This blog entry is an explanation of the photo album by this name, on another page in my blog.
The Mountain Hua Shan — Flower Mountain — is one of the seven sacred mountains of China. It is about a 120 kilometer (60 mile) drive (guesstimating) east of the ancient capital city of Xi’An. The word Xi’An means "Western Peace." I won’t pretend to be an expert on Chinese history. Suffice it to say that Xi’an was the capital for many hundreds of years. (This is the reason the Terra Cotta Warrior army is located at Xi’an: it was the capital city and then burial ground for the emperor who united China into one kingdom, let’s just say roughly a couple of thousand years ago.) We went to Hua Shan on the day after our visit to the Terra Cotta Warriors.
As the diorama in the photo album illustrates, Hua Shan rises to somewhere about 6,400 feet above sea level (the diorama expresses this in meters). Like so many mountains in China, it seems almost to rise up all by itself straight up out of a dry plateau, thrusting towering walls of white granite out of the dry earth. The summit is one long ridge, a couple of miles long, with small peaks at either end of this summit. Each peak has a small monastery. Literally, as one walks along the top of Hua Shan, one travels about half a mile with a cliff falling down on the right, and a cliff falling down on the left, with a walkway along the center that is about ten feet wide. There are steps paved into the granite, as well as chain railing to hold onto. In fact, the mountain has been used for so long, by so many people, that there are steps carved into the side of the mountain almost all the way up, 6,000 feet of them or so, from the bottom to the top. When you see traditional Chinese paintings of the rugged mountain with the tiny little man, far down on the low side of the mountain, walking along steps carved into the side of an incredibly steep mountain, that is a real depiction of what it really looks like, not some fantasized imagining.
Nowadays, there is a Swiss-made cable car that makes a round trip up the first half or two thirds of the way up the mountain. The cable car ride costs about 120 RMB and cuts about six hours off the time it would otherwise take to hike up the mountain. But some people can’t afford the cable car, and some simply prefer to make the trek without benefit of the cable car. We drove from Xi’an and then took the cable car up most of the way up the mountain. The cable car drops you off about 400 feet below the lower of the two ridges. The first monastery is reached fairly quickly, at the first of these two peaks. I don’t really think it sees much use as a monastery anymore. A monk still lives there, but the commercial aspect is irresistible and the place is now, in fact, controlled by the government rather than any religious organization. Once you reach the first summit, it is a relatively moderate hike up to the ridge and then across to the western, and more dramatic, summit.
My imagination soared at Hua Shan, not just because of the beauty of this majestic mountain and the spectacular scenery, but also wondering and imagining about who it was who had carved those steps into the side of the mountain and how long ago it had been done. Yes, there are steps carved out of the granite, winding all the way up the majestic beauty. Some of the steps no doubt are recent; but others are ancient. For how many years has this mountain been the object of pilgrimage? In ancient times, the Emperor of China used to journey every spring to the top of Flower Mountain. From there, he would make offerings of grains to the harvest gods. As I looked from the cable car down to the steps far below, with people walking up them pace by pace, I tried to imagine what it would have looked like as the Emperor and his glorious entourage slowly made their way to the summit. Were the steps carved to make way for the Emperor? Did he walk himself, or was he carried by porters and sedan chair? Or, were the steps carved by monks or religious pilgrims?
There are still religious pilgrims, as well as sightseers. You can spend the night at the top, in one of the hostel-like accommodations at the monasteries. But, if quiet and solitude is part of your idea of a monastic religious experience, forget that notion at Hua Shan! As in most of China, there are a lot of people, most of them talking very loudly and oblivious to the amount of noise they create. We were there on a weekday during the "off" season, and there were still a lot of people. Additionally, among the sightseers, I was amazed to see women dressed in heels and skirts hiking their way right up the steps. (One wonders, what were they thinking? Would the spike heels even last the day?) Another striking thing about Hua Shan was the toilet at the first monastery. Because, it consisted of a hole in the floor, built over a dropoff of a couple thousand feet or so. Well, that’s a simplification, but let’s say it was definitely the most memorable toilet I’ve visited in China both for filth and for drama. No, I didn’t take a picture of it, because it was so gross, but in hindsight perhaps I should have, because the sight of that dropoff really does stick in my mind! I remember wondering what kind of reinforcement the building had, whether it was safe or not, and thinking well everyone else is using it. (That was before I learned about the guy who got blown off the side of Mt. Everest Base Camp while doing his business one night.)
Well, back to more appetizing subjects. Once we got just past the first monastery, we stopped for lunch. We had purchased peanut butter, jelly, and some other things to make lunch with, and drinks. As we ate, a steady stream of porters passed us, carrying things up the mountain — supplies they were bringing apparently for a hotel that was being constructed at the summit. We had leftovers, and we shared our surplus with some of these men, who had been curiously eyeing our Western food. During the ensuing conversation, we learned that the journey took them all day, carrying large packs on their backs. Once they were at the top, they would re-load with things to carry back down and make the return journey by nightfall. For their day’s work of lugging stuff up and down the mountain, from the base to the top, they were paid 70 RMB. About $10 U.S. Most of them were carrying bundles and baskets that were strapped on their backs. The man with the most impressive (and memorable for me) load was a man who was carrying what looked like a pack of aluminum strips that were about ten feet long, extending well over his head. I wasn’t quite sure how he would possibly manage such a load, and indeed he did seem to have a groaningly hard time picking himself up to move along, following his snack of peanut butter and jelly with us.
I mentioned the steep drop off on either side of the path on Hua Shan. This drop off was, in fact, the reason I did not journey to the top of the mountain. About an hour after we finished our lunch, we had hiked up a good ways, part of that some stairs that seemed to go straight up the side of the steep mountain face. Then, we got to a relatively flat walkway traversing the summit of the ridge, with the steep drop off on either side. About the same time, a hard wind blew in, with some rain. The wind from this minor, short lived gale was gusty, dramatic, and frightening. As a bit of rain was falling, the stone path began to feel very slippery. Though we were holding tight to six year old Munchkin (who was herself being very cautious), and though there were solidly fastened chain guard rails to hold onto, I became worried about slipping, and Munchkin became afraid that she might be blown off the mountain. The two of us were happy to turn around and wait near the cable car entrance. Just so that Sarah wouldn’t have to carry it, I took Sarah’s backpack with us to wait. Jim also felt a bit uncomfortable, so he went back down with Munchkin and me to wait in a sitting area near the first monastary. After the two of us were alone with Munchkin, we found it a bit amusing that passers-by all assumed Jim was Munchkin’s father, and began asking his permission to take her picture.
We’ve noted before that Munchkin is the object of quite a bit of attention because of her light hair and light eyes. The word for a child who looks like Munchkin translates as "foreign doll." Munchkin consented to sit to have her picture made with one, particularly friendly lady from Thailand. But then, someone else saw it, and the idea spread like wildfire. We should have charged money, because she would have been rich from the photo shoots. After about forty people took her picture, it seemed, their tour group from Thailand finally passed and we were relieved to be alone again at our resting spot. And then, about five minutes later, the next tour group came along, with another request to have a picture made with the cute western child. To say that Munchkin was ungracious was an understatement. She was downright rude.
Most of the time, the Chinese are genuinely friendly and warm, and these people were no exception. Some foreigners get angry and yell when people try to dote on their children, but we can almost always see that the friendliness is genuine and we try to respond kindly, even when we do not consent to the kissing or whatever. At the time, as Munchkin was being so hostile to such friendly people, I was just a bit sad that I lacked the language skill to explain that she had just sat through having her picture made with about 40 different people to explain her fussiness. All I could do was say, "Bu keyi," which means "don’t agree." While continuing to wait, we helped Munchkin escape the advancing crowds by going to the browse the monastery, where we got a small snack and bought some postcards. They seemed to be doing a big business selling hot food as well, but it looked very unappetizing. We then killed a bit more time, waiting for our group, by finally consenting to purchase from one of the souvenir hawkers a medal for Munchkin that says in Chinese, "I climbed to the top of Hua Shan" on one side and has her name and the date inscribed on the other side. It was a good purchase; she loves it and keeps it in her jewelry box.
But after waiting a few hours, about 4 PM the mountain began to feel rather cold and windy, as well as boring. Jim and I decided to take the cable car back down to the bottom of the mountain, where there was a village full of tourist shops that we could at least meander through to kill our boredom. There was a brief moment of "too much" excitement in one of the shops when one of the shopkeepers absconded with Munchkin, with mommy and Jim chasing after in protest. Often a shopkeeper will think Munchkin is so cute that they just want to hold her, dote on her and give her a toy. It became apparent that this particular shopkeeper had a different motive — she hoped to convince Munchkin that she couldn’t live without a particular a toy and thereby forcing mommy to fork over cash to pay for the toy. A sternly upset mommy regained possession of her child (or maybe even Jim did it, I can’t remember) and firmly refused to play along with this manipulation, even though Munchkin did, indeed, beg for us to buy the toy the shopkeeper had so "kindly" offered to her as if it were a gift.
About an hour later, still waiting at the base of the mountain, we got a distressed phone call. I had Sarah’s backpack, and inside her backpack was the ticket to prove she had purchased a cable car ride. Without that ticket, she wouldn’t be allowed back on the cable car. We tried to convince the personnel to allow us to show them her lift ticket at the bottom, so they could verify that she had purchased a ticket, so they could let her on the car. They refused. We tried to convince them to allow us to put the backpack on another car and carry it to the top, so she could get the ticket out of the backpack herself, produce it for the man at the top to see it with his own eyeballs. This was also refused.
Now, exactly what do they think? We have a group of ten people. Do they think that one of them walked while the other nine all rode the cable car? One of my more rational, Chinese, friends replied in answer to this question, "Of course!"
The refusal to work with us on how to prove Sarah had purchased a ticket typifies a very Chinese response to a problem. From our perspective, there was no effort to work together to find a solution for a problem that deviated from the norm: no creativity, no innovative ideas, no flexibility, and low level employees have no authority to do anything outside of what has been prearranged. I even once read a case study in a book, of a building where the clerk had been ordered not to turn the water on unless the boss had given approval. The building burned down because the clerk couldn’t get in touch with the boss to get approval for the fire department to turn the water on. But, this is one thing to hear about, and maybe of chuckle about, something different to experience! In China, rules are rules. There is no questioning them, no matter how outrageous, unreasonable, or arbitrary they may seem under the circumstances. And once some authority has set a rule, it cannot be easily challenged. In an earlier Blog entry I wrote about a city which ordered the destruction of 50,000 dogs in response to an outbreak of rabies among four dogs. Proof of actual inoculation against rabies was not a means of exempting one’s family pet from the death warrant. There were simply no exceptions to the rules, no matter how reasonable. But, this was only our first year in China, and we had yet to learn this lesson.
At the bottom of the slope, an English speaking, Chinese tour guide saw my distress and asked if he could help. I told him our situation. With no hesitation whatsoever he replied, "Of course she’ll have to buy another ticket." What was so obvious to him, with his Chinese sensibility, was not so obvious to us. To us it seemed obvious that she had purchased a ticket, that her mother had the (unused) ticket at the bottom which could be easily verified, and that there were many ways to see that proof and verify the ticket purchase. All the while, as we pondered and argued and discussed, completely empty cable cars made their round trips up and down the mountain. In terms of incremental cost to the cable car company of enabling Sarah to travel back down the mountain with her group, regardless of whether she had proof of a ticket, there was zero cost to them. Empty cable car passing by, another empty cable car passing by, while one of us waited at the top and the other at the bottom. Nevertheless, it took another half hour before we could get it through our thick, American skulls that there was NO OTHER SOLUTION than to purchase another, full price, round trip ticket.
Not to mention the insult that the personnel were laughing as David finally capitulated and forked over the additional hundred RMB (or whatever it was). Later, we supposed among ourselves, cynically, that it was also part of the inside method to extract more money from foreigners since, I believe, we paid about 30% more for our lift tickets than Chinese even though this widespread practice of charging more to foreigners was theoretically outlawed as part of the conditions for China’s entry into the World Trade Organization. My lasting thought in response to this encounter was, and remains, "China customer service is clearly not ready for the 2008 Olympics!" I assure you, there are going to be a lot of shocked and irate visitors to China next year. (Beginning with their first encounter with Beijing taxi drivers, who are notoriously corrupt.)
In spite of our "customer service" experience, which one can only write up to TIC ("this is China") our trip up Hua Shan was one of the highlights of our 2005 journey through the country. That evening we returned, exhausted, to Xi’an. David and Maggie and I went out to the delightful Muslim quarter of the city (Xi’an is the terminus of the ancient silk road, and there is an ancient Mosque and vibrant Muslim culture). The three of us spent less than $5 U.S. total for large bowls of home made soup noodles and street snacks for supper, while the teens enjoyed an evening of pizza at a bona fide Pizza Hut for roughly ten times the cost.
My sense of peacefulness and repose at the end of the day was disturbed only by the photos I later saw of the teens in our group perched so near the edges of the precipice of this mountain for their photo shoots! Yes, they’re great pictures, but every year people do die from falling off of Hua Shan. In fact, since the time of our trip, the mountain has been closed to unaccompanied teenagers just for this reason. Fortunately, in our case, "all’s well that ends well," and they have some great photos to prove it!