Yesterday, I viewed the three pagodas outside of Dali. According to the Lonely Planet, these pagodas are “among the oldest standing structures in southwestern China.” Also according to the LP, they are free, but in fact, they are walled in and cost Y121 – Y62 if you have an old student ID (which I do). The pagodas are at the bottom of the park, and behind them is a never-ending series of temples with stairs behind leading to yet another temple, like those Russian stacking dolls. I hadn’t gone far when I was abducted by some monks and bundled into a nearby temple. Before I knew what hit me, I’d lit incense, bowed all over the place and was seated at a table where complicated blessings were said over me and one of those freaking Buddhas on a string was lowered around my neck. I was then asked to sign a little book with my name and hometown, and then the monk shook me up for some dough. He thought a couple hundred would be appropriate. I did this really great thing I do where I lay my open wallet on the table and display the unimpressive contents.
‘Eight yuan,’ I said helpfully.
‘No, no, no,’ the monk said. ‘Money! For the temple! One hundred.’
‘I have Y8. As you can see.’
‘No money?’ whined the monk.
‘No money,’ I lied. Whereupon my necklace was repossessed and I was told to have a good day. I put Y5 in the donation box anyway, and the monk gave me a folded bit of paper with printing on it as I left, and shook my hand. ‘For luck,’ he explained.
Today, I’d planned to hike Zhonghe Shan, the big mountain to the West of Dali. Abby and Adam had done it on Saturday, and said it was terrific. The first leg of the hike consisted of flight after flight of well-maintained stone stairs. This is typical in China, where they think the only way to scale a mountain is to hew stone steps into the side. The stairs eventually gave onto the “Cloudy Tourist Path,” which runs along the edge of the mountain, and affords what I’m sure are breathtaking views, although not today because it was raining and a big wall of white mist hung all around the mountain like a curtain. But that was dramatic in its own way, so I didn’t mind too much.
At about 9:30, I arrived at the Higherland Inn, an adorable little lodge at 2590m on the side of the mountain, just above a temple. I went in to get some water, and met some chill Germans, and American and a gregarious Belgian. They were all staying at the Inn and having a leisurely breakfast, looking out the windows at the rain dripping through the trees. I told them I was going to climb up to the peak, on the path that runs behind the Inn and is supposed to be about a 5-hour hike. They said it was pretty muddy, what with the rain. I said I was sure it would clear up, and took off.
Well, it didn’t clear up. And the path wasn’t just muddy. It was washed out, not being very well-worn in the first place. And before very long, I was soaked and freezing, and realizing that I was doing a very foolish thing, and would likely end up sliding down the entire moutain on my bottom. And just as I was thinking this, a man plunged out of the bushes with a giant knife. He said something to me, and gestured at me with the knife. According to Lonely Planet, a German tourist was killed on Zhonghe mountain. I was thinking of him (or her) as another man with a knife joined the first. But then I realized that the man was just saying, ‘Don’t go up this path, you moron,’ and that the knives were probably just for cutting the mushrooms they were each toting a sack full of. I agreed to turn back, but gestured that he and his friend and their knives should go on ahead of me. Before long, they headed off the trail into the woods and disappeared.
When I showed up at the Inn again, humbled and dripping, I was given a towel and some tea, and I sat around for awhile waiting for the rain to let up. About noon, it cleared up a little, so I headed home and promptly made another really stupid decision. I figured that, rather than go down the nice stone steps I’d come up, I’d instead descend via a trail marked on a little map I’d found at the Inn that seemed to go more directly into Dali. I forgot all about that mud. Oh, it was a long, slow trip down the sheer mountain side. I picked my way down a muddy creek bed, dotted with ice-slick rocks, and usually traveled by horses, whose hooves had further destroyed any footholds that might once have existed. The entire time, I was underneath a chairlift full of Chinese tourists (‘Hello! Hello!’), and for a good three-fourths of the way, I clutched my giant water bottle in one hand, until I finally realized it was more of a drawback than an asset, balance-wise.
But at long last, I arrived back in Dali, now overrun with National Day tourists. I think tomorrow morning, I might head back up Zhonghe mountain with my pack and stay at that little inn for a night. It was a really cool place, and certainly more peaceful than here. And maybe the paths will dry out enough by then to hike. Right now though, I’m going to go sit in the courtyard and drink a giant Chinese beer.