Stopping to Visit the Peonies of Luoyang

In Luoyang every year from mid-April to mid-May when the peonies are in full bloom the city celebrates the Peony Festival. There are many peony gardens to visit in the ancient city that was once the capital of China. The most famous and main garden is the Luoyang International Peony Garden. It is one of the oldest peony gardens in all of China.

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I did not go to this garden. I couldn’t tell you which garden I visited. All I can say is that I was in Luoyang during the Peony Festival.

It was May of 2014, the morning after I had just hiked Mt. Hua with my friend Sean, and his friend Xiang Kai. We had hiked for 14 hours the night before, ill prepared and with little experience, on one of the most dangerous mountains . I’m talking about myself as far as the experience hiker part goes, but I didn’t think Sean was an expert, and I knew Xiang Kai had not hiked many mountains. Hiking in China is different than hiking in the U.S. In the U.S. hiking is a solitary experience. You climb with one other person maybe a few people and perhaps you cross the path of another hiker or two, but mainly it is you and the wild, and the animals who ignore or watch you. In China (or at least on Mt. Song, and Mt. Hua, and the other mountain I hiked) there are no animals only hoards of people. I never saw any animals, not a squirrel or a lizard only a bird or two. I’d never seen so many people on a mountain at the same time except at a ski resort during a holiday. The day we hiked was rainy and cloudy so it wasn’t nearly as crowded as it could have been. Even on a bad weather weekend there will still be hundreds of people climbing. It doesn’t matter if you go early in the morning or late at night it’s still crowded. The key would be to go off season during the middle of the week and definitely not during any vacations or weekends, but when you’re a teacher you have the same schedule as all of China, so either you don’t go at all, or you experience it like all of China-crowded. I had decided that day that I would one day return to China, but not to work only to travel so that I could plan my visits to ancient sights and geological wonders on the off times, but those were and are daydreams for other days.

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It was Sean’s idea that we stop in Luoyang to attend the Peony festival. Xiang Kai had to work that evening so he would not be able to join us. I was exhausted. My body felt worn and broken and I was irritable and still fuming about Sean’s comment that I was too old to climb a mountain. Ignorant boy, my mind ruminated on his off handed remark about my age that only an ignorant boy would make. I had hoped his feet were still suffering from his badly chosen climbing shoes. The wise thing for me to do would have been to go home, eat something nutritious, and then go to bed, but when Sean made the spontaneous suggestion I felt I needed to go. Life is an unexpected ride and you never know when it will stop and where it will start and many times an opportunity is a one time only opportunity. When would I be in China again for the Peony Festival? I had already decided not to renew my contract. I had already decided to leave China. I could tell myself I would be back, but I didn’t know for certain. Some days I hated China, and would think, never again- never again will I return to this country. It had been a hard year for me, and not all China’s fault, but I was in China when my mother died. It was in China when the most important person in my life left this world. My worst fear had been awakened. How many times had she told me that she would not be able to live without me? How many times had I promised I would never let her die alone? How many times had I told myself I would return and take care of her? China was to be my last experience, my last galavant as an explorer of this world living a life style that I didn’t believe was meant for me. I had never imagined I would ever be able to travel, that I would have lived in foreign countries. I was an accidental traveler and it was time to return to my “real life” whatever that was meant to be. I was going to go back to California and going to care for my mother. I didn’t want to live in Chico because there wasn’t anything for me there, but she was there and she needed me. I had been too slow, and too selfish, and I had failed her. I failed as a daughter. I suffered through that guilt alone in a foreign country, a country so foreign from my own that even our process of grieving was different. My mother died alone, and I had not been there to help her.  My anger, and my guilt, and my pain all manifested into my frustrations about a country that was so incredibly different from my own. I did have Sean though, my friend with his choppy english and his oh- so Chinese ways of thinking. Sean my friend who stayed by my side the best he could and tried to show me the things he loved most about his country. Sean was an impatient Chinese teacher, and impatient about many things, and he expressed much frustration about where he was in his life, but through it all he taught me a lot about patience and how to deal with frustration and how to accept that where you are is where you are, but that change is always around the corner whether you want it or not. Uncertainty is the essential part of this life experience and in the uncertainty lies the choices.

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This was life, and I was still living, and I had to take the opportunities as they came no matter how much my body hurt, and how aggravated I had felt when would I have another chance? I agreed to stop in Luoyang and to see the Peonies.

My body was not in full agreement with my mind or my heart. As we wandered from the train station to the nearest garden my body began to pull rank and my brain switched sides and together they caused me to grumble and slouch and move among the flowers like an impetuous child snapping bored pictures here and there waiting to stop to take a nap. Once in the garden all I really wanted to do was lie down in a bed of purple peonies among all the butterflies and drift off into a deep sleep. I did my best to not unleash my grumpiness on Sean, and I allowed him to tell me stories about the history of China and the symbolism of the flowers. He was gracious enough to understand that I was not feeling my best, yet still seemed to enjoy my company. In the end I knew I was not fully present in the moment, and that my body and exhaustion had won this battle, but simultaneously I was aware of the value that the day, and the weekend held.

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We are gifted moments in life and too often they only come once. Some are large and noticeable, but most are small and subtle and too easily we miss them. We don’t take the chance to strike up a conversation with a stranger or take the path that no one is following. I know no other person from my life, as of yet, that has hiked a sacred mountain with friends from China, and eaten prepackaged chicken feet and teriyaki marinated boiled eggs, and then stopped off at a Peony festival that had been celebrated for two thousand years. When I do meet someone who has experienced this it won’t be the same as I had experienced it. We all experience our lives differently, we are similar, but still we are each unique.

I didn’t get to enjoy the Peonies to the fullest of my capacity, and I wasn’t able to collect the memories of the day here in a nice well packaged form to share with others as to the best way to see the Peonies. I didn’t have to because no matter where I go in the world I am going to be me. That means me in a bad mood, me in a good mood, me irrational and me aware. Me wonderful and me not wonderful. My goal is of course to lean my life more towards the awareness and wonderful, and to be in the presence of my life and embrace the moments. Some days work and some days don’t regardless if I am climbing a sacred mountain in China or washing laundry in a laundry mat in Portland, Oregon. Years later I can think back on my hike and my visit to an ancient garden with my friend from China, and look at the pictures I took of flowers that had been planted and cultivated for two thousand years. I can accept the fact that flowers and gardens are not top on my bucket list, and I can say to myself, I did that, and I went there, and I was in a bitchy, irritable, and grumpy ass mood, but I was there. I took that moment and received all that it offered me even if the gratitude came a week after some solid rest.

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A Winter Vacation In Sydney

Two years’ ago around this time I was in Sydney, Australia. I had set up the pictures on this blog to document my trip, but since my mom died four days after I returned to China from my winter vacation, I had lost the desire to write about it. In fact, I think I had felt guilty about going in the first place. How could I choose to go to Australia instead of going back to the States to visit my mom? What kind of daughter was I? Not a very good one.

Of course, I didn’t know she was going to die. She was sick. She’d been sick for a long time. She had been a drug addict, and had many health complications due to her drug abuse in her past. She had Hep C, and high blood pressure, and she had had a stroke years’ back, and she had diabetes, and probably a few things she hadn’t told me about, but she still wasn’t on her death bed. She had been living with all of these things for many years. I knew she probably wasn’t going to be on the planet with me for as long I would have liked for her to be here with me, but I didn’t expect it to be right at that moment. In fact, China was pretty much the last trip for me, and that was why I decided to go to Australia. I felt that I needed to go back to California and take care of my mom, and traveling was not something I was going to be doing for a long time. When was I going to have the opportunity to go to Australia again, I had thought. I had planned on seeing her in six months when my contract in China was completed. I had worried about her dying. In truth, I had been terrified of my mom dying for years, even as a child I was afraid to leave her. It had taken me a long time to be able to allow myself to go anywhere without carrying this fear, even though at this time it was even more possible. I was afraid of her dying from a stroke or diabetic complications, her liver giving up, any number of complications that could have occurred, and that’s why this was my last time to travel.  It was a surprise to me to have her die right then, but even more surprising to learn she had died of an overdose. I wasn’t expecting that.

I felt really guilty. I had a hard time enjoying my memories in Australia, and I hadn’t really dwelt on them since. Coming across this pictures I’ve forgotten the details of the trip. I can only remember the name of the city. Sydney. Famous Sydney and the famous Opera House.

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I met my friend, Lisa, who was coming from the U.S. and we stayed our first two nights at an Airbnb, but I forget the neighborhood. We had stayed for about four or five days in Sydney.

The sky was so incredibly blue, and the air was clean and fresh. After spending five months in China in the gloom of grey pollution and then winter it was like coming alive. I remember feeling incredibly happy. So many breathtaking shades of blue.

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We stayed with friends of friend’s. We were so lucky to have connections and met up with some really wonderful people that helped us out, and showed us around. We spent a day at the zoo, went to some beaches, ate out, and were shocked at the prices for drinks.

Australia’s minimum wage is high which makes the prices high, which in theory should be affordable to the wages, but it was crazy for Chinese wages, and what we were used to as far as prices in the U.S. Not that we were there to spend our time in bars and restaurants. We were there (I definitely was there) to be outside.

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I remember the friend who took us around laughing at us because we were loud in our excitement, and she made this comment, “American’s are so loud.” It was a stereotype that has some serious truth to it, and we fulfilled that truth on the day we took these pictures, but we were also really joyful, and happy.

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We met up with a friend of Lisa’s who took us to another part of Sydney, basically the opposite side of where the above pictures were taken. She had given us advice on what museums to visit and she gave us a contact for when we traveled to Melbourne.

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It is a shame to not remember the details, but it is hard even now, two years’ later to look at these pictures without some twinge of remorse. Not so much as that I wasn’t in the States, but just that I didn’t write my mom enough while I was on this trip. I could have tried harder to find a place to write an e-mail. I was waiting till I got back to China, but sometimes it’s worth it to take the time in that moment. But hindsight is nothing now.

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Hi mom, I don’t have a lot of e mail access but I wanted to let you know I made it safely to Vietnam and Australia. I’m in Sydney, and it is the most beautiful place in the world. I would really like to live here. I leave for Melbourne tomorrow. I will write you as soon as I get home on the 16th. 

I love you.

Your daughter.

 

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hi babygirl,

you will have to tell all about vietnam when you are home and have time to set at a computer. Also need to know how things went in australia??

love you

mom

A Hike on Huashan China’s most Dangerous Mountain

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.

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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.

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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.

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Zhengzhou before the train trip.

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Shawn and Xiang Kai

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Snacks for the train

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Late night in the Zhengzhou station

 

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?

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Chicken feet

 

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.

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ancient carved steps

 

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.

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A lying Buddhist

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The base of the mountain

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Mountain base

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A Chinese mythical creature

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The gate to the mountain

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The park before the hike

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Xiang Kai and I preparing to fight the mountain spirits

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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.

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Burning incense and prayers

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Prayers

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A mountain of ribbons and locks for luck.

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These men hike daily back and forth up to part of the mountains to deliver food and water to the shops and hotel.

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The gate to the beginning of the real climb

 

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.

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The first set of stairs.

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The top of the first set of many stairs

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The stairway to heaven

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This was a crazy vertical climb and took a lot of upper body strength and courage. This was after climbing many other steep and long stairs carve into the mountain’s rock walls.

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Ancient step carvings possibly thousands of years old.

 

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.

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Shawn and I at the South Peak

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Me and my mother’s ashes

 

 

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.

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Xiang Kai and I at the North Peak

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Shawn and I

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If you look carefully you can see all the people walking on the blade of a mountain pass. This is 1,000 meters up.

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Success

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A small spot for meditation

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But, not an easy space to get to.

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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.

“Maybe off off season,” I said.

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Through foggy woods

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Wishes thousands of meters high.

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A wish for peace

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The only lights to guide us back down from 2,000 meters

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Huashan 2,080 meters