The Yellow River is called “The cradle of Chinese civilization”. Chinese dynasties were built along this river, and in the early periods of Chinese history the regions around the Yellow river were the most prosperous. It is the 3rd longest river in Asia, and the 6th in the world. It is a life giver and referred to in Chinese as the mother river, but it has also earned the name, “China’s sorrow.” This river has has taken well over a million lives. The river’s flooding from it’s constant changing of course from erosion has earned it the world reputation of being the only natural disaster in recorded history to kill more than a million people.
In the years between 1332 and 1333, seven million people were killed from by Yellow river flooding, and the subsequent famine and disease that followed after. In 1887, 900,000 to 2 million people died, and in 1931, 1 to 4 million people died. The most interesting of floods happened in 1938 during the second Sino-Japanese war. The Chinese military decided to break the levees and flood the valley on purpose as a way to prevent the advancing Japanese army from reaching their goal of capturing Wuhan where at the time the temporary Chinese Government was set. The idea was to have “the water be a substitute for soldiers”. 5,000 to 9,000, Chinese civilians were killed in the floods, and an unknown number (but most likely not as many Chinese) of Japanese soldiers. The flood stopped the Japanese from capturing the city of Zhengzhou, but they still reached their goal of overtaking and capturing Wuhan.
A river that has birthed a civilization and taken away such a multitude of life is not going to continue in modern China with out a park dedicated to it. The Yellow river park is located in the northern part of Zhengzhou, and can be long trip on a bus, but we were lucky to have a friend with a car, and he drove his family, and my friend’s family, and myself to the park for the day. This happened near the end of our stay in Zhengzhou so it was a nice way to end a year in this Chinese city of Northern China.
It’s a huge park with five sections. At the time of the visit, we were not informed of where we were or the significance of any of what we were looking at so much of it was just interesting for the sake of its existence, and carried little historical reference for any of us foreigners. Aside from the massive statue of Mao, I had to look up the names of other statues and buildings on the internet, and I wasn’t able to find the names of everything, but I was able to find some bits here and there.
We first ascended a small mountain, and that is where we found the giant statue of Mao. The children quickly preceded to climb him in order to race to the top to see who could tag Mao’s mole first. It is considered good luck to rub the hands of Mao. The infamous leader is known for saying, “We must control the river,” which resulted in building dams and levees. The view from the statue of Moa looked down on the the wide and literally yellowish brown river. Looking down from the mountain we could see areas for rice paddies but most of the area is now used for the purpose of the park, and transferring the water from the river to Zhengzhou.
We crossed over a bridge called the Luotuo (camel) bridge which led to the Yueshan temple on Yue Mountain. There is a great view of the statues and the monument that they built below. I didn’t know the significance of much of what I was looking at, unfortunately, but what I’ve gleaned from the internet is that the giant statue on the mountain measuring 59ft high is the connected heads of Yandi and Huangdi the great ancestors of China, and they face the river in a symbolic reverence for this giver and taker of life. Information pretty much dies out from there.
At the base of the part of the park that is called the Five Dragon Peak there is a statue of a Mother cradling her son. This statue is to represent the mother river and China, and their harmonious relationship (they’ve yet to build the statue of the mother dropping and shaking the baby to represent the times not so harmonious). The park also has statues of very famous calligraphy writers- non of whom I knew of, but calligraphy is an art form in China, and to be called a writer in China means that you do calligraphy. It was in this area of the park were we found a man who painted a quick drawing for each of us (for a cost) and then wrote a poem. I had asked my Chinese friends what the poem said, and they all replied, “It’s too hard to translate,” which I found to be the common response when asking for the translations of certain things.
Our tour guides drove us around to parts of the park where not all tourist were allowed to go which is the advantage of having your driver being a Zhengzhou cop, and he took us to a quiet area near a sharp curve in the river where there seemed to be people disgusting the construction of something. A woman rode out on horse back to deliver a message to people working, and then she quickly rode away as if riding back into the past. We were warned not to stand too close to the river, not because it can jump up and pull you in, but because the soil and silt is very soft and can suddenly crumble under your feet. It is this soft earth that causes the rapid erosion and the continuous changing of the river. Although, the river has not changed much since Moa exclaimed that it must be controlled.
We ended at the base of the figure heads of Yandi and Huangdi where many Chinese were ringing giant bells, taking pictures and a couple of men were swinging whips over their heads to make giant cracking sounds that reminded me of firecrackers or gunshots. We watched the sun set behind wires and trees, and took the long traffic flooded drive back into Zhengzhou.
If you find yourself in Zhengzhou, China, which is in the Henan Province, which is in the north, and to the west of Beijing, and find yourself wanting to visit other parts of China too, but can’t for one reason or another, that’s okay because you can go to fake China in Zhengzhou. You never have to leave.
It’s been two years’ since I have lived in China, and even now certain memories return to me. Memories of me thinking, “What the hell is this?” and not knowing how to quite register the wonder and multitude of questions that China can at times offer. I had started saying to myself, “stopping asking why, there is no answer to why, it only is as it is. There is no why, and no answer, it’s just China.”
China is naturally a geological and geographical land of amazing beauty (I won’t focus on the horrible pollution that is destroying that beauty, but I’ll still mention it as an aside because it’s important to be reminded that there is a lot to lose). There are landscapes that steal your breath away and fill your heart with awe, but China is also the land of manufactured worlds, and that too is…well…it can leave you speechless. There is as much natural beauty as there is… shall we call it–imitation.It is a matter of opinion on whether you think this is an eyesore and a waste or if you think it’s a brilliant oddity of manmade accidental art, but when you are standing in the middle of one these pretend places you can’t help but be…well…speechless, and oddly admirable of the juxtaposition of China and China’s imitation of other counties and itself. There are ghost cities, and copycat cities: the fake Paris and the fake Venice, for example which are also ghost cities, and there are amusement and theme parks that are just devoted to imitating cities; like Las Vegas in a park with no gambling or strippers or alcohol.
In Zhengzhou, where I had spent one year of my life, the school where I had been working at the time took our classes- the English Language school, No. 42-to a park on the outskirts of the city as part of a class excursion. In the past, I had heard that the school used to offer two class trips a year, and that they had visited actual famous sights and landmarks, but I guess by the time I had arrived they must have lost the budget or decided not to spend so much on the teachers and students- so we got fake China. I never learned the name of the park in Chinese or translated into English, and believe me I had tried. I searched the internet but couldn’t find any information on this mystery park visited by Chinese students and couples having their wedding pictures taken. The closest I found was the Century Park where all the students excitedly thought we were going until our bus passed it by and took us to a second tier theme park. There were audible groans of disappointment.
Henan, the province of Zhengzhou, is a very important province in the history and the civilization of China. In fact, out of the eight ancient capitals of China four of them have been located in Henan. Zhengzhou was recently added to that list due to the discovery of an ancient dynasty perhaps the oldest of all the dynasties, the Shang dynasty (1558 b.c.- 1046 b.c.). When in Zhengzhou there is no remanence of the Shang’s presence except for a portion of an ancient settlement wall that looks today like a giant wall of dirt. You can find this wall in the eastern part of the city. The other Capital cities were once located in Luoyang, Kaifeng, and Anyang (where the oldest collection of Chinese writing was found written on ox bones and turtle shells. Evidence of the Shang dynasty had also been found in Anyang). Henan is not only the birthplace of the great Chinese dynasties, but also Zen Buddhism, and Kung Fu. In this one province you can visit the oldest civilizations of China, and the explore the historical birthplaces of China’s societal foundations many of which still hold today, even many events leading to China’s communism were formed in Henan. In Luoyang there are the grottos an amazing religious site with over 100,000 carvings and status of Buddhist images. In Dengfeng and Shaolin are the schools of Kung Fu, and in Kaifeng the most famous judge in the history of China, Boa Zheng, had once resided. He was also called justice Bao because he was honest and upright, and even today he is the symbol of justice. A living history lesson at can be at your finger tips, but if you can’t get out of the city you can visit these ancient landmarks in one city park in Zhengzhou.
I wasn’t really certain what to expect, and since at this point I had already lived in China for close to a year, I knew to expect the unexpected. All that could really be explained to me was that we were going to a park. I’ve decided to name it The Park of Great Things In Henan and Beyond, because every city and historical monument was represented in replica, not to size, for the Chinese tourists to enjoy. I say Chinese because this isn’t a park that many foreigner travelers may find themselves. Not many foreign travelers will even find themselves in Zhengzhou for more than a day. Most people come to Zhengzhou only to change trains unless they are actually living in the city. I remember a person once saying to me, “Zhengzhou? Oh yeah, I think I was there, in fact I got my wallet stolen in the Zhengzhou train station.”
Can’t visit Luoyang? No matter you can find the Grottoes here. Don’t have time to see the Iron Pagoda in Kaifeng? It’s here. You’ll never find yourself in Anyang? You guessed it, it’s here too. In fact, if you want you can see a part of the Great Wall here too. If you get tired of China you don’t ever have to leave the park because around the corner you will find Egypt right next to Greece, (of course) and all of Africa encompassed in two statues, and right next to Africa you’ll find Australia, exactly where you’d imagine it to be. The main highlights of the park were physically being there and kind of wondering why; discovering the pretty offensive perceptions of Africa (or maybe some island places?), the aged look of the park when it was only a couple of years old, having a water gun war on paddle boats, a Chinese man assuming I was a Christian because I am white/foreign and handing me his Bible to hold as he bowed to me several times, watching the multitude of wedding photography, skipping rocks with my students on a fake lake that had a water show, and spending time with students and teachers in a place that would and can only be experienced once in my entire life.
If you want to see a few more photos from this theme park you can find them on my blog Simple.
Not too long after my mother died, my friend Wu Shao bo who calls himself Shawn, (many Chinese people will pick an English name when they are young) suggested that we should go to Huashan together. I agreed and he invited his friend Liu Xiang Kai who I call Xiang Kai to join us. Xiang kai which sounds like Shee-ang K-eye did not have an English name.
The trip to the mountain although considered a sacred mountain was not meant to be a spiritual trip. After my visit to Shaolin I had let go of the idea of China’s sacred places as being sacred. This was modern China, and much of the spiritual part of the journeys to places like the five sacred mountains, and Shaolin, along with any of the many buddhists temples were now commodities bought and sold to tourists. You could still find the faithful buddhist burning incense and saying prayers, but for the majority of Chinese tourists prayers involved a camera of some sort. You could think that nature itself was some kind of spiritual experience, but the crowds and the litter that they brought with them, was too overwhelming to be able to absorb the majesty of the mountains. Eco- tourism is also huge in China and thousands of Chinese are flocking to mountain hikes and gorges, and valleys for adventure and for photo ops.
Not to tear apart modern China, but up until about twenty years ago these mountains were hiked by monks, occasionally pilgrims, your rare break from the mainstream Chinese person, and the adventure foreigner. Today with the budding commerce of tourism and eco-tourism, and the fact that more and more Chinese finally have some leisure time, nature has become a literal stomping ground. It is a communist society, but it has also embraced capitalism. I often saw many parallels between American capitalism and Chinese capitalism. I fully believe if Americans had the same population size as China that we too would destroy our own national forests. There are of course many, many, conscientious Chinese people who honor the earth, and do not like to see their beautiful country littered and polluted and they take measures to not add to the destruction , but for every 5 conscientious Chinese you have about 20 who don’t give a shit or think someone else will clean up the litter. In America our numbers are smaller, but the fact that there is an almost daily battle to preserve the land, it would not surprise me that if we had a population as large as China’s that we too would have an uneven balance of entitlement versus preservation. There are other factors involved of course, but the reality is that this once sacred and very dangerous mountain is not that sacred, but still very dangerous.
There are five sacred mountains in China, Taishan the East mountain in the Shangdong province, Hengshan the South mountain in the Hunan province, Hengshan the North mountain in the Shanxi province, Song Shan the Center mountain in Henan province, and Huashan the West mountain in the Shaanxi province. I had been to Song Shan when I had visited the Shaolin Temple. Hua Shan was close enough to travel to in a day, but it’s reputation was that of the five sacred mountains it was China’s most dangerous. It’s difficult to find numbers as to how many casualties have occurred on Mount Hua. My friend had told me that you can’t find any numbers because they don’t want to decrease the numbers of tourists, but with the sketchy conditions, and the large, large hiking populations by inexperienced climbers, and days of bad weather I’m sure the number is not small. I fit into a number of the above categories, and had a few moments where I felt like I couldn’t hold on, but my life literally depended on my keeping my grip. My life and the lives of about 50 people nose to ass beneath me.
As an outsider to China it is easy to attach myself to the romantic connotations associated with ancient Chinese traditions, Daoist beliefs and Buddhist rights of passage. Like some scene from Seven Year’s in Tibet or The Rivers Edge, I pictured myself reaching the peak of the mountain, and when in a moment of reverie the sunlight would break through the clouds or rise over the crest, and I would be filled with a sense of peace and gratitude and a higher understanding of what life is about or why we are here, why I am here, and then I’d feel a dawning acceptance of my mother’s death, and I’d understand- no- not understand but I’d know that it is beautiful. That death like life is beautiful. Sadly, but not surprisingly to say, I did not reach my zenith, I was not awash in enlightenment; I was achy and irritable. In retrospect, I’m a little disappointed I’m not writing a post about my spiritual awakening, but then again, perhaps my journey was to feel exactly what I felt; achy, despondent, irritable, depressed, and still, always still, grieving, and wanting my mother to be alive.
Although, as I mentioned above, that I did not view it as a spiritual exploration I still grabbed some of my mom’s ashes and put them in my back pack. I decided to take her with me. She never got to travel in her life and I thought I could take her with me now. If I made it to the peak then I would leave that little part of her there on that mountain top. It would be the closest I’d ever get to the stars (Everest is not in my future). If I made it.
Shawn didn’t have a lot of money so he insisted that we take the cheapest slowest train. Although, knowing Shawn I think even if we had money he would insist we take the slowest and the cheapest. On the fast train we could have made it to HuaShan in about three or four hours, but on the very slow train it took us about 8 to 9 hours. We did the overnight train. The idea was to sleep on the train and then to start our hike in the morning. If you have ever traveled on a Chinese train in a non-sleeping compartment you’ll know sleeping on the train is not that easy unless of course you are Chinese. I’ve discovered that Chinese people in China can sleep anywhere. On the sidewalk, on their e-bikes, bent over or smooshed between seats. They are like cats able to find any place as a suitable place for sleep. I had often been overcome with jealousy at this ability since I find it so difficult to sleep sometimes even when I am in a bed in a dark room. The train was packed. On these trains once the seats are all sold they continue to sell seats so sometimes there are people standing in the isles for up to eight hours. People are constantly switching seats around every time someone leaves in the hopes that they can sit for a couple of minutes. When you are sitting you have people leaning against you or over you. It is a crowded that most Americans in America will not ever experience. We were in a section of six seats. Two rows of three facing each other. Shawn and I were able to sit across from each other but Xiang Kai had to find a seat somewhere else on the train. I am bigger in size than your average Chinese woman, but I am also smaller in size and sometimes width of your average Chinese man. All the seats were occupied by men, sleeping men who had spread out as much as they could in the spaces available leaving me with very little room, and since I did not have the Chinese power of sleeping I was awake for the entire 8 to 9 hour train ride. This is not the way I would recommend prepping for hiking the most dangerous of the five sacred mountains.
We boarded the train around 1:00 am and arrived around 8:30. We took a taxi from the station to the town at the base of the mountain, and began our hike around 9:00 a.m. We had three large bottles of water, some strange meat paste, a few bready bits of snack food, and a bag of spicy chicken feet. I kept thinking shouldn’t we have some trail-mix or something?
For hard core hikers the beginning of HuaShan is not much of a hike in the sense that it is paved for a large portion of the lower part. You do not disappear into the mountains you stick to the path. Once you ascend deeper into the mountain the hike becomes more of a challenge and more of a climb and sticking to the path becomes necessary to keeping yourself alive.
There are steps on Hua Shan. These steps were carved deep into the mountain’s side thousands of years ago, all by hand, and by the monks that would make their pilgrimages to the top where they could meditate. On the side of the steps chains have been drilled into the mountain for you to hold as you pull yourself up. You need upper body strength to help you on the climb. Upper body strength that at times I thought I might not have.
Compared to most saturdays it was not very crowded by Chinese standards of crowds. It had been a rainy night and it was cloudy and grey. On one hand it was nice because you had a small bit of breathing space (to me it was still very crowded but I was aware of what a real crowd in China was) perhaps during our climb there were about 200-300 people climbing Hua Shan that day but at night during our descend hundreds of new climbers were making the midnight treck. In total maybe 800 people were on the mountain. Oh, and the thing of Hua Shan: there is only one path up and one path down. When you are coming down and they are coming up you literally have to crawl over one another− crawl over one another 1,000 meters high on a steep mountain side with wet steps and cold thick metal chains, and you are climbing backward. You get the picture. The downside of the rainy day was that the steps were wet and slippery and at times the dark clouds dropped so low around the mountain that you could not see two feet in front of you. Then you had to climb over someone, I need to add, without any safety harnesses or safeties of any kind.
It took us another eight hours climbing vertical steps, sometimes through wet caves and on the edges of steep cliff sides. Shawn was our guide and he wanted to race to the top of the mountain. Often criticizing Xiang Kai and I if we wanted to sit for a moment or if we were moving too slow. I was grateful to have Xiang Kai on my side. Shawn was the adventurer climbing the mountain to defeat it, to reach the top a conquerer, and to reach the bottom in the fastest time possible. I’m not this person. I wanted to sit and reflect and bask in the nature, and the multitudes of people, around me. I did want to meditate, and reflect. I did want to absorb, but between the crowds and Shawn’s constant pushing us hiking Hua Shan felt more like a simulated virtual wii game than an actual hike and journey. I didn’t know what was in Xiang Kai’s mind except that he wanted to stop and sit as much as I did, and he would shoot me looks of disdain and irritation. Ignore him, he’d say from time to time, let’s sit, make him wait.
When we reached a peak we did take a moment to take a million photos, but also to just sit and be. It wasn’t easy to reach the peaks (unless you took the tram that I didn’t know about but explained how some Chinese girls were able to hike in flats and skirts) and when we would reach a peak the crowds would disperse and only 20 to 30 people were able to reach certain points. We went from the north peak to the west peak and to the south peak reaching 2,080 meters.
By the time we reached the top the sun was beginning to set and only five other people had made it to the top at the same time as us. It was cloudy but beautiful. Hiking to the north peak at 1,000 meters was the highest I had ever hiked, 2,000 meters had never happened in my life. I still thought the entire hike was absolutely crazy and badly planned, but I had survived the ascent and was now 2,080 meters above the sea level. Here I took a moment to pull out mom’s ashes and let her small bits of dust and bones catch onto the breeze and float away. It was actually more like that scene in The Big Lebowksi when they throw Danny’s ashes into the ocean and the wind blows the ashes all over them.
As I dusted mom’s ashes of my sweatshirt I giggled because of course that would happen, and with my mom’s dark humor she would have been laughing. In fact we laughed so hard during that scene that she started coughing. This memory made me feel sad once again. Shawn asked me why I would bring some of my mother’s ashes to the mountain. “She’s not Chinese,” he said. I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I said. “She’s never been able to come here before, I wanted her to get the chance to travel.” I didn’t really know. Part of her was in the California Feather river, part of her was in the Trinity National forest, and the Pacific ocean, part of her was in the San Francisco bay, I didn’t know why. In death she had already been to more places than she ever went to in her life.
It was seven when we reached the top and the sun had set. It was now dark on a steep dangerous mountain and we needed to reach the bottom. There were some lights, but not many. Shawn informed me that this mountain was a really popular hike for college students, but most of them liked to hike up at midnight and then stay the night on the north peak in order to see the sun rise. He said we should do it the next time. As romantic and as peaceful as that sounded in words the reality sounded terrible. Hundreds of flashing camera’s trying to simultaneously get the perfect shot of the sunrise.