Qingcheng Shan is a famous Taoist temple, but lurking behind it is the disdainfully named Qingcheng Back Mountain. It was a gloomy cloudy day on Wednesday when the university packed all the foreign students into 3 buses for what was to be a day-long trip. Except that none of us that time knew we were going to a ‘back mountain’ (reminds me of Brokeback Mountain!). We were all under the impression that we were going to Ta’an Ancient Town.
Around 8:30AM that day, I walked across to the International Students building where a crowd of mostly unknown students were waiting. Da, a Thai student, who I had immediately liked was also there. Birdy had been rather wary of Da when we first met her almost a month ago while going to the PSB to obtain residence permits. “Doesn’t she remind you of someone?” she had whispered. “And her name begins with “Da” too!” she had exclaimed. I brushed aside her fears – yeah, Da might look a bit similar to this person I knew a little while ago in the last company I worked, and who I can barely remember now, frankly. And good I don’t – bad memories should be dusted away. Fast. But that’s where the similarity ends. Da is a lovely person with a warm smile. A graduate of economics, she is also studying Chinese on a bit of a career break. Fu Julie joins us and the four of us hop on to the nearest bus, which unfortunately has a few characters from the very first B1 class we went to. Dawei and Chun also make their appearance, and sit together. On the way, I see fields yellowed and blooming with rapeseed oil flowers. Rapeseed oil is what gives Sichuan cuisine its distinctive flavor, Birdy whispers authoritatively. As we crawl through the mountain slopes, covered with green at this time of the year, Da and Birdy have a long conversation about cameras.It is around 1.5 hours into the journey when we reach Qingcheng Shan. We all think we have reached, except we haven’t.
At one time, the bus comes to a complete stop. The narrow mountain road is choked with cars all parked on both sides. We learn that today is the day that the Chinese come to pay their respects to their ancestors. At this point, the mountain is covered with tombs. The Chinese bury their dead, and celebrate the day of the dead with incense sticks, flowers, and well…firecrackers. You would think that maybe they want the dead to be startled back into life? The two lunatics from B1 class have left the bus at this point, and we wait for them to come back. Sophie appears from nowhere, along with Roberta explaining that their bus left them when they had gone searching for a restroom. It’s another slow crawl up the mountains, but the road becomes clearer after a little while, especially when the super-efficient jin cha or the police make their appearance.
The entrance to the mountain is the ancient town that we were promised. By this time, it is already lunch time, and all of us are herded into a restaurant. I try telling one of the teachers we don’t eat meat – she hustles us to a bunch of Thai’s who I think were having only pork or something. Then we are hustled to another place – this time a table of Muslims, mainly from Africa. We sit there amidst a bunch of complete strangers. Conversation is rather awkward, but they offer up all the veggie only dishes on the table when they learn of our plight. There is even a Sri Lankan there, and we quickly discuss the cricket World Cup with him. That was the good part. The bad part was the food – I nibbled on what looked like boiled beans, while Birdy found what I hope was not some lard, but tofu as she claimed.
Outside, after a long introduction about the town, and the obligatory class photos, we moved on. By this time Fu Julie was in her elements, cracking us up with the most ridiculous poses.
The ancient town doesn’t look all that ancient in parts – a lot of reconstruction work was underway. And I understood why – on entering the mountain trail we come across a somber sign that talks of the Sichuan earthquake almost 3 years ago. This mountain suffered heavily during the quake and images of that destruction can still be seen:
The path was beautiful – perhaps more so than Emei Shan, especially with lovely little waterfalls on the way. Unfortunately, the whole trail is 5km long, and we just didn’t have that much time as reporting time was 3:30PM. The steps here are narrower than Emei Shan with no railings to support yourself. Yet, as we climbed back down after around 20 minutes of hiking, I reminded myself to come back here again. Or so I think. Sichuan has so many mountains, so many trails that I know it is futile to think of revisiting a spot. It’s a bit like re-reading a book. I usually desist from it because the time you take to re-read the book is the time lost on reading a new book. It doesn’t make it any less enjoyable, but I am sometimes driven by a passionate desire of the lost moment – time appears so like an inscrutable wand. You wish that you can wave it once and have all the time you desire. But then, the moments that come no longer appear so precious then.
Ah, I ramble here. The rest of the evening was a bit of a bore. Wu liao. Fu Julie and I shared a little bit of our experiences abroad. She tells me of the four years she spent in Cambodia. “I was so utterly lonely there you know,” she says, much to my surprise, because I was under the impression she loved her stay there. But as it turns out, she struggled with the language, with the lack of friends, of always being the odd white face in a land of brown, and spending many an evening with only tears for company. By this time, the bus is turning into a claustrophobic cave for me, and I pop an Avomine and drown myself in sleep.
It is already 5:15 when we reach. A mad dash to freshen up, and then a scramble to reach Shamrock Pub to watch what we hoped was the telecast of the India-Pakistan cricket match. I am ravenous with hunger. A loaf of bread. Not enough. Walk more while trying to hail a taxi. Ah, the miseries of trying to get a taxi in Chengdu when you need it! Spy a pancake seller. Buy 2 pancakes. Not enough. A guy next to her is selling some delectable dofu – the kind that I like. The kind that melts into your mouth and doesn’t taste like rubber. “Hey, beautiful women, would you like some?” he asks. We laugh. In India, I would take it as ‘eve-teasing.’ Here, it’s just the way they address you. They call waitresses as mei nu, and whether you are beautiful or not, it just brings a smile to your face. We take the Bus Number 79, and reach Ren Min Nan Lu. Birdy has a stuttering conversation with the person next to her, and we somehow reach Shamrock only to obtain a big potato in return. Well, a dud. A flop. It is 6:30PM already, and I know that Tendulkar is batting. But not in Shamrock. Despite advertising on their website, they are not showing the match. “Well, you better update your website then,” I fume. “It’s also our fault, we should have called them first before we came,” we rant. To no avail. As we walk past disconsolately, I resign myself to watching one of the most anticipated cricket matches ever on a flip-flop Internet connection. Sigh. Wu Liao.