I had arrived in Dali with the intention of exploring the Cangshan Mountain range to see if there was some opportunity for backpacking trips with young adults. I arrived at the train station around 5:30, and by 7 I was underway and hiking up the side of the mountain with a guide that I had hired out for the next day. The sun had already set, and as luck would have it the flashing I had brought along did not survive the flight, forcing me to climb 600 vertical meters of steps in the dark. Hiking at night can be a very cool experience, and many people actually do quite a bit better without a flashlight, as the ultra contrast between light and dark tends to ruin your depth perception, especially with the unnatural color of light provided by most LED flashlights. Hiking in darkness means that you have to go slower, but I have always had a much greater sense of where I am and what is around me. A flashlight reduces the number of times that you have to blindly feel around, but I always have the strange sensation that I am in a bubble, out of touch with everything that is not illuminated.
I started at the base of the mountain with the mindset that high altitude was going to pose no challenge for me, but by the time we had arrived at the Inn (position around the 2600 meter mark), I found myself already dizzy and breathing double time. I was glad to drop my pack and have a drink. We spent some time with the Innkeeper, an odd older man who spoke an unrecognizable dialect but was very friendly and happy to have us for the evening. We took our rooms, which overlooked the city far down below. Because we were so far south, they were unheated and open air, a style which I have come to love. The temperature went down just below the freezing point, but I had an amazing night sleep, waking the next morning to a fantastic sunrise.
We set out early with the goal of making it to the highest point in the range, the Malong Peak, standing just above 4100 meters. I was very sore from the night before, and it was apparent that I had overworked most of the muscles in my legs. Five minutes into our hike and they were already cramping, a very bad sign when you have 17 more kilometers to go. The trail was very slippery, but we were soon enough out of the woods and hiking into the beginnings of the alpine zone, the distinct line where the plant life changes due to the effects of altitude. The trees get smaller, and all sorts of small shrubs dot the ground. My guide informed me that locals tend to climb this mountain so that they can harvest the bamboo that grows high up. I couldn’t image hiking this high, only to carry bundles of bamboo all the way back down.
After some time, we made it to the 3600 meter sign, at which point my head was spinning and I felt purely sick. I had a coach in high school who wouldn’t let us stop running until someone threw up, a brutal style of coaching, but effective in making a point. As we hiked, I thought periodically about whether the sensation was real, or just something my mind was doing to ask me to slow down a little. As we went higher, I decided that it was probably a combination of both, but it went away relatively quickly once we stopped and I had some food and time to breath. In the distance, I could hear music, and for a moment I wondered whether or not it was a hallucination. We were way up on the mountain, and yet I was hearing a very distinct sound, not unlike the metallic racket you hear at a carnival. It’s what I picture when I think of the sounds that would exist in Santa’s workshop, a bell-like, over-sweetened melody that doesn’t really seem to start or end.
“It’s the Chairlift”, said my guide, watching me look around. “They built a Chairlift up here a few months ago, and it plays Simon and Garfunkel’s “The Sound of Silence” all the time”.
My first thought was not the absurdity (or irony) of song choice, but rather that I had come all this way looking for wilderness, only to be met near the top with the epitome of Chinese tourism. A damned chairlift. I had seen the same tragedy on the sand dunes in Inner Mongolia. In the middle of the desert, miles from anything else, one of the few remaining pieces of nature and they decide to build a chairlift so that people won’t have to experience the terror of hiking. I found myself once again confronting frustration, tinged with a strange bit of culture shock.
As we came over the top of the hill we were climbing, I could clearly see the station at the end of the chairlift, a massive, ugly structure sitting right at the base of the peak. It was a beautiful valley, and a shame to have ruined it with all the walkways and mechanics of this beast. We boarded one of the platforms, while a number of Chinese looked at us as though we were insane. Walking along the elevated path, we found our way to the top obstructed, and a guard informed us that we were no longer aloud to hike all the way up.