The mountains that changed my life (Part 1)
Updated: Apr 4, 2020
China has many mountains of outstanding beauty. Within all the mountain ranges China holds five mountains most dear, these are sacred and hold great stories in history and folklore. But one mountain that I was to visit on my first time traveling abroad changed my view of the world. It changed what I wanted and began to develop my love of foreign cultures. The mountain isn’t completely isolate, I wouldn’t say it’s particularly difficult or compare it in any way to a mountaineering feat but as my first mountain this place offered an insight into the culture, beauty and oddity of China. It cemented my love of visiting China and I have returned multiple times since. So let me begin the tale of the yellow mountains. A lost 19 year old boy in an overwhelming country journeying away from the city and into the wilderness.
This trip begins in Shanghai. After taking my first solo trip abroad I was beginning to settle into the country. China has the ability to completely overwhelm. The western world has no place here and you either adapt or end up lying wait in your hostel until you return home. For others considering visiting China I recommend staying away from Hong Kong. It is definitely worth a visit but I consider it vastly different and is more a blend of Western and Asian cultures, come further up north and watch as the country has more to offer in every different area you visit. As with most travel plans I had given this trip no detailed thought, I knew what I wanted to see and a rough idea of what I was going to spend my time on but as we all do I overlooked the fact that it would be new and relentless.
When we plan events we picture the good things and ideal scenarios, it’s often hard to picture yourself within the moment and give some forethought to the emotions you may experience. Having never travelled before I was naive to assume that I would find it easy. While in England the monotony of life here had taken over, I craved adventure and I blame social media for it’s impact on me. Every day to and from working as a chef in a school (dinner lady basically) I would watch Youtube videos and endlessly scroll the Instagram universe. It’s hold on me carried on unnoticed but through seeing others visiting culturally rich countries while cutting out the negative parts of travel and applying a thick filter with high contrast the thoughts had begun to sink in. Although it actually had a good result in the end it definitely gave me an obscure view of a trip abroad. One day I scrolled across a travel video for Shanghai and that was enough to set me off. The catchy Chinese intro music worked it’s way into my head and there it staid until I got on the plane. I was on my way to the other side of the world without even worrying, an innocent young lamb going to a country that eats everything.
After making some Chinese friends at my hostel I had gotten used to life in city. I would spend time with them eating my favourite local foods and we would head out drinking to little back alley bars filled with smoke, the sound of coughing rattling through like a tin can. In a short time I almost had begun a routine, but with all the transport signs in English and everyone speaking with me in my native language was I really experiencing the culture? If I hadn’t already decided to head out to the mountains I honestly believe I would of never gone, I enjoyed my new life and with the exchange rate I felt like the rich westerner. Not ready to leave but still filled with excitement I headed to grab my train out to mainland China. The Shanghai train station was probably the most intimidating place I had every witnessed, the huge crowds of people worked their way around the building. I took the escalator to the higher floor and peered down on the movement, it honestly reminded me of an Iphone game watching the river of bodies. I arrived early, extra early in fact because I was nervous, but I found my train and began to eat my packed food. Anytime I headed out on trip somewhere in China I always carried mango flavoured buns from the shop next to the hostel. I dug in, took a few embarrassing selfies and the train set off.
After going on a Chinese or Japanese train you will forever see all other trains inferior. They honestly make the British trains look lazy. The vessel sped along the tracks with me on it, the other passengers chatted away and ate fruits from plastic bags. The peels littered the tray tables and once they had finished they used the bags for spitting in. After five minutes of hearing mucus being coughed up in a slowly growing pool of saliva I couldn’t bare the sound. I decided to get my headphones in and block out the world just for a little while. I watched us flit passed the surrounding landscape and the city soon turned to towns, towns turned to villages and then we were into the open. The train cut through the vast spaces and I pictured a sheep wondering around when a train came past at over 200kmh, if I was that sheep I would pull inside my wool coat like a scared turtle going into it’s shell. It continued like this for a long time as I drifted between sleep and the sound of chatter, munching and spittle.
I had a row to myself and the train was relatively empty now we were getting further out from the populated areas. Total bliss I thought as I fell asleep yet again to the first sweet sound of silence around me but little did I know that I had an admirer. Although I must confess I don’t know what I look like sleeping I have never been approached before while enjoying some dreamy long distance transport sleep. I could feel someone shaking me awake and as I became more animated I realised there was a Chinese woman beside me, her arm grasping my thigh. She muttered some Chinese to me while attempting to stroke my leg. I abruptly came to. As much as I may have been subject to an Asian daydream picturing this exact thing happening, in real life it was far from exciting. I couldn’t help but be alarmed and held her hand away while she came towards me, my words of English didn’t help at all and she blocked my way out. I looked around the carriage, it was just me and her. Great.
I don’t know this woman’s motivations but being a shy teenager I imagined being locked up in a Chinese prison, at least I would probably be the tallest in there… She stared at me and I thought what to do, do I push her out they way? Do I scream out for help? What was help in mandarin again? This strange experience was just about to get weirder, she got onto her knees and began trying to feed me some leftover Mcdonalds she had brought with her. I took my chance and hopped over the seats and down the aisle. I rushed down the train and took a seat a few carriages up, luckily she didn’t follow. I sat there wide eyed and didn’t sleep again until we reached our destination. To this day I’m not sure what she wanted, I think most likely she wanted sympathy and money. But the train tickets weren’t cheap so maybe she just had a thing for Westerners.
Once out the train I had really only begun my trip to the mountain. The biggest difference that became apparent was the language barrier. No one here spoke a word of English and I couldn’t read any of the signs. I had luckily prepared for this however and I pulled out a piece of paper that my friend had written out for me. It had a little message to read and below it had the name of where I was staying in big Chinese characters. With this get out of jail free card in my hand I headed from person to person getting directions. The only issue was that due to no one speaking my language I was on a journey with no idea if I was headed to the right place or not, I moved through every possible mode of transport. I cued in-between lines of locals the only non-Chinese in sight, I travelled bus to bus with my little piece of paper for hours. I was not sure how long this trip would take so I sat inside crowded buses, Chinese tourists bobbed around me, their matching red hats shaking side to side as they obsessed with the views on either side of the windows.
The whole family was here, the elderly Chinese and the two generations beneath them. They all sat overwhelmed by what surrounded us. Motorways, cars and smog. Confused I decided to sleep in hope that we would get there eventually, my mind constantly questioned if I was headed the right way. After several more modes of transport I noticed we were getting higher, the bus desperately trying to stay alive wrapped itself around snaking corners. We slithered upwards left and right up the mountains.
Some time passed weaving through the roads buried within thick green trees and before I had managed to achieve sleep once more we emerged from the surrounding foliage. Everyone around me span their head to the right a huge exaggerated gasp rang down the aisle. Used to the Chinese finding everything exciting I kept my vacant expression as I slowly urged my head to look at the window. “Holy shit this is amazing” I thought when my head got itself around the view that appeared before me. A huge expanse spread out, my eyes could identify the different layers. From the rocks disappearing beneath us followed by the thick forest, stretching motorways and all the way to the horizon where the city lay at the start of this trip.
Here we continued to climb up the bumpy dirt roads. The Chinese believe that the yellow emperor of China ascended to heaven from these mountains and that’s exactly where I felt we were heading.
The bus came to a stop and out poured the tourists, they rushed around and waddled their way to the base of a cable car zipping it’s way up the mountain. I was disappointed with this, it made everything too easy and nothing good ever came from things being easy. Luckily by this stage of the journey I knew what was going on. I felt prepared for this, it seemed more intuitive now I was out in nature, most likely due to finally being in an open space away from the city for the first time in days. With a sense of pride I headed in the opposite direction to my fellow bus inhabitants and walked towards the signs for the marked out trail. What surprised me was that no one else was heading that way, not a single person was planning on walking up the mountain like I wanted to do.
In the next blog I’m going to talk about the trek up the mountains, some new foods I discovered, my new Russian friends and why this mountain will always keep it’s place in my mind…