重庆 Chongqing, a restaurant at night where I ate several times, on a side street outside my hotel
On a recent Tomb-Sweeping Day holiday weekend, I took a badly needed day trip to 青城山 Qingcheng Mountain, northwest of Chengdu. The mountain is one of the most important centers of Daoism (道教) in China, as well as being a relaxing, beautiful spot to get away fromt he noise and pollution of the city.
I’d visited the mountain once before, just after my arrival in China in 2006, during a hot, sticky summer when the cicadas were buzzing so loudly I imagined their deep, echoing sounds were coming from some otherworldly gigantic insects. I was with a group of teachers, but instead of climbing the mountainside steps, I took a cable car to near the top.
This time I came by myself, taking the high-speed elevated train from the Chengdu North station about 40 minutes to the Qingcheng Shan station. A word of advice: on leaving the station and heading left to the bus area, don’t take the big city-bus type bus that costs 2 RMB; take the mini-bus, which will drop you off right at the ticket office for the mountain. As I found out the hard way, the big bus lets you off in a parking lot about 2.5 kilometers from the entrance to the mountain proper. It’s a pretty walk if you feel like it (or you can pay extra for the “sightseeing” tram the rest of the way), but since I was planning on a 4-hour mountain hike, it was an unnecessary distance.
Entrance to the mountain is 90 RMB; one enters through an elaborate gateway to a world of semi-tranquility, since the crowds can be overwhelming. However, the only way to proceed is up: broad stone stairways meander up the mountain side, at intervals leading to Daoist temples or areas with restaurants, teahouses, and concessions. About an hour into my ascent, I stopped for a delicious lunch of 麻婆豆腐 mapo doufu (tofu in spciy red sauce) and 鱼味茄子 yu xiang chie zi (“fish flavored” eggplant). I was fortified, but a bit overstuffed, for the rest of the climb.
I had just recovered from a 6-week bout with allergies and a persistent cough from the Chengdu pollution. As I huffed and puffed up the steps, my breathing was labored and my lungs hurt. I continued to cough up toxic chemicals and residue for the next couple of hours.
As you climb the mountain the crowds get thinner – so do the steps, which in some places were narrow and worn, twisting back and forth, and people going up and coming down had to squeeze past each other. The day was hazy, so the views weren’t spectacular, but I heard a couple of bird calls I don’t think I’d ever heard before. At one point, there was a stunning view of the great pagoda at the top of the mountain, looking so close I could touch it. I didn’t imagine I would make it that far, for my calves were burning and I was exhausted.
Then, a couple of incredible things happened. First, I miraculously stopped coughing, my lungs cleared up, and for the first time in weeks I could actually smell fresh air. Air with oxygen in it, the scent of trees and earth, the air that’s good for you. Then, I suddenly realized I had reached the top. Except for lunch, I’d barely stopped more than 5 mintues at any point to rest, and I found myself, with 4 or 5 other people I’d shared the climb with, on a concrete platform beneath a red pagoda looking out at – not much of anything but clouds and haze. I’d reached my goal: I’d made it to the top on my own power, step by step.
I realized that it was 5:30 p.m., and my climb had taken exactly 4 hours. I also realized that I had to rush to try to catch the last cable car of the day, because I was not about to walk all that way back down again. Still, the cable car was about 20 minutes downhill at a fast clip, and I made the very last one – the one that the cable car employees also take because they’re through with work for the day.
I shared a taxi back to the train station, grateful for my day out, the temporary relief from pollution sickness, and the hardest workout I’d had in a couple of years. Near the station I had dinner, before catching the 9 p.m. train back to Chengdu.