Thursday, September 21, 2006

Climbing Huang Shan

Megan and I have just spent 4 days in Huang Shan, which is a small city in central China near a famous mountain of the same name--one of the seven mountain pilgrimage sites that Chinese, if they’re lucky, visit in their lifetime.

We arrived late and caught a cab directly to our hotel. Apparently here in Huang Shan--like in the capital--the taxi fleet has recently been overhauled; our cab is one of the new omnipresent brown and yellow Korean models that is reliably metered and air-conditioned. I guess we have the upcoming Olympics and the wonders of a centrally directed government to thank for this. (Last year we were told that the government was cracking down on honking and spitting, this year we are told that they seeded rain in Beijing for over 20 days in July to help clear up the pollution in preparation for an Olympic committee visit. Indeed, when we arrive in Beijing in mid-August we are treated--a first--to several days of clearish-blue sky. Of course, the rain merely pushes the pollution into the ground and after three weeks in Beijing, balanced by 4 days around Huang Shan mountain and 4 days in Tianjin, the 5th most polluted city in the world, I will be dried out, puffed-up and congested. Nothing like a 13-hour plane ride to push you over the edge, right?) For now, though, we have arrived at our hotel pre-reserved for us by a travel agent in New Zealand. As you do in the global village...

The next morning we awake to another great “Continental” breakfast. Of course you have to remember which continent we are on. In China, breakfast can look a lot like other meals: wontons, meat or vegetable filled buns and black vinegar, fried noodles, greens etc. There are a few additional items that make breakfast unique. They are: warm soy milk, congee (rice is to congee as oats are to oatmeal) and hard boiled eggs--which are browner in color and taste a lot gamier (not chickens? or not a product of industrial processing and bleaching?).

After breakfast, we catch a cab to the bus station. When we get in, our young and hip-hop listening cabbie honks through the usual pedestrians, cyclists and--this is relatively new--electric moped commuters. With a show of Western amity, he cranks up the hip-hop music (it’s 7:30 in the morning!) and turns to smile at us and give us the thumbs-up in the back. He also takes the opportunity to check Megan out--whose big, blue eyes and bust attract a lot of frank, as opposed to leery, stares here in China.

En route, our cabbie convinces us to let him take us all the way to the mountain instead of just the bus depot. This is done through several mimed gestures and a series of price negotiations carried out on a pad of hotel notepaper that we pass back and forth. There appears to be some question about whether we want mountain/destination number one or two which never gets resolved, as hand-gesturing and grunting is rather limited at coaxing out this type of subtlety in communication. We’ve found that a pad of paper or a calculator--even a cell phone keypad--is ideal for negotiations as the Chinese have their own hand and finger gestures for numbers which are as hard for us to figure out as our system of holding up fingers for each place holder (first the tens, then ones) is to them. For some reason our cabbie won’t write on the notepaper, no matter how I try to indicate that there are many pages of the stuff and you can just rip one off and start on another, preferring instead to write everything on the cardboard backing of the notepad.

Our cabbie, in true foreign-cab-driver-style, drives like a madman, passing two and three cars at a time regardless of visibility, the existence of guard rails and/or oncoming traffic, and soon enough we arrive at the gates of the mountain. There is literally a big, red wooden Chinese arch-gate at the main entrance.

After paying the entrance fee, which is 200 yuan or RMB for me (about $25) and 100 for Megan (she is still using her International Student Identification Card which says she is 26), we consult--for the umpteenth time--the three pages which we have torn out of our guidebook to save on weight, and which are our only, however meager, source of information about Huang Shan--the mountain and town. We decide to take the shorter 7km steps Eastern route up the mountain, reserving the harder 15km Western route for the way down and the cable cars whisking bus loads of Chinese and Korean tour groups up and down both sides of the mountain for the weak. And without so much as a deep knee bend (or a decent supply of food and water), we are off and climbing an endless line of stone stairs, surrounded by a forest of bamboo, then trees and then, finally, steep mountain peaks.

Megan has her small black umbrella out to protect her fair skin from the sun and is calling out the names of plants as we walk. This is the same ubiquitous umbrella that she carries with her, rain or shine, which makes her--with her sun glasses and scarf--look like Marilyn Monroe on vacation in Ethiopia, the Sierra Nevadas and, now, Huang Shan. Apart from the umbrella, our three now tired guidebook pages, a couple of bottles of water, four snickers bars, a tin of wasabi-covered peas and a bun from the airplane, we are fairly unprepared for this hike. I’m wearing casual shoes and will learn later that besides the sweat soaked t-shirt on my back and my cargo pants all I had packed was a torn and hand-cut American flag tank-top and a pair of lacrosse shorts. Megan is wearing her MBTs and a black corduroy skirt. I guess we’ve been in France long enough to dull our west coast REI equipped-to-climb-Everest-even-if-we-are-taking-a-long-weekend-in-Milan reflexes.

Lucky for us the weather is 80 degrees and overcast rather than raining hard or blaring sun as it could have been. But it is humid, so although we make it to the top in only about three or four hours, we are definitely sweaty. Walking up--step, by stone step--is extremely fatiguing, but we decide that it is probably easier on the legs and ankles, if not knees, than a sloped dirt trail. At the top, the warm, misty and overcast weather, near perfect for hiking, obscures most of the incredible panoramas and makes even capturing the peaks we can see near impossible without a better lens and tripod. We are not terribly bothered, for now at any rate, as our main concern is finding someone to point us in the direction of our hotel. It turns out that the summit is more like several ridge trails and peaks, rather than one, so it is not clear which way we need to go. Though our guidebook pages and map do contain place names in Chinese as well as in transliteration, the map and place names do not seem to correspond to the Huang Shan and trail maps we are seeing in front of us. (In China, it’s best to have everything written down in Chinese characters if you want to get around. Since the language is highly tonal, even repeating a street or hotel name to a cab driver or passerby can produce haphazard results. I guess it’s lucky Megan and I went to that “mime” school in Paris.)

We eventually make our way, even more tired and sweaty, to our hotel and check-in. After a quick shower and change into my lacrosse shorts and muscle shirt pajamas-come-casual-attire, it’s about 4pm. We decide to head directly to the hotel restaurant for a late lunch. Besides the omnipresent snack stands along the trail offering cucumbers, Chinese sausage-on-a-stick, water, coke and the like, the only other alternative is the Friendship store at the hotel. We figure we’ll buy some stuff from there to improvise a ramen dinner or something. Cultural note: not too long ago foreigners to the “Middle Kingdom” were not aloud to go just anywhere or buy whatever they wanted, lest they poison the communist comrades in the street with their capitalist ways and seditious democratic ideas. Instead, they were given a special currency and invited to shop at designated “friendship stores” and lodge at “friendship hotels”. The term “friendship store” is typical in its Lost in Translation bubbly, happy Asian style. All over the place are signs for parks and such with names like, “Park for harmonious living with Nature park”.

The hotel restaurant--one of three--is more overrated, than overpriced. Megan and I are more than willing to pay $8 for the meat or vegetable stuffed buns with black vinegar that usually cost between $0.50-$1.00, however, for we had seen how most of the supplies get to the top. And it’s not in the cable car. It’s guys with a yoke on their back and another for balance and leverage carrying up loads on foot, one step at a time. We saw sacks of food and rice and even buckets with water and live fish going up, as well as laundry and garbage going down. And, apparently, this back and leg breaking work costs less (charges less?) than the cable car, which I can tell you was about $10 for a passenger ride up.

So, we are in the middle of placing our order when a cockroach (okay, not as big as the one that I took a picture of on the trail, but still pretty big) calmly begins making his way around the edge of the table. Just as calmly, and following my eyes follow its progress, our waitress takes a napkin from the Lazy Susan in the middle of the table and balls up our unwanted dinner guest in her hand.

There isn’t much to do at the peak, the main attraction being the great views still shrouded in a misty grayness and the electric sunrises still over 12 hours away, so Megan and I settle in to some deck chairs to watch bus-loads of Chinese tourists following tour guides with headset microphones and flags. There is also a basketball hoop which is presumably the employees only recreation. I tell myself that if my legs weren’t so tired, I’d show them what it really means to push the pumpkin (not in my central Chinese mountain shrine, boo-yah!).

More than other groups of tourists or people, the Chinese make a lot of noise. Between the talking and hacking (remember that spitting, although now fined in many places, was traditionally considered a way of getting rid of bad throat spirits) and picture-taking hubbub, it’s a real tintamarre. This probably explains while all the tour guides need amplification. I like to correlate this cultural trait to the population size. Like they say about growing up in a large family, you learn to speak up if you want to be heard. And hey, the Inuits aren’t known as a loud people, are they?

One of the traditions of Huang Shan is for lovers to engrave a padlock with their names and then attach the locks to anything that is, well, chained down. And indeed, there are hundreds of padlocks hanging from the guard rails of every viewing site. So many, that the chains and bars are completely covered with them and they continue hanging the locks from each other. It looks like dangly mats of metallic wooly mammoth hair.

When we go to bed--it's only like 8pm--Megan and I disagree about what time to set the alarm clock for in order to catch the sunrise. Megan says 7am should be about right. I’m not sure whether this is wishful thinking or some sort of inference from what the light looks like when she usually wakes up at around 10 or 11 (am). I propose 5am. After a bit of negotiating, we settle on 6am. This, of course, is a great example of how compromising can be a zero-sum exercise, because not only will we miss the sunrise but we will also lose an hour of sleep.

In the end, it doesn’t make much of a difference, because the sun only comes out for the briefest of moments the next morning. Indeed, between 7:07-7:09 the sun rises from one set of clouds, illuminating the mountain top to the tune of a digital picture snapping applause, then promptly climbs back behind the clouds and humid mist from whence it came. (As I read this aloud to Megan, she points out that this means she was technically right about when to wake up.)

We walk around to a couple of the lookout points and add our canon clicks to this matinal mountain-tourist concert, before stocking up on supplies, checking out and heading off down the mountain. Today, with only Korean peanut crackers (yuck) and Chinese mooncakes (double-yuck) for sustenance we are going to descend the 15km Western trail.

Our legs are still a little soar and weak from yesterday’s exertions, as we follow a ridge trail for about 6km. Along the way, we get to see most of the famous vistas, rock formations and ancient double-trunked lovers trees that Huang Shan is surely known for. When you only have two pages in a guidebook that covers all of China, details like this are often omitted. The map, however, does indicate that we should continue to follow this ridge to get to the head of the Western steps.

After about 45 minutes of ridge line, the trail heads downhill, step by step. We quickly decide that going down the stone stairs is at least as tiring as going up. We go downhill for about 3km, and our thighs and knees begin shaking and trembling after the about .5km. It’s about 10:30 in the morning when we arrive at the crossroads. Now, in addition to being weak in the knees, we are sweaty and hungry.

We rest and snack for a few minutes, then begin looking around for the Western steps. I am figuring that we have already knocked off 3 or 4 of the touted 15km. The English location names and directions on our guidebook map--once again--do not correspond to the names and directions we are seeing on the trail maps, so we ask for directions from one of the ubiquitous park employees who go around with what look like really large chopsticks picking up litter and emptying the even more ubiquitous stone garbage boxes. One might hope that with a garbage bin every 15 or 20 yards along the trail, people wouldn’t litter. But that would be wrong, at least not here in central China. Of course, maybe there is a correlation to the number of people that you see picking up trash and your incentive to carry that snickers wrapper another 5 or 10 yards to the nearest garbage bin.

But I digress, and that’s probably because the answer we are given is so distasteful that even now I am trying to avoid relating it. When we show the park employee the Chinese characters for “Western Trail” in our guidebook, he points back up the path we just came down. My first reaction--one of base and survival instinct--is that this Chinese guy must not have understood. Or maybe he doesn’t know how to read. Or maybe he is trying to play a trick on the foreigners. Anything, basically, but the fact that it might be true. However, soon enough it becomes apparent that, indeed, errare humanum est. And that in this case, the humans in error--and now despair--are us.

Now we are faced with a decision: either hike back up 3km, find where we missed the turn off for the Western Trail and then hike down 15km; or continue on in this direction for several kilometers and take the cable car down. I’m not really sure how the next bit happens, but after agreeing that we don’t think we can make it--not on day old legs and a dwindling reserve of Korean crackers--Megan and I shoulder our backpacks and head back up the hill.

One of the things that keeps us going over the next several sweaty and shaky-legged hours is the thought of how good it’s gonna feel to dip into the natural hot springs that our guidebook says are waiting for us at the bottom. In fact, it is probably this same sulfuric vision that charmed us into going back up the trail to find the Western steps in the first place.

Hours and rocky ridges and steep staircases and thousands of stone steps later, we reach the bottom. We even decide to walk the extra couple kilometers from the gate to the parking lot and bus stop, rather than wait or pay for the shuttle. After all that, we find that the hot springs are closed. They are being renovated, probably for the darn Olympics, into some sort of big hotel hot spring and spa complex. Although, I have to say that by the time we get there it doesn’t much matter. I am just ready to get out of there and get back to our hotel in Huang Shan where I can take a shower, eat a decent (Chinese) meal and lay down.

Although we don’t do the hot springs, that evening Megan and I get 45 minute foot massages when we got back to town. Chinese massages are excellent and very cheap, but I can tell you that they are not recommended after a two-day hike when you’re muscles are already tender and sore. I was slapping the side of the massage table and giggling uncontrollably (it was either giggle or scream like a little girl) the whole time. The two masseuses seemed to think I was pretty funny. I just thought it was painful.

The final note on this story is that we spent the next day discovering Huang Shan, which mostly involved huddling in a Chinese restaurant for hours, waiting for some people to come in and order something so that we could point to it while staying out of the rain, thanking the lord it hadn’t rained on the hike, and planning out the theater workshops that we would give when we got back to Beijing.


Sunday, September 17, 2006

Best Man Speech for Jesse and Rebekah's Wedding

On behalf of everyone here I’d like to thank Jesse and Rebekah for bringing us together to celebrate with them on this beautiful occasion.

Now I was told that I had to keep this to under 45 minutes, so I’m going to get right to the point.

Rebekah, I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who feels this way, but do you realize that you have just legally agreed and bound yourself to put up with Jesse and his shennanigans in a long term and committed way, till death do you part. No, really, Rebekah, I hope you know what you are doing. We don’t all necessarily understand why, but “Thank you!”

I’ve known Jesse just about all my life, almost as long as I can remember, and several times I would prefer to forget, so I know what I’m talking about when I say, Rebekah, I hope you know what you are doing.

Now unfortunately, the problem is that most of the embarrassing stories I’d like to tell you about Jesse, incriminate me just as much as him, so I can only hope that you know what you are doing.

What I can tell you about Jesse is that he rolls through life collecting friends and adventures like dirty laundry collects around his room--laundry that doesn't always belong to him (when we lived together in Fremont, he used to slip his dirty laundry into my basket hoping I’d wash it for him. Now that’s what I call a free-loader). And even though Jesse was known throughout high-school as the mooch, he is one of the most generous people I know. Jesse is a rogue and a lover with touches of genius.

He is one of the last great explorer spirits. He has a great sense of direction, adventure and luck. He is mythically optimistic, to the point of bending the truth. And he’s a good tipper.

Jesse's the kind of friend that you never leave, not even when you're a thousand miles away. You can not hear from him for six months. Then he'll show up on your door step out of the blue, give you some of the best advice of your life over a beer then suggest opening a store based on bulk peanut butter or smoked salmon flavored deodorant.

And it's like you never were apart.

When I asked Jesse how he felt about marrying Rebekah, Jesse said, “It's like going all-in pre-flop with a good hand. Who knows what could happen on the turn or the river, but you're happy now and you know it's going to be an exciting ride so you're ready to get stuck in there. What could be better than that?”

Jesse is a great teacher and guide to man, child and dog. In fact, you can pretty well understand who Jesse is when you know that for a long time he had a book in his bathroom called, “There Are No Bad Dogs.”

I guess that about sums Jesse up.

Rebekah, I hope you know what you are doing, because even if you don’t, I do, you’re choosing to spend your life with the best friend any man, woman or dog could ever ask for.

So knowing all that I know about Jesse (and quite a bit of stuff I wish I didn’t), I can say that I have absolutely no reservations in raising a glass, and inviting you to do the same to toast Jesse Haggar Long and Rebekah Lynn Long:

As Jack Erskin used to say, “May the road rise up to meet you, and may the wind be always at your back”. L’chaim, take care and get stuck in there!!!