June 23rd 1984

posted in: The way back | 1
Descent into the mist

We’d had at least vague intentions to get up early to watch the sunrise, but the sound of rain on the window-panes, plus the glimpses of cloud we caught outside, soon put paid to that notion, + we stayed put.  Eventually we emerged at a more reasonable hour, 8.30 or thereabouts.  It was really quite cold, so I pulled on the army greatcoat provided.  The monastery obviously had an enormous stock of the things, obviously surplus stock from some Siberian front campaign, for they were heavy, with fur collars.  When one went outside, and saw virtually everyone parading around in the things, it looked like a convention of Russian generals were taking place.  I posed for a picture wearing mine, then we ate a breakfast of an egg sandwich.  The bread was sweet, of course, but we were able to disguise that with salt + pepper, + it was acceptable.

Then we set off down the mountain – the others were 15mins ahead of us, but we were positively bounding down the steps, full of energy, + soon overtook them.  We were back down to Xi Xiansi in just a couple of hours, but annoyingly, it took a good bit of time to reclaim our bag.  I went in to collect it, + even tho’ I could go straight to the door of the room where it was locked away, I couldn’t find anyone to open it for me.  I tackled an official sitting there counting money, but he was not interested in making any effort to help me, + when I persisted, holding on to my temper as best I could, eventually he just walked away.  When something goes wrong in China, one feels so helpless, far more so than in any other country I’ve been in.  So I came back out to where Val was waiting, to confess my failure.  She went in to try, + to my mixed delight + annoyance, returned almost immediately with the pack.  It just so happened that she run straight in to a girl who was both willing + able to help.

We paused briefly for an early lunch of spam sandwiches, livened up with tomato ketchup.  I had acquired sachets of the stuff from various fast-food establishments in Hong Kong, with just this sort of ideas in mind.  We both felt hassled + uncomfortable standing there in the courtyard, + were anxious to push on.  We were considerably burdened now, however, by having both packs again.  I found that going down such steep steps carrying a really heavy pack soon put an enormous strain upon my leg muscles, + before very long I had a severe attack of the knee-wobbles, a condition which worsened considerably during the descent.  Partly because of that, partly because the weather was still pretty lousy, we had decided to take the more direct route down, the same way we had come up, but all of a sudden we noticed we were on an unfamiliar path.  Obviously, in our concern to overtake a group of old ladies heading down, we had stumbled onto the longer path, the scenic route.  We still had the option of turning back + finding the other path, but we were loath to do so.  We didn’t know how far back we would have to go, + we had just come down a particularly steep staircase, so we decided to push on anyway. 

But fate played us a particularly unkind trick when, after luring us far enough on to make going back entirely out of the question, we found ourselves faced with a lengthy uphill stretch.  There was nothing for it but to plod on up – a further drain on our reserves of energy, both physical + psychological.  Then, to add injury to injury, it began to rain, quite heavily.  As some measure of compensation, this route was certainly much more attractive, + had a lot less people using it.  We saw some of Emei Shan’s famous monkeys, entirely missing from the other route.  This was perhaps a mixed blessing, for they have a reputation as fierce bandits for food.  Luckily for us, all the ones we saw looked particularly well-fed + docile, even timid.  There were various other ornamental attractions: a huge rock  with a couple of Chinese characters, a small bridge with a carved dragon running thro’ it, a couple of high waterfalls.  It seemed the clouds were lifting at last to reveal more of the hills + valleys around us, but it was a cruel illusion, serving only to lull us into a false sense of comfort, for soon the rain came again, driving fiercer than ever, proving yet again (if further proof were needed) the uselessness of our ponchos in anything heavier than a light short shower.  We sheltered in a small café until it seemed the worst was over, ventured out, + got caught by a second burst.  That did mark the end of it, however, + now the sky cleared.

We were descending now thro’ a narrow river gorge, very pretty, if a little sculptured – bridges, pavilions, etc.  But in any case I was in no mood to appreciate it – my legs were now wobbling so much, I was finding it difficult to walk.  I was taking frequent rests, more often than not to drink a bottle of fizzy drink from a stall, so it was pretty slow going.  We had hoped that the path would lead us back to the car park from which we’d started, so it was a great disappointment when we arrived at a great pavilion complex, with pagodas on several levels, + paths radiating from it in several directions.  We tried to ask the way, but it was not easy, particularly since we didn’t really know where it was we wanted to go, but we made a guess, pointed at the place on the map, + were told which path to take.  This seemed to be partly confirmed when they mentioned the word “bus”.  She also told us it went at 5, in 15 mins time, so off we charged. 

I told Val to go on ahead, which she did, being a little fresher, while I plodded on as best I could.  The virtue of this final stretch was that it was flat.  It was also attractive, with 3 or 4 high waterfalls hurling water from the cliffs above us down into the river.  Val soon marched out of sight, but I wasn’t despondent, became almost cheery.  The sun was shining, the scenery was delightful, the path was easy, + just ahead there was the promise of an end to our ordeal (even tho’ it had soon became apparent there was no chance of reaching the bus by 5.)  Then to my overwhelming delight I heard the strident blast of a motor-horn – a road at last.  I redoubled my efforts, strode around the curve + into the small compound – a shop or 2, a gravel car park with a few buses.  I spotted Val right away, but instead of seeing relief + pleasure on her face, there was anger + frustration.  In the time before I’d arrived, she’d tried to find out about the bus to Bagun, but had met nothing than the wave of the hand, + “Mayo, mayo” – China’s negative, encountered everywhere.  The trouble is, even tho’ it is given in the most emphatic manner, it covers the whole gamut of negative responses, so that, in this particular case, it could mean, “No, the bus doesn’t go for 10 minutes”, it it could mean, ”The last bus went half an hour ago”, or even “The country has run out of petrol.”  It leads to frustration, when one can’t get any other response, something close to despair.

Our options in this situation weren’t many – we didn’t even have the option, as in most countries, of taking a taxi,  As usual, however, when we find ourselves in a bad situation, luck steps in.  Val approached a tourist bus waiting there in the car park, + they offered to take us.  It was a little worrying that they didn’t appear to know the name Baguo, but we pointed to where we thought it was on the map, + yes, that was where they were going.  It was an hour or more before they finally left – they had to wait for all their party to return from the mountain – but so long as we ended up in Baguo, we didn’t really care..  I would have preferred to sit back in my seat + rest, but had to spend some time trying to converse with one of the passengers who spoke a little English.  As usual in such circumstances, I found it to be dreadful.ly hard work – it was, nonetheless, but a small price to pay.

We were indeed dropped off at Baguo, where we were lucky enough to run into a German.  He told us 1) that the hotel was full, + that we would have to stay in the monastery, 2) where the monastery was, + 3) that we could get a hot shower at the hotel.  So we utilised the information he gave us, first one, next two, then three.  The “shower story” is a good example of a situation one comes across so many times in China.  We called in at the hotel reception to pay the small fee requested for the use of the shower.  The receptionist apologise, but told us that because of the heavy rain, the pipe had broken.  This sounded a little odd – we’d just seen 2 westerners with wet hair walking down the road – but we didn’t question it, merely asked where it was, “so that we could come tomorrow”.  When we arrived at the showers, loads of hot water, as much as one could want, + plenty of Chinese using it.  So we joined the merry throng + had a shower too, + much better we felt for it.  Why the receptionist should have taken the attitude he did, + deprived the hotel of money, (tho’ admittedly, not much) is quite beyond me.   But one has to get used to it – that kind of obtuseness is by no means rare.

Ate a reasonable meal in a local small café.  The standard of food recently has certainly fallen from its earlier dizzy heights, but I still find I’m looking forward to my evening meal, even if the event doesn’t quite live up to the hopes.

Really quite a struggle, but as is so often the case, this turned into a compensating sense of relief when, unexoectedly, tings turned in our favour.

  1. Pamela Blair

    What an ordeal! It makes a good story, however. I loved you in that heavy coat. Did you wear it down the mountain, or did it have to stay where you found it?

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