So this is how it went.
I was planning a quiet weekend sitting in my apartment watching DVDs with my feet up and a cup of tea. Then, as I was walking home from school on Friday I got a text from my administrator asking me if I wanted to climb a mountain on Saturday. A few brief exchanges established that while it was a mountain it was a hike up and down rather than a full blown climb so what could I say but "Yes".
Four of us were supposed to be joining a group that seemed top be the Chinese equivalent of the Ramblers' Association and heading off for a two hour drive to Xinglong mountain where we would hike up and then back down before coming home. It was, we were assured, very beautiful. In the event, the seven thirty start deterred two of the party and the two of us who went, Carole and I, were joined by Jane, our administrator. The Chinese group was part of a national organisation called Travel Friends but, as Jane explained, the Chinese for this sounds like the Chinese for Donkey Friends and we three, having not been with them before were the new donkeys.
The new donkeys joined the old donkeys in a group rather larger than we had anticipated. Two full fifty-seater coaches set of a few minutes past seven-thirty to head for the mountain. It was an uneventful journey, accompanied by videos of Chinese pop songs and a bizarre Chinese movie that seemed to be about warriors and magicians but was rendered quite hard to watch, even for the Chinese viewers by the fact that it kept getting part of the way in and then restarting from the beginning.
We pulled off the Gansu Expressway and onto smaller roads and then, about two hours after starting we stopped. There was a roadblock. Untroubled by this the driver backed up, returned to the expressway and continued on. We would, Jane told us, find another route to where we were going. At the next exit we left the motorway, followed some smaller roads, came to the junction where we needed to turn south to get to the mountain and ran into a police roadblock. They waved us on our way and the driver continued looking for another route. Perseverance is an especially Chinese virtue.
A little further on we stopped and everyone left the coaches and started to follow our group leaders up a dusty and unpromising path that would, they said, lead to where we were going. Perhaps it would have. We shall never know as about two hundred yards in there was, yes, another roadblock.
We went back to the coaches. In England there would have been grumblings. Murmurs of rebellion, even. No one here seemed very much perturbed as we went on our way to seek another way in.
It seemed for a few minutes as if we had found one when we stopped at what was clearly an entrance to somewhere touristy. There were pavilions and car parks and lots of people but after a few minutes we drove on.
Fortunately the next stop was the right stop. A steep flight of stone steps led up past a memorial which Jane told us was a cenotaph and just beyond it was a military cemetery. As we followed the path we passed a small group of people, including a monk, reciting prayers at a tiny pillared structure and then we were into our hike, starting off along what began as a moderate slope up the mountainside. It was, as billed, a beautiful walk. The bare branches of the autumn trees crowded into the path scratching at exposed flesh but it didn't seem to matter. The views out along the valley were magnificent. On the nearby mountains autumn trees glowed like burnished bronze – the sunlight made them look as if the whole mountainside was on fire. Where we were walking the trees were almost bare of foliage but many of them were still covered with red berries. White spores from other trees drifted past us on the wind.
Soon I was breathing hard. The climb was steep and the path narrow. The Chinese with me ranged from teenagers to old men and women but most of them seemed to be taking the walk with ease. Before too long we were strung out along the path. Whenever I paused to take a picture – or more accurately to uise the excose of taking a picture to give me a few moments rest – I was quickly surrounded by people who wanted to have their picture taken with me. Singly and in groups they joined me and only by starting off up the hill again could I break free. The respite was temporary. Each time I paused it was the same routine.
The climb became steeper and at times rather more precarious as the narrow path edged along near vertical drops. Then it became muddy and my training shoes started to slip. Most of the Chinese hikers wore boots although some, like me, had less appropriate footwear.
Perseverance of a different kind was the necessary order of the day. Eventually we reached the top. In a couple of clearings we sat down to eat our packed lunches. As I munched my way through my own fruit and sandwiches people kept coming and offering more. Assorted fruits, plates of pickle for my sandwich, ginger cakes, biscuits – I could easily have managed with no provisions of my own. And now that I was a captive "donkey" practically everyone there turned up for photo opportunities. I know foreign friends are rare in this part of the country but I felt like some kind of rock star.
Carole too had the same cross to bear as everybody surrounded us for more and more photographs. I must have been captured on film a hundred times half way through chewing on my food. Not very flattering but they didn't seem to care.
When I had finished eating I wandered around taking my own pictures. There was a kind of bush that had many white berries – it may have been a variety of snow-berry or wax-berry - and another that had small deep red pods shaped like a soy sauce bottle (as one of the locals haltingly explained). Through one small gap in the trees I could see down the opposite slope into a dense stand of trees which shifted with the sunlight revealing tantalising glimpses of a far off plain.
It was quite wonderful.
At about two thirty we set off down a different trail. Initially this was steeper but less slippery. It occasionally flattened or even climbed a little but the rapid and overwhelming trend was down. Suddenly things became a lot worse. The solid trail started to give way to a kind of peaty soil that crumbled and slipped beneath our feet. I was ab ut halfway back in the long procession and the frontrunners had loosened it still further so that it was very difficult to walk on by the time I got there. I put my camera away. It was hard enough to get down this kind of path with both hands free. Things became steadily worse until we were sliding and slipping and tumbling rather than walking down the mountainside. I tried to aim myself for the solider looking trees so that when I slipped, which was often, I didn't slip too far. Grabbing onto whatever branches and bushes I could to slow my descent I made my way down.
By now everybody was falling with alarming regularity. Things got even worse. The smooth branched bushes that had lined the trail gave way to spiky shrubs that could not be safely grasped. The trail started to disappear, though the others had already come this way – I could still see some of their bright clothing in the distance. As I slipped down a particularly sharp drop I saw, with tremendous relief that though the path was now all but invisible the direction that I was headed was towards a very long set of stone steps.
I struggled too it, climbed the rail and was on solid ground for the first time in about an hour.
As the steps started a considerable distance higher than my present position I could only surmise that there was a separate – safer – trail that we had somehow missed.
I looked down.
The steps seemed to go on forever. My thighs and calves were aching with the effort and my legs were already shaking. Within minutes my knees had been added to the list of painful body parts as I started down.
And down and down and down. There were hundreds, perhaps thousands of steps before I eventually reached the bottom where there was a small bar. Carole had already got a beer for me. I drank it standing, afraid that if I sat my knees would seize up completely. None of the Chinese were drinking. They just stared at us as if we had gone mad. We didn't care. We'd damn well earned that beer and we strolled down the last few hundred yards of flat path back to the coaches, still drinking it. Swigging from the bottles as we walked.
It was a much more strenuous day that either of us had anticipated but it had been terrific to get out in the fresh air and get some exercise again.
It's too long since I've been hiking but next time I go I'll know that what I need is perseverance. And preferably some decent boots.
(And I'll post some pictures a little later in a separate entry.)