Higher and higher

One of the more interesting aspects of this journey I’ve undertaken, is being able to witness a constant change in climate and weather. From the frigid snow-covered forests of Siberia, to the bone-dry Gobi desert and onward to China, where the weather had quickly been getting milder and more pleasant as I made my way towards the south. I’d sent most of my winter clothes home from Beijing, leaving a wool coat and few other things to local friends and people in need. It seemed like the thing to do at the time, as I had no wish to carry the heft through China.

However, upon arriving at the foot of the Huangshan Mountains, I was forced to concede my partial mistake. Wandering the quiet streets of Tangkou, a small town on the foot of the mountain where I had my residence, I could see locals walking around in thick padded coats and boots lined with animal fur. Even my thick Finnish blood was running cool in the cold mountain air, with just a city-boyish hoodie and scarf to protect me from the whistlin’ wind racing down the mountain. Gazing up the mountain I could see blankets of snow. I would head there in the morning, after first spending an evening acclimatizing myself to the thin air with two brews and a hearty fish soup.

Early next morning I found myself rattling up the mountainside inside an Austrian made cable car. Great chasms of certain death loomed under me. But no fear, trust the Austrians. Night frost on the Plexiglas quickly melted by the power of the rising sun.

I’d attempted to remedy my poor clothing choices by layering on three t-shirts. Luckily I’d also been able to buy a knit cap from a friendly lady next to the waterfall in Tangkou and still had the wool socks made by my sister to warm my toes. Speaking of toes, a shoddy pair of shoes that I’d bought from Shanghai had absolutely obliterated my feet into a mush of bruises, raw flesh and puss. The toilet paper bandages I’d cobbled together that morning barely contained the horror inside.

I was quickly able to put all these risks firmly in the rear-view of my mind, upon setting my gaze over the mist covered mountains stretching in every direction. The stunning views were ever so easy to enjoy, thanks to a sun blazing bright in the sky, quickly melting the snow around me and applying the first sunburn of the trip on my face. I trekked the mountain for five hours, through cliff-hanger steps on smooth mountain walls, over rickety bridges and all the while dodging gaggles of Chinese tour groups rushing and pushing all around. One of these tour groups simply absorbed within itself a wooden walking stick with a finely sanded shaft and stern handhold, which I’d purchased the day before, as if it had been a lamppost in the path of a raging firestorm.

The long and strenuous day on the mountain had left its mark on my spirit and body. Luckily, the mountains of Hangshou are not completely dormant. The geological activity within them warms up a constant stream of clean mountain water, which gurgles up halfway down the slopes as hot springs. As is the way in China, the therapeutic effects of these carbon rich hot waters are not enough. At the local spa, which I quickly waddled down to, separate baths were infused with teas, psychotropic wormwood, various spices and wines. All that was very pleasant, yes. However what brought upon me the most joyous of yelps and a proud perkele, was the sight of a Finnish-style sauna. Oh the simple joy of a cup of water being thrown on hot stones. Bliss.

My original intent was to advance to Guilin via bullet-train the next morning. There was a brand new train station somewhere in the city. I knew this. I also knew the timetables of trains leaving from the station. However what I did not know was the location of said train station, and neither did any of the people in Tangkou I was able to communicate with. I’ve usually claimed that even with language barriers, I have never had to not do something I intended to on one of my trips. Well China quickly started stacking up exceptions to this rule. The lack of English skills on the part of the Chinese combined with their unfortunate unwillingness to be of great assistance to strangers is a heady mix for a traveler.

So I had to divert my plans, take a long and expensive bus ride to the city of Nanchang and apply for a train into Guilin from there. Nothing much remained in my mind of Nanchang, a city with a larger population than my home country and the name of which I’d still never before heard. It was the birthplace of the communists uprising, so statues and paintings all around town celebrated the defeat of the Republic. Also, a surprising abundance of prostitutes, which surprised me in a country where even pornography is strictly illegal.

Anyway, prostitution was not on my agenda for the evening. I was still mortally tired from the mountain climb and come early morning I’d have to place myself on a train bound for Guilin. Deep but short sleep was required.

-Markus

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