duration of the trip, and, even today, is called that name. 

Action-Packed Day the First began at 7:15 a.m., and it didn't stop. The band of three - they were a far cry from musketeers, wise men, amigos, or blind mice...but perhaps they could be called "stooges" - took a shuttle bus into the first valley they were to set foot in: Changping Valley. Perhaps a brief word should be said about the layout of the land. The town - Rilong - was, as mentioned earlier, a sleepy mountainside town, full of horses carrying stuff and closed souvenir shops, and it was the entry point into the Siguniang (translation: Four Sisters) Mountain region. The region appeared to be composed of three valleys: Shuangqiao Valley (the westernmost, and the furthest from the Rilong), Changping Valley (the most accessible, tourist-friendly valley), and Haizi Valley (the easternmost valley; the travelers never actually went there). Between the Changping and Haizi Valleys were the Four Sister Mountains; they loomed over everything there and gave the ol' place its name.

Now you know.

Anyway, the three struck out into Changping Valley and were slightly dismayed to find a path made of wooden planks. Or more accurately, the Midwesterners were dismayed; Notorious Big seemed to take heart in said wooden path. But when, after the wooden boardwalk dissolved into a dirt track a few kilometers later, he exclaimed, 没有路!" he did sort of get laughed at by the other two stooges. And on they went.

Despite the wooden path and its stairs, the valley was beautiful. For the better part of the morning, the valley was cloaked in shadow, the Four Sisters preventing the sun's rays from reaching the bottom of the dip between the mountains. Eventually, though, around 11 a.m., the sun illuminated everything, and it was brilliant and beautiful and made at least two-thirds of the crew exclaim mightily, "This is why we came! This is why we are alive!"

Around that time, Notorious Big decided that he was going to bask in the sun and rest for a while, and that the other two wild men should press on without him. And so they did, running rampant, almost getting kicked by horses, finding more mountains covered in snowy happiness, throwing trees into the river, and just generally demolishing Changping Valley.

Eventually the two shoe-dirtiers returned and reunited with their youthful friend, and together they moseyed on back, past a waterfall, to the valley's entry point, and headed back into Rilong, thinking - foolishly - that the day's action was over and that they could put their introvert faces back on.

But it was not to be so.

The shorter (or, some would say "less tall"), bearded member of the entourage stopped at a shop to buy water. The residents of the home above the shop descended from above like ninth-graders converge on a loose "Get Out of Homework Free" coupon, happily requesting that they be featured in a picture with the taller, non-bearded member of the traveling troop. Many pictures were taken, many smiles exchanged. Someone even laughed. Then the foremost picture star asked the explorers a fateful question: "Have you eaten? Come eat with us!" A look passed between the two foreign men (Notorious Big's opinion was not factored in, although, in the end, there was no doubt that he enjoyed himself fully), and then one of those shrugs that teenagers give right before they try drugs for the first time, and then they were all off, up the stairs, into what appeared to be a Chinese New Year festival meal. So much meat, so many people, so much distilled liquor. The next hour was a big flurry for the Midwesterners and a big blurry for Notorious Big, who did not do as well at declining offered alcohol as the Midwesterners did. A hearty meal it was, and the excited head of the household talked to and laid hands on the taller of the two 老外 without ceasing. It was, as both dudes knew it would be, one of those fairly uncomfortable experiences that would be looked back upon with glee and laughter. After about an hour, excuses of fatigue were conjured up, and the band of explorers disentangled themselves from the spring festival meal and made it back to their hotel. The alcohol having taken effect, Notorious Big's lips were loosed, and he spewed forth all sorts of English words that no one knew he knew, and all sorts of interest in guns and in Avril Lavigne. Soon, though, the three arrived at their hotel and went to their respective rooms. The two fair-skinned explorers never saw their youthful-looking friend again**, although he texted them later that they were always welcome at his home and that his mom would gladly cook for them.

Action-Packed Day the Second began at 5:30 a.m.; the two hikers, freed from the semi-bondage of their youthful-looking friend (who wasn't too keen on actually hiking up stuff), set out in the dark, armed with headlamps and a mild case of altitude sickness. Their plan: not to go into any of the three earlier-mentioned valleys but instead to hike the ridge running up above the two eastern valleys toward Four Sisters Mountain and get as close as they could to the smallest Sister.*** So they struck out alarmingly early, climbing over a downed fence and up a trail through the woods as dawn approached. Soon, they gained the ridge...and the light.

The next six hours were spent going up and up, over countless hills and ridges, past prayer flag-covered stupas and hairy emotionless yaks, through various high-altitude foliage, around rocks and boulders, over kilometers without end. Both breaks and pictures were taken in abundance, because the air was thin and the scenery was possibly the most breathtaking that either of the two had hiked around before. Mountains in every possible direction, most of them swathed in snow. Perfect environment in which to plod along breathlessly.

Eventually, around 1:30 p.m., the two out-of-shape trekkers reached the highest hill that still had any vegetation on it. They could see that the Fourth Sister was quite a ways away still but that a massive rocky point loomed in front of them. Up they went, to the loftiest spot they would reach on their hike, up to the top of their world that day, climbing over shale that was demolished and heaved up thousands of years ago in a subcontinent-sized tectonic plate mash-up. At the top: they rested. It was 2:00 p.m.

After some moments, some closing of eyes, some snacking, and some praying for the return leg of the trek, the two skinny hikers decided to turn back and face what would easily prove to be the most challenging part of the journey: going down, back the way they'd come. So their road took a turn away from the heavens they'd been pursuing all morning and sped quickly toward - you guessed it - hell.

Frankly, the four hours between the top and the entry point of the trail (which they'd avoided - or missed in the dark - at the day's outset) were awful. They were both tired; one dude's boot was malfunctioning painfully, and the other dude's stomach malfunctioned painfully twice, which was gross and also relocated of a lot of his potential energy and fluid onto the ground. They didn't talk. They didn't take pictures. They didn't even talk about what worship songs they'd be playing the following Sunday at church! It was bad.

But, nonetheless, this blog post is proof positive: they survived! Eventually they reached the base of the ridge and walked back without event to their lodging. The hike lasted from 6 a.m. to 6:45 p.m. and had involved zero other people and zero RMB. It was the longest single-day hike either of the two bums had ever been on. That night's sleep was better than all of yours, especially since by that night they'd both figured out how to use their electric blankets to ward off the cold that perpetually pervaded their hotel room.

Action-Packed Day the Third began at 8 a.m., and really got going after the two adventurous souls hitchhiked to the entry point of the westernmost and most expensive of the valleys in the Siguniangshan area: Shuangqiao Valley. A clown bus filled with clowns shuttled them thirty-four kilometers into the valley, to a parking lot where a wall of snowy mounts brought the possibility of further travel to a slow, picturesque halt. Predictably, both the younger and the older of the two blokes were against the idea of riding the bus back out of the valley and instead leaned in favor of walking [the wooden plank path] for a while and then catching a shuttle later. So that is exactly the course of action upon which they decided.

And what a nice walk it was. After a breath-taking hike of looking at amazing natural wonders the previous day, both male travelers wondered if their third day in the Siguniangshan party area would still be able to dazzle their eyes. The answer that they found was: heck yes. The air was crispy clear, the mountains soaring up, and the clouds floating slowly but intently over the two nasty backpackers' heads. It was marvelous and calming, especially compared to the physical demands of the trek of the day before.

The conversation flowed much more easily as well, since neither of the two threw up at all on this, the third Action-Packed Day. In fact, for a while, the two lightweight men just hung out on a sandy patch of washout and discussed life. Then, later, they laid out in the sun across the road from a flag-draped Buddhist temple and took naps, or watched the clouds go by, or wondered if a bus would ever come and get them.

It did, after a few hours. And they said good-bye to Shuangqiao Valley, caught a ride with some Chengdu tourists back to Rilong, and spent the rest of the evening happily content between their electrically-heated mattresses and their mounds of blankets. And that was that.

Despite the failure of their alarm to sound the next morning, the two emerged from snowy mountain peaks of sleep and caught a bus that took them back over the mountains**** and construction area, through rest stops***** and seas of clouds and fog thickly reminiscent of Year 10 MYP students crowding around a C&S project opportunity during the final and decisive term of the school year, and on and on, the quiet slushy sounds of puking filling the air every once in a while, until the coach reached Chengdu, at which point the two somewhat weary but never disheartened gentlemen caught the subway to Sichuan Gymnasium and met a friend from years before, in America, and were taken by him first to Peter's Tex Mex, where they gorged themselves on Western food - especially by hairier of the two lads, since he was beginning a late meat fast for Lent the next day - and then to Chengdu's airport, where they lounged around checking their e-mails, reading the final pages of their respective novels******, and writing in their journals until their 9:30 p.m. flight rushed them back to Beijing, back to Wangjing, and back to their homes.

Survival. These two perhaps reckless but definitely hard-working men - who some would say looked a bit youthful themselves - had somehow achieved survival. A myriad of experiences had been thrust upon them, and whether those startlingly-varied experiences were good or bad, none can say, but this much is true: it was fun, and they liked it, and they will probably go do something similar again, so watch the heck out.

*Not to be confused with Notorious B.I.G., a famous American rapper from the 1990's. Gouleeeeeet...
**We actually bought him a plastic toy gun, but we left the hotel at 6 a.m. on the day he left town, so I placed the gun and a note on our room's doorknob, hoping he'd come say good-bye and chance upon it. As we left that morning, Ben prayed for the day: "God, please keep us safe today, please let us stay hydrated and full of energy, and please help our friend Notorious Big find the gun we left him. Amen." 
***To be completely transparent, the plan was to climb the smallest Sister, but it turned out that that was beyond our single-day physical capabilities. It was way further than it looked.
****I didn't have my camera, but on the bus ride back, I saw what may have been the most beautiful scene in my life. We were coming down a super windy road out of this really high mountain pass, and way, way, way down below, where we were headed, we could see that clouds covered the lower regions. As we got closer and closer, it started to look really cool, this cloudy blanket over a big valley. Then the bus entered a tunnel, and when it emerged, it was impossible not to verbally react somehow: there was a sea of clouds - which we were not very far above - and many, many hilltops and mountaintops peaking out of the cloud sea all over the place. It was like something from a picture that wasn't real at all. Just an ocean of white carpet with islands of mountaintops. And then we drove down into the cloudy sea for the next four hours, but the image lingered.
*****The highlight of the lone stop the bus made was: Ben and I were standing there, and another bus came and parked at the rest stop, and the side of that bus was painted with vomit; someone had thrown up out of the window of the bus. We watched the fairly attractive bus attendant lady and the somewhat rough driver wash it off with a hose, and we chuckled quietly to ourselves.
******"The Idiot" for Ben and "Broken April" for myself