Chinese Sacred Mountains

This is a chapter from my memoir about living and teaching in the People’s Republic of China, 1982/83. As a Baby Duck Listens to Thunder. The characters are my ex-husband, Jim, his mom, Frances, an amazing, resilient and humorous woman, and my best friend, Ann. Frances enjoyed China and took everything as it came. Ann really hated it but went back years later to make peace with it. 🙂 I’m posting this as a way to respond to the post of another blogger, Simon Waters, who today wrote about Emie Shan, another of China’s sacred mountains. He visited it in 1982 as a tourist in China — tourists at that time were very very very rare. His piece and this one almost seem like companions.


From Hangzhou, we planned a trip to Yellow Mountain, Huang Shan, one of the Chinese sacred mountains, a day’s bus trip away. Pictures of this mysterious and beautiful place had long filled Ann’s imagination. It was her China dream destination. The China Travel Service agent in our hotel told me where to get the bus and buy the tickets. Because I had a Chinese ID card, the representative sent me to the office where Chinese tourists would go. It was very simple. I bought four tickets and, early on the appointed morning we went to the terminal and boarded the bus. 

It was not a tourist bus. It was a Chinese regional bus with rattling windows and a rough-running engine. Frances spent the morning stuffing wads of tissue in the loose windows to keep them from rattling. I am not sure about Ann, but I suspect she was not happy. 

Lunch was part of our ticket and we reached a village bus station and restaurant at about 11 in the morning. We were the only remaining passengers. The bus driver joked with Frances when she returned to the bus to get her fork. By then Frances had learned to say “green bean” and “ice cream” in Putunghua, but she’d resisted using chopsticks. Not one to take such well-meaning mockery lightly, Frances did not retrieve her fork, and she did not use a fork again the rest of her time in China.

Lunch was tomato and pig-liver soup, braised steamed tofu, and scrambled eggs. Though Frances asked in perfect Putunghua, there were no green beans to be had. In that mountainous world, their season had not arrived.

After lunch, we returned to the bus. It started up and chugged its way out of the village, but not far. At the remains of an old city gate, the bus stopped running. The driver lifted the hood inside the bus to look at the transmission. Jim joined him. There was much scratching of heads and attempts to explain and help, but to no avail. The bus was broken. Someone would come out from the village to tow it back to the bus station, but we were stuck. 

I was used to being a precious Foreign Expert. I expected that something would happen and we would be fine. I knew the gossip system. Someone else would go through that town, stop at that restaurant bus stop, learn about our situation, and we would be rescued. I was so sure of this that I felt no anxiety. I was happy to be where I could see mist-draped mountains, terraced tea plantations, and clouds obscuring and revealing distant scenes in changing light. I was only interested in climbing up and seeing the view from the top of the ancient gate of what had once been a walled city.

The old city wall…

And if by some remote chance, no rescue came, I didn’t much care about that either. We had food, warm clothes, and water, but I didn’t think it would turn out like that. 

I was worried about Frances, but she wasn’t worried about herself. Meanwhile, I drove Ann crazy. 

It wasn’t long before a fancy Japanese tourist bus filled with Japanese tourists stopped to pick us up. I’m sure the people at the restaurant/bus stop knew this bus was on its way. I even suspected that, as we three were the only people riding the bus all the way to Huang Shan, our bus driver had faked a breakdown, knowing the Japanese bus was coming. 

The driver of the Japanese bus thought our situation was normal, even funny. The Japanese passengers were polite and made room. We ended up on the back seat of the bus, near the toilet, where no one wanted to sit anyway. Ann was fuming, but it was a much more comfortable ride.

“Sorry about that. I knew we wouldn’t be stuck there.”

“You didn’t know. You just don’t care.”

How could I ever have explained this? Everything that explained it was offensive. We were watched all the time. That “Big Brother” was our friend more often than our enemy was an idea that, I knew, was pretty hard to accept.


Huang Shan, one of China’s four sacred mountains, is in Anhui Province, which, at the time, was primarily agricultural with tea as the main crop. A mountainous province it was still suffering from a lack of transportation and occasional food shortages. While Huang Shan is now a well-developed tourist destination, in 1983 it was still remote. On the way, we passed many small villages with whitewashed houses, dramatic shingled roofs, and misty scenes against a dark green landscape. The most visible point of each village was a stage for propaganda shows above which sat the great red star of China. 

Once at the hotel, we had no problems checking in. Our rooms were ready…sort of. Unfortunately the toilet in Frances and Ann’s room had backed up earlier that day, and they had to sit in the lobby until the bathroom floor dried. Once they were in their room, we all saw that it was large and beautiful. Frances made us cups of Dragon Well Tea, I opened a can of Danish butter cookies, and we tried to put a good face on things. 

At dinnertime, we learned that, except for eggs, the hotel was out of food. I explained this to my guests and suggested a picnic in our room. I had my dependable stash of Foreigner Food I’d stocked up on when we picked up Frances and Ann in Hong Kong— the excellent Havarti and a tin of butter cookies from Denmark, crackers from England, great Chinese peanut butter, as well as a few tins of pineapple. Completely disgusted by China at that point, they refused, but after an hour, there was a gentle scratching on our door. 

It wasn’t a bad picnic, but our guests were still angry. I couldn’t blame them. We had come part way on a bus that broke down, hitched a ride on a Japanese bus only to arrive in a hotel room with a broken toilet, and then told there was no supper? I suspected the Japanese tourists got dinner, but I don’t know.

“Is THAT why you brought food? You KNEW this would happen?” demanded Ann.

I made a feeble remark about the Boy Scout code, said we always traveled with food, and shrugged. 

Independent tourism at that time in China was rare, and China didn’t have piles of “extra” anything with which to prepare for surprises. A lot of food was still rationed, and it was very possible that the hotel didn’t have enough food for four stray travelers.

A random search on Expedia tells me there are now more than two hundred hotels at Huang Shan. In July of 1983, there were three hotels in a chain up the mountain; one at the bottom, one in the middle, and one at the top. Our original plan was to spend two days climbing. The first day we would climb from the bottom hotel and spend the second night at the middle hotel. From the middle hotel we would go back down again. We knew we didn’t have time to climb the whole mountain, and Frances would be alone while we were gone. 

We were rained out the next morning. No chance of climbing anything, so we looked around the village. There was an antique store and a small market. Young people sat on steps selling hard-boiled eggs. In the antique store, I bought a cloisonné box and a carved wooden statue of a god riding a dog. 

It was in that village that Ann saw how food was carried to our hotel and to the hotel higher up the mountain. Skinny teenagers and old women who had arrived that morning on the train, hoisted heavy bamboo baskets filled with a dozen winter melons as big as watermelons, bitter melons, cabbages, scallions, and other vegetables, their baskets suspended from shoulder poles. They trotted rhythmically up the mountain’s steep stairways. Ann was horrified. “Communism is dehumanizing,” she said. 

“I don’t think this is Communism. It’s poverty.” 

“How can you defend it?” For Ann, communism caused the poverty. My jury was out on that question.

We rose early the next morning to make our “summit attempt.” It wasn’t long before we understood that there is nothing of the rugged individualist “conquering” the wilderness in a pilgrimage up a Chinese sacred mountain. Ahead of us were thousands of stone steps. The climb was tedious, boring, painful, and uninspiring. In front of us were more steps and the backs of our friends. Every meaningful moment or spectacular god-perceiving view was marked with a pavilion with seats from which we could look out on the mountain’s steep faces. On those magnificent granite faces, lines of poetry had been scrawled in enormous bright yellow characters. Those who had painted them had to have been fantastic mountaineers, but to us, Coloradans, these lines of poetry defaced the mountain. Maybe if we could have read them, we would have felt differently. At the halfway point, we turned back, for once all of one heart. We had grown to resent the steps and, while the scenery was spectacular, we felt we were visiting a “used” mountain.

The hotel had food that night. The next morning we were to leave on a bus that had been arranged by CTS and paid for. It also happened the next morning that the concierge (if you can call her that) of the hotel said, “We have a good breakfast for you today! We have coffee!”

Jim, Frances, and I were happy and hungry, but Ann didn’t even show up in the dining room. She was arranging with a private group for us to get a ride back to Hangzhou in their “mienbao.” We hurriedly finished our delicious breakfast and crammed ourselves into the Toyota van.

On the ride back to Hangzhou, Ann apologized to me. “I thought at first you were just showing off or something, but now I know. This doesn’t bother you.”

“True, it doesn’t. I guess after a year you get used to it.”

“I don’t think I could get used to it. I think you love China.”

I nodded. “I do.”

That night we had a lovely dinner in the hotel restaurant in Hangzhou, with Frances asking, now in a complete sentence in Putunghua, if they had green beans. Another guest, who’d been there when we took off for Huang Shan, asked us, “How was it? Did you make it to the top?”

“No,” I said. “I hated it.” 

“It’s good you went, even if you didn’t make it to the top. Everyone needs to know what a pain in the ass a Chinese mountain is.” I couldn’t have said it better. It had been a pain in the ass, legs, and back. You name it, there was pain, psychic and otherwise. In Colorado we like our mountains a little less regimented. 


As soon as we got back to Hangzhou, I arranged with China Travel Service for Ann to return to Hong Kong, then Denver. I tried to talk her out of leaving, saying Beijing was a big city and none of this would happen there, but she made the very plausible argument that Guangzhou was also a big city and she’d hated it. 

When the taxi stopped at the airport, Ann put a little old wine cup, a small bowl, in my hand. She’d bought the bowl from a street-vendor in Guangzhou who was selling black market antiques in a back alley. Once, probably, the little bowl had been white and blue, but it had aged to a pale green. The hand painted designs of blades of grass swaying in the current of a stream had faded to blue/gray. It was such an ordinary thing, the glaze blistered in a couple of places, a small crack on one side. The ideogram on the bottom of the bowl was simple and very elegantly written. 

The man selling it said the bowl was from the Ming Dynasty and was five hundred years old. I believed that to be true, having, by then, seen hundreds of old Chinese things. He wanted only 5 mao, fifty cents, but he wanted Waiwei qian. I told Ann it was a good deal even though the bowl was small and flawed, the rim chipped through time and use. As the man showed it to us, I wondered about all the lives the bowl had seen, the hands that had held it. Ann bought it.

“You should have this,” she said in the taxi. “You love China with all its ugliness. You don’t mind the political system, the dirt, the brokenness. You should have this cup. It’s not beautiful. It’s like China.” She’d also bought many new and beautiful things, something in carved jade from an exclusive shop in Guangzhou for her parents, something similar for herself. That was Ann’s China. She was right that the worn and chipped old bowl with its long lost stories was my China. 

We hugged each other goodbye, said we’d see each other soon in Denver, and she took what might have been her last flight on an Aeroflot. She returned to China years later, wanting to make peace with the country. She says, now, that she thinks of that miserable, frustrating, dispiriting, and hilarious journey as the greatest adventure of her life. 

We went on to Beijing the next day…

10 thoughts on “Chinese Sacred Mountains

  1. I may have bought something from that shop in Guangzhou in 2012. I’m not sure. Pretty jade piece for Cheryl. I spent a month there then… Guangzhou … very interesting place. Thanks for your story.

  2. I remember this story from your book and also remember that I both liked it and didn’t. Your story still rings very true of China today, even with all its modern prosperity and consumerism. There are parts where I feel comfortable and completely at home, there are times when I fume silently (exactly for the same reasons as I would do at home), and there are times when I see the big difference that is entirely Chinese.

    As a tourist I reply on Big Brother to keep me out of danger.

    As for chop sticks, I use them all the time, but I keep a fork, spoon, and knife in my backpack (security in China is used to foreigners carrying these things). I’m not averse to pulling them out to use on slippery pieces of food. After all Chinese colleagues who come to India pull out their chopsticks to eat puris (just as many Westerns are also loathe to use their fingers).

    When you are a tourist you don’t have to fit in, all you need to have is respect for the place you visit

    • I think that respect for the places we visit (and, strangely, I consider my sojourn on this planet as a visit since I’m not here that long in the grand scheme of things) respect is the first condition and pretty tough at times. I think disrespect results from ignorance very often. I can’t imagine a Chinese eating with his fingers. That was one thing that disgusted the Han Chinese I knew about the Muslims from Western China. As for American food, it’s pretty hard to cope with a steak with chopsticks, even if you have a knife…

  3. Thank you Martha, brilliant. A completely different experience on the mountain. I like your attitude to difficulties and acceptance, as well as good reading of the fact that we are almost always looked after when we travel. I hope to write up my next experience after Emei shan, meeting three poets in Loshan who gave me a chinese name and some wonderful scrolls. Thanks again, Simon

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