Thursday, September 12, 2013

Jiao Shan

"Here, further up the mountain slope than there was ever any hope..." - Robert Frost

Photo by Paul Wisenborn
Jiao Shan towers overs Shanhaiguan, a formidable force and show of strength, prowess, history. The entrance to the mountain is just a short, 20 minute walk from Shanhaiguan, a once-walled, defensive frontier now a sleepy home to countless stray dogs. A busy, old restaurant, that has been on the same site for 100 years and advertises "No Smonking" serves one daily type of jiaozi and myriad vegetarian dishes, including a tasteless porridge, nearly as yellow as corn. After lunch, the walk to Jiao Shan takes you from the quiet, ancient town down a mountain road that feels a world away from the incessant horn-honking and brake screeching of Qinhuangdao. Sunflowers, corn, and vegetable gardens wall the streets, snakes slither and toads tittle by the roadside, and spiders grow to the size of your hand, spinning webs of legendary proportions. The mountain is in the distance and the Wall snakes up it like a dragon. You think it looks steep, but not too difficult. You are about to be proven wrong.

The first ascent up Jiao Shan is typical of any other Great Wall site: vendors hawking hats, beads, and "waterbeerjuiceicecream" all vie for your attention. Stepping onto the Wall the first thing you notice is the height: steep and formidable. It's a wonder people ever traversed it, never mind built it. Russian graffiti is chalked onto some areas of the Wall and signs posted every so often warn "No Running," as if you could anyway. Even the heartiest among us looked like he was fighting against a non-existent wind as he lunged up the abrupt incline.

Jiao Shan, at least the newer, reconstructed part, comes with its own peculiar, unpleasant smell, different to the peculiar, unpleasant smells of the city. Likely the fumes from one of China's plentiful factories, the air stinks of a mixture of wet cat food and cat pee that has been set ablaze. Even breathing through your mouth doesn't quite eliminate the permeating aroma.

But then the reconstruction ends and you're left with a literal blockade. A Wall to climb. A once-fortress to conquer. On your left is the ground and the steep safety of the Old Wall. To your left is the far away ground. Ahead of you is remnants of the Old Wall, untouched, unaltered, uneven, and tremendously beautiful. Your friend says, "This part is a little treacherous" and hops over the wall, standing atop the fortress. You're only 5'3" and the Wall comes up to your armpit. On your first attempt, you sink back to the left, feeling that too much momentum - or what you think is the necessary momentum - will send you plunging to the right, so you send two or three people ahead of you. On your second attempt, your knee scrapes the wall and bruises, but you stay low, hold steady, and shimmy, rather ungracefully, to the other side, whether the going gets really tough.

Remarkably, though, the minute you hit the other side, the flaming cat pee-food smell disappears. In its wake is fresher air - not fresh, fresher - and the original long and winding road. It's not an easy journey. It's up and away and rocks and stairs with enormous steps, but the top is in view, even on this hazy day. You lead some, then you follow some, then you reach the top and realize that you can't see for miles, but what you can see are eerie silhouettes of lakes and rocks below you and an impenetrable mountain in the distance. You don't lean over the edge - the fall is too far - but you watch from a respectable distance as your friends shimmy up a huge boulder that seems to just give way to an abyss. Everything at the top is quiet, except the distinctive noise of a baseball bat hitting a rock off the edge of the world. But there is no city. There are only the mountains, the sky, the lake, the Wall, the above, the below.

On the way down, you stop at a Buddhist monastery where friendly dogs, one young and chipper, the other older looking with a disgruntled underbite, greet you and show you around. In the center of the monastery is an immense willow weighted down with wishes strewn on red ribbons tied around its ancient trunk.

The walk down is easier, but still not easy. It's a steep path that puts
pressure on your toes as they collide with the tip of your shoes. The Wall is to your left and you are under its protection. You know you're almost down when that permeating stench returns, before things even begin looking flat again. You're back to where you started - back on earth, ready to traverse the quiet road back to Shanhaiguan and then back to the city, leaving behind you a mountain taciturn and allegiant.

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