The sunlight woke me. I remained still on the cot where I had fallen asleep the night before. I was afraid to move because I strongly suspected that my body would react in pain from the damage I had inadvertently put it through the previous day.
I heard the guys shifting on the two cots beside mine and knew my inevitable pain was only seconds away. I would not be able to remain on the cot for the full month of recuperation I felt I was going to need. We had hiked HuaShan the day before, and we did it the Chinese way, as my friend Sho Boa, who I call Sean, recommended. I use the word recommend loosely as I could never feel like Sean was recommending as much as insisting. The “Chinese way” according to Sean who is Chinese was to take the slow night train to Huayin City, and then from there take a taxi to the base of the mountain. The ride would be eight hours, but Sean insisted that we could sleep on the train and would be refreshed to begin our hike as soon as we arrived. I was hesitant about this choice as I lacked the amazing Chinese gift of sleeping anywhere, anytime, and in any kind of environment. Sean insisted this would be the best way, and that this was how he did it a couple of years before while he was a college student, and hiked with a group of his classmates.
“It’s a very Chinese way to experience it.” He had said.
In retrospect, as I felt the fluid eek around my knees and heard audible sounds that had not been there before, and as I felt searing hot pain when I tried to bend them, I thought, he must have meant to say the cheap ass Chinese way to experience it. I mumbled cheap ass in my mind out of irritation, but I knew that it was half about having “the real experience” and half about not having the money. The bullet train would have taken us two hours and been much more comfortable, but neither Sean or his friend Xiang Kai could afford the bullet train. I knew with my salary which as a foreign teacher was much higher than the salary that Xiang Kai made, even though we did the same job, afforded me not only enough to pay for my own ticket, but Sean and Xiang Kai’s too. Sean wouldn’t hear of it. It was a waste of money to spend, he had said. I didn’t want to insult Xiang Kai with the offer, but I vowed to myself that painful morning that if I were ever to take another trip with Sean that I would rudely push aside his Chinese sensibilities and practicalities in favor of the imperialist American desire for comfort (which I knew many of the middle and upperclass Chinese were taking advantage.)
“Xiang Kai,” Sean said as he rose from his bed, “You were speaking in English in your sleep.”
“Was I?” Xiang Kai replied.
“Yes.” I said. “You screamed out in English in your sleep. Maybe you were still on the hike.”
“I have not spoke English to an English person in so long. I had spoke it all day with you it must have been in my dreams.” He said.
“They say that’s a good thing.” I said. “It means the language is in your subconscious.”
The night before Sean met me at my apartment with Xiang Kai, and we all took a bus to the central train station in Zhengzhou. We arrived near Erqi Square (pronounced Archie square) around 11:00 p.m. Our train was scheduled to leave at 1:00 am so we used the time before departure to shop for snacks for the trip and the hike. To say that Chinese do things differently than Americans do things is an understatement, but it is in the small actions of life, the things we don’t really think about on a daily basis, when one discovers how even our thought processes and approaches to “the way to go about something” can be very different like for example, what you should eat when on a hike. My American mind immediately goes to foods with complex carbohydrates with sustainable energy, things like trail mixes with nuts, crackers pretzels, and protein like beef jerky and maybe some dried fruit, and definitely water. Sean’s thinking which I can only identify as Chinese thinking (not that I speak for all Americans and Sean does not speak for all Chinese, but we do get our way of thinking from our environment) was to get dried noodles, chicken feet, and some other dehydrated things I could not identify. We did agree that a hardboiled egg would be good, and of course water. We argued a lot in the store as to what would be the best to eat, but I acquiesced telling myself I was having the true Chinese experience. Although my gut was telling me this food was not going to be enough fuel for me. I believe it is a good thing to try to have that authentic experience of a culture that is new and foreign to you, but I would not recommend that experience to take place when hiking the most dangerous mountain of the five sacred mountains in China, especially when you don’t hike that much in the first place.
I did not sleep on the train, for multiple reasons. In China once all the seats are sold on the train they continue to sell tickets (not on the bullet train) and the prices for standing are the same as the prices for seats. People crowed in the isles leaning over the people in the seats all waiting for the moment when someone gets up so they can take the open seat. There is no space, and no fresh air, and if you do get up to use the bathroom you have to climb over people crumpled in the isle way. When you return you have to argue with the person who took your seat to give your seat back which they will do, but they certainly don’t want to give it back, and I can understand why. There are three people to a row that face another row so you have six people in one section. I was the only foreigner and only white woman in the car, and quite possibly the train. In these situations I would often encounter staring and some people would sneak or blatantly take my photo, but at 1:00 in the morning on a crowded warm train no one cared about me other than the fact that I was sitting and when would I get up. I shared my section with five men who man-spread better than any men I have ever encountered leaving me with barely enough space to fit my ass. I mentioned that Chinese can sleep anywhere and in any environment and that is not an exaggeration. They can even sleep standing up. When the train reached Louyang it became more crowded and people were nearly sitting on top of each other. One man slept arched over me precariously balanced on the top of my seat.
At one point, the people in the section across from us who all seemed to be traveling together had people sitting on the top of the backrest. They were laughing and loud and playing a game, and watching programs on their phones at full volume. Sean who was sitting across from and facing me leaned forward. Thumbing his hand in their direction he said, “Look at them. What do they think they are in their house?” He gave them a brief scowl and then quickly feel asleep. I watched him slumber with envious anger and an incredible urge to kick him awake so he could suffer like I was suffering. Xiang Kai was in a separate car, but had mentioned he had managed to sleep. When we arrived in Huayin City at 7:00 in the morning I had not slept one wink and with exhaustion I followed the two rested men to hike, unknown to me at the time, 7,000 ft.
The hike had taken us nearly 14 hours. During that time we had managed to reach two of the three peaks and four summits. We reached the south peak and the highest summit (the Landing Goose summit) as the sun set. It was beautiful, but also terrifying because I knew we had to hike back down in the darkness. I’ve read many foreign accounts of hiking Mt. Hua, and how it is not as dangerous to hike as they were lead to believe except for the west peak where there is the famous plank walk. Here you are strapped into a single belt and you walk a plank that is about three feet wide and attached to the side of the mountain with iron nails and chains, and it is a two way path but there is only room for going one way so you have to climb over people while you are thousands of feet above the ground. There are also tunnels built through the rock that fit the size of an average Chinese person. A larger person of girth would find themselves struggling to fit through the tunnel that runs vertical with chains on either side to pull yourself up as you find footing in carved steps that are almost two thousand plus years old. The day we had hiked a storm came through so the chains and the steps were wet and slippery. As Sean recommended us to take the dangerous way down, I began to feel genuine fear. I was running on very little energy having eaten nothing but chicken feet, and eggs, and not sleeping the night before. Already I had felt my arms give on me on the way up. The only thing that kept me holding on was the knowledge that if I fell I was going to take at least fifty people with me since we were climbing, in the words of my students, nose to ass. I told Sean that I didn’t think I could go the dangerous way in the dark.
“It isn’t dark. There are lights.” He said pointing below us.
“Tea lights do not count as lights.” I had said.
I could not stop thinking of the tunnel that I knew we would pass through because it is the same way up as it is down. If people believe that the hike is dangerous in the day time it is exponentially more dangerous in the dark. Mt. Hua has become a huge tourist attraction for Chinese especially Chinese University students, and this once sacred buddhist pilgrimage has now become a kind of adventurous right of passage for young Chinese. Sean’s approach to the hike was to go at breakneck speed. I was absolutely apposed to this approach and thankfully Xiang Kai was on my side of thinking. Sean nagged us both to hurry up during the hike. Often Xiang Kai would sit and rest, and Sean would complain that we were too slow and we would miss the sunset.
“Ignore him.” Xiang Kai muttered to me. “He’s crazy.”
Thousands of Chinese and foreigners a year visit Mt. Hua, and because of the numbers, and of course the dangers involved the Chinese government had built stairs that were safer to climb and descend. I opted for these stairs for part of the way down not knowing that once on the stairs we couldn’t get back to the original path. This was also something Sean nagged me about during the decent. I knew I did not have the strength to hold my body through the tunnel, but I was also not prepared for over 50,000 steps that began to siphon all the fluid from my knees.
Step after step after step my knees began to stiffen until there were moments when I didn’t know if I could bend them. I became terrified that I was doing permanent damage to them. I kept my pain to myself so as to not have to hear Sean chastise me. I moved in silence until I could not longer hold in the pain. Tears swelled to my eyes as I felt my body break out into a sweat and my heart raced from pain and the anxiety of pain. I began thinking about people in concentration camps, and people sent on marches, and people tortured- if they could survive such unbearable suffering I could make it down this damn mountain. Then my knee froze for a second. If I were the tin man this would be the moment when I could not move because all my joints had rusted stuck.
“Sean.” I cried out. “We have to slow down. I am hurting so bad right now. We have to move slower or I will not make it down this mountain.”
He reluctantly slowed, but quickly began in his assessment of why it was that I was not able to move faster and why I was in pain.
“American’s are not as healthy as Chinese. Even when we are very old we can do this. I think it is because we begin exercising very young. And exercise is important and so we stay healthy.”
“I exercise.” I mumbled, “I’ve just never hiked 8,000 feet before- or 500 feet.”
“I think you are too old for this.” He said. “I should have thought about your age.”
Sean and Xiang Kai were 23 and I was 41. This was the final straw in my tolerance for his ongoing commentary and I stop walking.
“Sean.” I said glaring at him. “If you want to continue living, and make to my age, you really should stop talking right now.”
He looked at me knowingly and walked for the majority of the decent in silence.
Xiang Kai shuffled up along side me.
“I am in quite a lot of pain too, Adrienna. My shins and calves are hurting so badly I think they may tear. Try walking backward, I think it is helping me.”
Xiang Kai and I hiked the remaining way down the mountain backward which as he had suggested did alleviate the pain in my knees. At first Sean was far ahead of us, but at some point near the base of the mountain he began to slow down, and we eventually passed him.
“My feet are really hurting.” He called down to us. “Slow down for me.”
“No.” I said. “And good!”
Once we had reached the bottom Sean recommended we find a place to sleep and take the train in the morning. We all agreed, and he flagged down a motorcycle taxi. We sat Xiang Kai and myself and the driver all squeezed onto a single small motorcycle seat. He drove us to a restaurant where we waited for Sean who had walked. We rented a small single room with three cots and ascended more stairs under the watchful eye of the proprietor and proprietress who looked me over and probably wonder which of the Chinese boys was my boyfriend because how else could we all be sleeping together in the same room.
In the morning once we got moving and I had managed to get some fluid and circulation into my legs we climbed down the stairs to the small family owned and run restaurant.
“We must eat before we catch the train.” Sean recommended, and again Xiang Kai and I agreed with him.
We sat alone in the restaurant and ate large bowls of noodle soup as the owners watched me eat, and asked Sean and Xian Kai questions about me. I was so hungry from the hike I ate every last morsel of food in the bowl, and could have eaten more. Afterward, Sean flagged down a taxi and we took it to the train station where we awaited the next train to Zhengzhou.
During the ride back to Zhengzhou it was less crowded and we all were able to sit in the same section.
“It is the peony festival in Louyang.” Sean mentioned excitedly. “We should go. Do you want to go Adrienna?”
“I can not go.” Lamented Xiang Kai who had to go to a school meeting that evening, “but, you should go Adrienna. It is a very big thing in China.”
“Okay.” I agreed even though exhaustion was overtaking my body.
When the train stopped in Louyang, Sean and I said our good-byes to Xiang Kai and then watched the train leave the station as we waved to him.
“I think you will like the peonies.” Sean said, “They are very important part of China. And, there are no stairs.”
“That’s good.” I said as I hobbled behind him nursing my well earned broken knees.
It is been little over two years since I had gone on that hike with my friend Sean and Xiang Kai, but still I am reminded of the experience every time I climb a step since my knees are still feeling the pain. Although it was exhausting, and ill prepared and left me with bad knees, I’d go again. It’s a really beautiful mountain and there are many parts we didn’t make it to. I’d go again, but differently this time. I’d go with some sleep, take a fast train, and bring better food, and hike at a slower pace, maybe stay the night like many other Chinese do, and then hike down slowly in the morning. I’d invite Sean along too, and I’d tell him now we’ll do it with the American experience, because I’m old and Americans are out of shape, and we have to do it the old person way and not your cheap ass way of saving money on the slow train. And, of course, I’d get some support for my old lady knees.