“Now remember,” my uncle instructed as he disappeared into the back of the car. “Water is essential for hiking trips.” As he proceeded to stuff our backpacks with bottled water, I surveyed my surroundings. We were standing in the Fenghua Hotel parking lot in Dali, China. The sunshine felt wonderful on my back after a twenty-hour flight from Atlanta. “These may be a little heavy now, but you’ll thank me later,” my uncle’s voice woke me from my reverie. He handed us our backpacks, and I soon realized that “a little heavy” was an understatement. But the day was too tranquil for complaining. I dutifully shouldered my load, and we set off to climb Cangshan Mountain.
We walked silently up Main Street through Old Town Dali, which was built in the distinct style of the Ming Dynasty. Glazed tile eaves extended onto the sidewalks while water ran through narrow ducts on both sides of the street. Small taxicabs clattered by, beckoning to tourists. We ignored them initially, but I soon learned the reason for their popularity: Dali was actually built on the mountain, a fact that became increasingly apparent as my legs began to tire. Straining up the steady incline with thirty pounds of cargo on my back, I looked enviously at a family seated comfortably in the back of a taxicab. My mother seemed to have read my mind and glared at me reproachfully. “Don’t even think about it,” she hissed.
About three hours in, we came to a unanimous decision to take a break. As we plopped ourselves down, gasping for breath and gulping down water, an old Dali woman wearing the traditional navy blue headscarf passed us. She looked about sixty but moved with surprising agility. “Not far from the top now,” she lilted in a rolling Dali accent, her eyes twinkling with a curious, toothless grin. We chuckled softly as we looked at each other – tourists wearing baseball caps and sneakers who must have looked so foreign in her world – and continued climbing.
As a typical city dweller for whom cars and elevators were the daily modes of transportation, I became fascinated by the simple joy of climbing a mountain with my own two feet. Every step was a challenge, an obstacle that would soon be conquered on a steady journey upward. We moved as if in a dream, suspended out of time and place by the seclusion of the trees and our self-imposed silence. The city, the cars, and the menial distraction of cell phones and iPods had all fallen away, leaving each person to his own thoughts.
Up the final flight of steps and around a bend, we stopped at a small clearing. All five of us were breathless, though it could have been from the climbing or because of the magnificent scenery before us. Shrouded in a fine veil of fog, the highest peak of Cangshan Mountain loomed stoically. Below us, the terrain dropped dramatically in a flourish of lush foliage until it tapered off into the shores of Erhai Lake, which glowed hazily under the glaring July sun. We strolled languidly, marveling at minute details as if inspecting a painting, eagerly snapping pictures of a tendril of flaming red flowers, a clump of wild mushrooms, a cascading waterfall… But what impressed me the most was the silence: an organic tranquility that translated into a profound inner peace.
Later, we took a cable car down the mountain and a cab back to the hotel. The trip down took about thirty minutes but felt oddly anti-climatic after the triumph of our six-hour climb…
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