So I came to Yellow Mountain for a few reasons:
To be alone.
In the quiet.
Away from crowds.
Out the bus window, fields of green sprawled before my eyes. Quaint countryside villages speckled the landscape with symmetrical cement walls and oven-burnt terracotta roof tiles. Laundry hung on the clotheslines and chimney burned smoke that matched the imposing fog that whisked past the luscious green mountains. I basked in the glow of the light rain, as it brought the magic of the mist — the exact mystery I had been waiting all of China for.
But then, I got passed the matching group hat. It was a floppy hat, the kind your uncle wears on fishing trips and adds pins for every fish he didn’t catch but swears he did. The hat was reversible — one side was blue and the other side was London Burberry plaid. It was a nice gesture, I thought. A free hat.
The man who passed me the hat then stood up in front of the bus. The quiet of nature drifted away as he began to talk into a rusty microphone. The tour guide explained the landscape for the next two hours to us, screaming Mandarin into his mike, so he could be heard over the movie he started just behind him in the drop down TV screen. I couldn’t follow his speech nor the film, but there were a lot of swords, cellphones, and bleeding women. The movie outlasted his speech, the violence adding to the hillside tranquility as Mr. Microphone came to sit next to me to collect money for the extra hidden costs explained in Section B of my ticket voucher. (I knew I should never sign a contract in a foreign language, even when the clerk is smiling at me.) I paid him the money for the lunch and dinner I undoubtedly can’t eat, because it’s sticky rice and MSG, but I couldn’t understand why we all had to eat together. Wasn’t the bus merely bringing me to the mountain, where I could sit forever pondering the ancient scrolls of Chinese wisdom?
“No,” a female voice said behind me, peering over the bus seat. “He is our tour guide. We all eat together. Hike together. Sleep together. We are a team.”
Splendid. Just what I wanted. A team. I thanked her for her English assistance — her vocabulary proved to be rather spectacular and we discussed her studies at the University.
I had again been proved wrong.
Wherever you go, whether you want to be on a team or not, whether you want to be included or not, the Universe will decide to crown you with a group hat, include you, and translate the message for you into your mother tongue. This would not be the 48 hours of silence in the mountains I hoped for, but that’s only because this country does so many thing exceptionally well.
Unfortunately, personal space and dentistry are not among that list, as I learned when Mr. Microphone came back to explain more about the tour to me. I couldn’t understand a lick of what he said, his yellow teeth opening wide to yell directions into his headset as we sat inches away from each other. In fact, I think he even sat on my hat when he sat next to me. I was smitten with his forwardness, in love with his poetry, splattered by background sounds of movie explosives. I was in a group.
Poncho dawned, plastic shoe booties on, the heavens opened, pouring rain like a deluge onto my face. I’ve never hiked in a deluge before. I’ve heard that it’s possible, I reckon Noah had to do it, but I’ve never seen the purpose rather than a mandated order from the heavens. After all, it doesn’t really rain in California more than ten days a year, so why not choose the other 342 days of the year to frolic the hillsides? But I didn’t have 342 days. I had around a week left to sponge all the soy sauce this land could throw at me in her wok mixer. And I was determined to find it all at Yellow Mountain.
Now I have been staring at a picture of this damn holy mountain now for 5 months. I had cut it out from a local magazine the first week I got here and taped it my striped wallpapered bedroom. I clung onto that paper through every rainy day, convinced that just beyond the small city walls stood a mountain with blue skies that monks used to roam on. It was supposed to be the clearest view in China.
One by one, we ascended the hill, group hats on our heads, backpacks on our backs, passing all the signs that told us not to hike in storms. We took pictures of the signs that told us “scenic view,” because that is as far as we could see. I wish the travel brochure had told me that I would be carrying all my belongings up 8.5 kilometers of straight stone steps — I probably would have not packed a 25 pound bag, nor the two cocktail dresses for a sunset photo shoot, which I planned to do at the top of the mountain, to sum up my entire China experience.
Maybe the brochure did tell me our hotel was at the mountain’s crest — I just couldn’t read the Mandarin.
Maybe I’ve been told lots of things here that I haven’t fully understood and only time will tell.
We hiked further, passing the wicker sedans that could be hired to drag you up the mountain by a concierge in a black business suit. And poncho.
But I knew I had to get to the top. I needed clarity. I needed perspective.
But the rain was pissing so hard, I could barely see my own hands.
She reached for my hand. Her name was Fern. It was a kind gesture, but one that I normally do with close friends. She didn’t even know my name. She turned around in her poncho, grabbed my hand, and helped me up the mountain, when she saw the American calves buckle by hour 6 of the deluge hike. She then took pictures with me. I’ve gotten quite accustomed to people taking pictures of me in public, but those are normally men and its normally to gawk at my foreign passport. There was no gawking. She held my hand the entire way up the mountain and most of the way down.
My first response when she grabbed my hand was, “I don’t need help.” But she was persistent and frankly, I was about to fall off the mountain. Sure, I didn’t know her and sure, we could barely speak. And sure, we wouldn’t stay in touch, really. But why not include her, and her friends, in all my photos and hold their hands? Especially when they are the only thing you can see of the mountain.
Why not grab the hands that reach out to you — even if they are only passing you by for a second.
At the top, there were no heavenly visions. There were no views. There was no apex experience.
There was simply a group. In group hats. People together, holding each others hands and helping each other out, for the short time we traversed together on the way up and over the mountain.
And if I waited 5 months for that lesson — that clarity comes through togetherness (even in group hats), that the people in front of you are more sacred than any holy mountain, and that the shrouding fog can make the best views of all — then by all means, bring on the rain. We travel not for geography, for weather patterns, nor to find ourselves, but to find people along the way… and to learn, most of all, that people are the journey itself.