The Mountain Spirits are Laughing

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Day one

Standing on an observation platform 15,000 feet above sea level, amidst the glaciers of Jade Dragon Snow Mountain in Yunnan province, I realize that I am barely surviving Shangri-La.  Known to the local Naxi people as Satseto, this mountain rises to over 18,000 feet and has only been summited once. That’s fine with me. I am in no shape to climb anything today and have chosen instead ride the gondola. Just two days ago I was in Beijing, at sea level, and  I am adjusting poorly to exertion at altitude. In fact, it is taking a very specific act of concentration not to lavishly soil myself with every step.

It is the first day of a weeklong trek with a diverse group of fellow travelers, most of whom are significantly fitter and younger than I am. The early spring weather is agreeably cool during the day, but I know that when the sun goes down behind the mountain, the temperature will fall dramatically. 

Of all of China’s regions and provinces, Yunnan has always been my favorite. One of the most ethnically diverse and ecologically rich areas in all of Asia, sharing borders with Vietnam, Laos and Burma, Yunnan is a delight to the senses. But right now, I’m sensing mostly the incipient onset of altitude sickness.

Later that day we return to Lijiang, a UNESCO designated city about an hour’s drive from the mountain. The Old Town was once the center of culture for the Naxi people, but what little Naxi culture existed before has been overwhelmed by tourism. Souvenir shops and cafés dominate the narrow cobblestone streets. The town’s waterways are lined with music bars and discos advertising “cultural shows”, most of which feature bored young men playing guitar or kittenish women in minority costumes dancing semi-chastely to bad music. It is as if the Lijiang city leaders and the local tourism development board have a vision, and that vision is to transform this world heritage site into China's answer to Branson, Missouri.

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Lijiang is also one of several towns and cities in China and across Asia which claim to be the inspiration for James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon.  Hilton’s book gave rise to the legend of Shangri-La and it is for sale in almost every bookshop between Kunming and Kathmandu. While culturally speaking the tourist trap of Lijiang could not be any further from a mystical mountain kingdom, the scenery of the surrounding area – deep forests, rocky gorges, snowcapped mountains – makes the idea less risible. Nearby is Tiger Leaping Gorge, a narrow canyon with walls rising thousands of feet from the riverbed to glaciated peaks above. The Jinsha river, a tributary of the Yangtze, rushes through the cool interior of the gorge with such force that it is considered unrunnable by white water rafters.

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This corner of Yunnan was first made famous in the 1920s by the writings of Austrian-American botanist and explorer Joseph Rock. Yunnan was a very different place back then. The terrain that took Rock and his porters days or weeks to cross can now be traveled in hours. At the same time, it’s hard to feel too sorry for him. While Rock endured bandits, bad roads, steep climbs and uncharted territory, he did so with a certain style. His train of porters carried boxes of scientific equipment, bed linen, and even, it is rumored, a working phonograph player.

Rock in China

Not all travelers come to Yunnan for the landscape or history. Every mention to my Chinese male friends that I was heading to Yunnan elicited a leering response and not-so-thinly veiled references to the exotic willingness of Yunnan minority women to bed strangers. To say that my friends have only the flimsiest grasp on the culture and practices of Yunnan minorities is to be generous. Minority groups in China, 26 of which live in Yunnan, are treated by the Chinese state media (at best) as exotic and sensual primitives, and at worst as simpletons to be exploited or potential separatists to be suppressed. There has emerged in the past few years a lucrative business bringing men from China’s cities to Yunnan on multi-day “Bang a Minority” tours.

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At night I sit in one of the music bars in Old Town. The numbing effects of Beer Lao are a poor match for the thunderous techno being played on broken speakers. The historic district of Lijiang was almost completely destroyed in a 1996 earthquake. When it was rebuilt, the local residents found it more lucrative to rent their old dwellings to shop owners, and the result was the steady commercialization of the town center. Naxi culture now exists as a performance and a trinket. It is a fate sadly shared by many of the “Old Towns” I have visited in China and Asia, but the process has been grossly accelerated in Lijiang over the past decade. As I finish my beer and watch a team of models dressed in Carlsberg beer uniforms wind their way sinuously through the crowd, it is easy to convince myself that it’s time to move on.

Day two

Five hours drive north of Lijiang, we arrive in Napa. I am disappointed to learn that there will be no wine tastings and that this Napa refers, depending on the season, either to a beautiful lake adorned with migrating cranes or a large muddy flood plain covered in yak shit. It is the dry season and the lake has disappeared. Instead of cranes, yak-cattle hybrids shift lazily across the damp pasture.

I’m sleeping in the guesthouse of one of the villagers. Napa is a one-street village of about fifteen or so houses on the shore of the lake. The town is a peaceful place to spend a few days and a much needed respite from the tourist hordes of Lijiang. Children play in the fields. Karmically-minded villagers have installed a water-powered prayer wheel on the muddy creek — part irrigation system, part landfill — that flows through town. Pony-sized Tibetan mastiffs wait patiently chained to gates, choosing to ignore the smaller dogs circling them like gnats buzzing around a bull’s ass. The residents gather at sunset by the lakeside to gossip and argue.

It would be a scene of bucolic charm but for the garbage. Too many beautiful scenic spots in China are blighted by rubbish heaps. Rural villages are now within easy reach of the global market, and plastic and paper packaging is the colorful vanguard of consumer choice. But the market extends into places that are still beyond the reach of public sanitation, and so the back fields and streams of China’s countryside fill steadily with the multi-colored detritus of consumables.

There are other changes too. In recent years, residents in Napa and their fellow lakeshore villages have shifted their livelihood away from yak herding supplemented by quasi-legal logging to eco-tourism supplemented by quasi-legal tollbooths. At intervals along the highway separating the village and the lake, the locals have erected a makeshift barricade demanding between 30 and 50 yuan for vehicles to pass. It occurs to me as I watch the toll booth operators swarm a luckless SUV that this isn’t so much a new practice as a reversion to type. The writings of Joseph Rock, written seven centuries before, lament the highway brigandry which has long been a staple of the local economy.

My host for the evening is the head of the tollbooth scheme, and at night he talks about his adventures waylaying passersby for money, while chain smoking cigarettes through a three-foot metal bong. I ask him if what he is doing is, in the strictest sense, legal. He scoffs and goes on a rant about how the government built the road to facilitate tourism, but where is the money really going? Shouldn’t the villagers get a share? It occurs to me that what he thinks of as “his share” would in other contexts be defined as “ransom”, but I want to be a good guest.

Day three

I have stepped on a yak. Not yak dung, which has become such a part of my daily existence as to no longer merit comment. I have stepped on an actual yak, and the yak isn’t happy about it.

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Rural residents in this part of Yunnan live in two-story homes fronted with an enclosed courtyard. The family sleeps upstairs and the animals sleep downstairs. We are guests and so are sleeping in a blockhouse on the western edge of the courtyard. The privy is on the eastern edge, requiring, when nature calls, a short but perilous journey across the yard.

Shuffling across to the loo, I stumble over a large bulky shape, a sensation not unlike walking into a pile of sandbags. I have little time to identify this obstacle when the shape rises, knocking me backwards into a large puddle. The yak is unamused and lets me know so in no uncertain terms.

I grew up in semi-rural New England and part of me – the part not sitting in a puddle of mud and animal excrement – is pondering the irony of my having been just tipped by a cow. In a land where Buddhism runs deep, one ignores the possibility of karmic retribution at great cost.

Day four

On our way to the southern extremis border of Sichuan Province, we stop at Ganden Sumtseling Monastery. For nearly three centuries, this massive complex has been the largest and most important Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Yunnan. Originally founded by the Fifth Dalai Lama in 1679, it has survived rebellions, wars, and (barely) the Cultural Revolution.

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Inside the main hall is the scent of Tibet: yak butter candles and incense. The atmosphere is thick, almost unbearable in the smaller chambers. Walking through interior doorways, the smoky air parts like a curtain. We pass rows of icons, each with their own collection of offerings: mostly yak butter, but also money, fruit and other small gifts. In the corner of the hall sits an old monk. He looks as if he came into being as an integral part of the structure when it was still new. He offers to sell me a small amulet.

“How much?” I ask.

“500 yuan.”

“Just for the amulet?”

“Yes. For the amulet. But I can bless it for you. This will give you great fortune on your journey.”

“How much does the blessing cost?”

“Depends on how much blessing you need.”

I am still ignorant of the power of a monk’s blessing and parsimonious with my budget. I politely decline his offer. This, I will soon learn, is a mistake. When dealing with the spirits who reside in these mountains, one needs all the help one can afford.

Day five

We intentionally bypass the town of Zhongdian. Another claimant to the mantle of “the real Shangri La,” this town in Northwest Yunnan was officially renamed Shangri La in 2001 by craven local officials eager to siphon tourists north from Lijiang.

Sadly, a large part of the Old Town of Zhongdian burned in 2014 when a fire engulfed most of the town center. As with Lijiang, when disaster strikes, it is often the oldest structures which suffer the most and are the least likely to be saved. In their place arise the staples of all Old Towns in China: tacky shops with indigenous crafts lovingly “handmade” in factories in China’s coastal cities; insufferable music bars; and the ubiquitous outposts of American junk food imperialism – KFC, Pizza Hut and a Starbucks.

This approach to historic preservation baffles many outsiders, but it’s perhaps reflective of different attitudes between international visitors to China and domestic Chinese tourists. Generally speaking, international travelers come to China to see it as it was (or as they think it was). They crave authenticity. The actual. The real. No matter if that actual or real is dirty, old, or in a state of decrepitude bordering on the structurally unsound. Chinese travelers prefer to see places as they should be or could be. They have little patience for dusty beams and broken stones. Many find gaudy reinterpretations of historical sites – and the shopping, dining and entertainment options which surround them – improvements on the original, and are genuinely puzzled as to why their foreign friends feel a photo of a rundown building or dusty alleyway is a better representation of China than a gleaming new historic site with a snack bar and souvenir stand. Such was the fate of Lijiang. Zhongdian is next, and we move on.

The drive to the border between Yunnan and Sichuan is a wild territory of high mountain passes, and it has been snowing heavily since we left the monastery. Drivers in rural China tend to operate under the assumption that any road has the potential to be a Formula One course, and set their speed accordingly.

Our driver in Yunnan, safe in the irrational power of happy thoughts, is oblivious to the possibility of imminent demise. The mountain roads are narrow and not quite one-way, but most vehicles avoid the perilous edge and stay close to the center of the road. This means that any curve or bend has the potential for a sphincter-shrinking encounter as oncoming vehicles swerve at the last second to avoid a head-on collision.

By the second or third near miss, I am openly white knuckling the dashboard. Our driver seems amused at my discomfort. He gives me a big thumbs up before taking both hands off of the wheel to light another cigarette.

Day six

MF Ridge.jpg

I dub thee "Motherfucker Ridge" even though it is, apparently, inappropriate to refer to any part of a sacred mountain as “motherfucker”. Even more so when on a kora, a circumambulation of a holy place. In my defense, I have lost count of the ridges I have crossed today. My fellow hikers are nowhere to be seen. They possess things I lack, like “youth” and “knee cartilage”, and are almost certainly already in camp ahead, resting.

I was so sure that this was the last ridge before camp, and when I see that it isn’t, I let fly with an expression of displeasure and disappointment. In doing so, however, I have called down the vengeance of angry mountain spirits. It has been my experience that mountain spirits, when unnecessarily riled, can turn any trip into a fiasco – especially when you have already ignored offerings of spiritual aid from a helpful monk.

When I stumble into camp two hours later, I am sweating profusely in the cold mountain air, breathing heavily, and dry heaving. The rest of the group recoil from me as if approached by an apparition of death. My heart is pounding arrhythmically against the walls of my chest. I would vomit but I already lost lunch on the downward slope of Motherfucker Ridge, no doubt incurring additional penalties from the gods. I look as as if I’m three ounces of blow, a bottle of tequila and two Mexican hookers away from reenacting the last five minutes of “Chris Farley: The E! True Hollywood Story.” I pass out by the fire and spill cocoa over my socks and boots.

At night I recline uncomfortably in my tent. It is quiet on the mountainside but I can’t sleep. A thin pad provides little buffer between my aching muscles and the cold earth. Periodically, my legs cramp savagely, leading to a whimsical few minutes thrashing about on the floor of my tent while I try to straighten my seizing limbs. I am clearly not drinking enough liquids, even though I was told on several occasions that this was essential. Did I listen? Of course not, because I clearly know more about survival in the mountains than my guides who grew up at this altitude. Also, did I mention that I am, in fact, an idiot?

In my defense, to the extent that yak butter tea is a liquid, I did try to stay hydrated. The first cup was pleasantly warm and creamy on a cool mountain evening. A bit like a rich cocoa, except salty not sweet. The second cup was … okay. The third gave me a tepid, heavy sensation in my stomach, as if I had just chugged a quart of recycled motor oil. There was no fourth cup.

The mountain spirits are having their fun with me. I should have bought the damn blessing.

Day seven

We leave after a breakfast of fried eggs and porridge. I am guzzling warm water to keep my legs from cramping. I assume it’s been boiled but I am beyond caring.

Luckily we are circumambulating the massif, not climbing to the summit. Summiting holy mountains of Tibet is not recommended as it is one of the surest ways to anger the mountain spirits. Since most of the peaks are challenging technical climbs carrying sufficient risk of avalanche, rock fall and crevasses, with accompanying death, adding the wrath of vengeful deities seems like a bad idea.

Even from the shoulder of the mountain, the view of the summit is magnificent. Plumes of snow blow from the peak, an enormous white banner underneath a crystal sky. I am ashamed of my blasphemy the day before.

We pick our way along well-worn trails and over boulder fields born of landslides. As we cross by an alpine lake, we see a dozen local villagers carefully checking under rocks and in crevices.

“Chongcao,” says our guide.

He means Ophiocordyceps sinensis, caterpillar fungus. This grisly plant attacks the larvae of certain moths. Once infected, the fungus paralyzes and then kills its host before sprouting a small stalk. Found only at high altitude, caterpillar fungus is famous throughout Asia for its medicinal properties. It is prescribed as a cure for a staggering array of maladies, from cancer to heart disease, but its alleged effectiveness as male enhancement is the main reason why this strange plant can fetch prices as high as $80,000-$100,000 per pound.

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With that kind of money at stake, during picking season villages go all in on the collection and trade in caterpillar fungus. Locals spend their whole day carefully combing the mountainside looking for gold dust in the form of a mummified worm, the Viagra of the Himalayas.

Day eight

We arrive at a small monastery near the base of the mountain. The monks greet us and show us around. It is brighter and cheerier than the massive Ganden Sumtsaling, but there is still the unmistakable scent of yak butter and incense in the air.

As we enter the main hall I am surprised to see an old monk sitting in the corner. Of course it can’t be the same monk I met at Sumtsaling, but in my dehydrated, addled state of mind I can’t be sure anymore. He greets me with familiarity and offers to sell me an amulet.

“Will you bless it?” I ask.

“Of course. For a donation.”

“How much is the donation?”

“How much of a blessing do you require?”

I open my wallet and hand over the entire contents.

“I need you to undo a curse.”

I think I can hear the mountain spirits laughing.

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A version of this story is also posted on the excellent blog, The Anthill and appeared in the 2015 collection While We’re Here: China Stories from a Writer’s Colony. Thanks to Alec Ash for his editing of an original piece which ran to something like 3500 words. Any remaining typos are naturally my own.