2004, Oct 13    

Well, as most people have guessed, I’m back from China. The trip was fantastic, and all sorts of intense. It completely got me out of my environment, which was exactly what I wanted, and got me thinking about a lot of things – I’d say the whole trip was more experiential (in a positive fashion) than it was fun, since I wasn’t getting a huge amount of sleep (5 hours a night), and we were always on the go.

Behind this cut lurk many pictures. Ye of little bandwidth, you have been warned.

I really can't remember everything sequentially and I'm not sure I want to try. I don't have all my photos yet, infact, I only really have 2 days worth from a fortnight. Still, I have to start somewhere, or I'll never get this down. Here are some thoughts in random order.

China can be a beautiful place, but one thing does strike you very quickly. Pollution. I don't think I've ever seen a place so polluted, and I've been to some pretty run down parts of the world. It was literally like an early morning fog that started making anything more than 20 metres away a bit hazy. It extends right up into the mountains, artificially giving them that whole misty look. It's not hard to see what's causing the pollution though - I went past at least 10 coal powered gas stations at various stages, they're all over the country in the same way that service stations are all over Australian highways. Here's a pic from out front of the Wild Goose Pagoda in Xian, the start of the silk road - the statue is of a monk, who's exact name I forget. (S)He's better known as the historical basis for Tripitaka from Monkey. Monkey rules.

The photo was taken at about 11 in the morning - those aren't clouds in the sky, and the darkness of the picture is about accurate for the amount of light there was. When I got back to Australia my lungs were very happy that I was out of the Chinese air, and out of air-conditioning.

Now, the first thing I really think about when I think back to the trip are the mountains. These are bitter sweet memories, since whilst they were wonderful experiences, I only think that in retrospect – at the time when I was climbing them they seemed a little less friendly. Still, it’s always a great feeling when you’re at the top. The first of the three sacred mountains (there are five sacred mountains in China) we climbed was Wudan. Here's what it looks like from the base.

You can see the cable cars as they go up the mountains. They were built in the 70s and I kept on feeling that if I looked up at the right time, I’d see James Bond on one, and Jaws chasing him on the other. The smog even gave them that grainy 70s movie look. Sadly I had no such luck. The fast group that I went with climbed Mount Wudan in 1hr, 10mins. It was definitely one of the hardest things I’ve done – the 4km track up the mountain was normally a 50-60 degree angle, and we were sprinting up steps. Often we’d go up 50m vertically in a minute, then break for 30 seconds, then repeat. What can I say, I brought it on myself, but it made getting to the top a wonderful experience.

I don’t look too tired in this shot, but trust me, I am. The shot was taken on a ledge near the summit – if you were to look behind me, and didn’t almost fall over the edge like me, you’d see something like this:

Taoists, over thousands of years have been carting rocks and copper up to the top of Wudan to build monasteries and temples. The temple at the very summit, featuring a temple made from 30 tonnes of copper boggles the mind as to how they got it there. I also get the feeling that they probably fried a few Taoist priests over the years when electrical storms went overhead, since the lightning rod on it is a modern addition.

Now here’s something while I think of it – there is a tradition that is carried through on the sacred mountains and several other Taoist sites, which is to put padlocks on the mountain bearing your name, and that of anyone else you choose to add. Most of the padlocks you’ll see up there are in pairs of two – young couples making a symbolic commitment. The higher it is on the mountain the better, the whole idea being to bring good fortune.

You take your padlock(s), have your name(s) inscribed, then climb the mountain, lock them onto a secure place, and hurl the keys over the edge. It’s really quite sweet. I think I’ll be adding my own up there some day.

We went to see the Forbidden city in Beijing. It wasn't the most exciting event of my life, given that it's little more than a series of courtyards, but I guess I'd have never known that if I hadn't have been. It did have a Starbucks inside it though. Mmm, forbidden coffee...

Now the Summer Palace, the Emperor's waterfront pad, was much better. It's huge and consists of many many buildings and courtyards. It would be perfect for picnics if there weren't hordes of tourists wandering around the place. Lots of tourists. I’m talking proper Mongolian hordes here. If you got them all to jump up and down at once, there’d be a tidal wave in Europe. I also get the feeling they wouldn't have liked people walking on the grass - they never like that anywhere in China. No, no, if you want to walk around the place, they have stairs which you can walk up and down on, but the grass is right out.

I suppose I should say something about temples. We visited a lot of them. They all sort of blur together after a while, something I blame on the copious unregulated incense burning at them. Sandalwood my arse.

I have a good forty photos in and around many temples, but only one really translates well into a photo. This is a shot of the Temple of Heaven in Beijing.

But enough with temples! The night of seeing the above place we were taken out to an Acrobat/Martial Arts show. In reality it was just an acrobat show, since the monks, whilst impressive, were definitely acrobats rather than monks. Words fail me to describe how skilled they are at what they do – certainly I don’t think we’d see anything like it here – these kids train as soon as they can walk.

Huashan. Or Flower Mountain in Mandarin. Sifu Paul spent the best part of three months getting us all wound up about climbing this mountain – he was estimating a six hour climb. In the end it was 2 hours, 40 mins for those who pushed hard. He was most amused at all the worried looks on the way there. I started to twig that something was off when we got close to the base of the mountain, but to be honest, I was quite thankful it wasn’t as long as estimated. I felt appropriately shattered after the climb, but it wasn’t the same please-kill-me-now climb as Wudan. It did just go on and on and on though. I’d like to have a photo from the base to the top but its 8 kms from base to summit, and only lends itself to aerial photographs.

The lonely Planet guidebook refers to the first 4kms as relaxing (it’s not) and then the next 2kms to the North (lowest) Peak as ‘a bit more strenuous’.

That’s not forwards, that’s up. I’ve got my camera pointed up on an 80 degree angle for this shot. The last five hundred metres of the climb are like this – it’s more akin to climbing a step ladder with a kilometre drop behind you. I humbly submit that the Lonely planet writer took the Cable Car up the mountain.

This is the top peak of Huashan, taken from the north peak. Its elevation is 2160m above sea level. It doesn’t actually look too high in this picture, but then pictures can be like that. From where I was standing, I could have walked to railing, and pointed the camera down 300 metres to where the clouds were. It’s really high.

There was one other Mountain, Songshan at Shaolin, but that was a mere 40 minute stroll up 60 degree steps. It had a big statue of Damo at the top, but really, it’s a bit like the Dandenong’s back home without the trees.

Anyway, that’s a snapshot of a few days. It’s not everything we did by a long way, but it should give you some idea. I have many tales of woe and high adventure, from being propositioned in a seedy Wudan hotel, to losing my plane tickets, but you can get those from me in person. I’ll leave you with one of our constant friendly companions during the trip: the tourist signs.

Fantastic, nyet?