Bus load of vegetables and one 美女

Last week, I  decided to physically conquer the metaphoric “mountain” of challenges before me by actually climbing a mountain, 五指山 (5-finger Mountain) specifically. So here it is, the token “mountain climbed” post that every blogger inevitably makes.

I had arrived in 五指山 City late the previous night, and observed that even this far into the interior of Hainan Island, far away from the beaches and paved highways, one cannot escape the ruthless hand of real estate development. High-rise condos and mountain “resort spas” dotted the forested countryside as my bus bumped into the heart of Hainan. There cannot possibly be that many Chinese millionaires in the market for mountain-retreat retirement homes, I thought in disgust…

6 am the next morning, I pack-up and toss-back a small can of Nestele “coffee”. Ugh, disgustingly sweet every time … but it gives the necessary caffeine boost where real coffee cannot be had.

I stand awkwardly on the road side in front of my hotel, waiting for the uncertain arrival of a bus that will take me to 水满乡, a small village at the base of 五指山. Thankfully, the bus of the day came zooming by around 6:30 and came to a screeching halt in front of me.

As I clamber in, the ticket collecter lady yelled at me in a voice WAY too loud fo 6:30 am: “这么早啊?!” (“This early?!”) I am her first commuter of the day. “往后坐,我前面需要装菜!” (“Sit in the back, I have to load vegetables in the front!”)

Vegetables? I thought as I tucked myself into a back corner seat, examining the dilapidated bus interior, hoping the bus shocks were going to be in better condition than the seats.

I quickly realize what she meant. If you ever want to learn more about the daily work life of Chinese farmers, then wake up in the predawn hours of 5-7 am and ride a bus – this is when the farmers are doing 30% of the daily labor. If you ever had any doubts at the productivity and hard working character of Chinese labor, I suggest you walk through any Chinese town/city at 6 am. As our bus careened through the streets of 五指山 City and its surrounding towns, the bus made about 5-6 unscheduled stops where groups of tired looking farmers huddled on the side of the road, guarding giant piles of vegetables, fruits, and freezer boxes of freshly butchered meat. One-by-one, they load the front of the bus. Bags of onions and potatoes tumble onto the walkway, cow carcases are tied to hand-rails, and where people normally sit, giant stacks of bak choy and carrots lie propped against styrofoam bins of squirming river shrimp. After dumping their goods, the farmers depart on their motorbikes and our bus rolls on upwards to the mountain.

As we drive further into the forest, I gain a glimpse of what the wild Hainan Island must have looked like before development. I am struck by the beauty of the greenery, sparse tropical palm trees eventually replaced by a riotous mix of deciduous spruces, tropical ferns, berry bushes, oaks, beeches, etc. Occasionally, majestic slender white-barked trees emerge from the mountain side, towering over the forest canopy like silent ancient Gods, standing sentinel over their forest. In the distance, I observe a naturally occurring water fall trickling down a cliff face, melting into the mountain mists.

After a hour or so, we arrive and as I get off, the ticket lady took it upon herself to give me advice about safety. “Be sure to wait for other hikers! Don’t go up by yourself, it’s too dangerous!” she said with a crooked tooth grin, “A bus load of vegetables and one 美女!” she cackled (美女 or beautiful girl, is an endearing term Chinese use in reference to young women like me).  Strangest bus ride of my life, I thought quietly.

I pay a local cabbie to drive me to the start of the hike. The jarring ride up on the back of his 三轮车 (three-wheel car) took me past quiet terraced rice patties and chickens pecking at the foot of sleepy looking water buffalo.

Luckily, I bump into a group of college students and their professor from Guangdong province who are in Hainan doing a cross-island bike trip preparing to climb the mountain and ask if I can join them, taking heed the bus lady’s cautionary words. Proving once again that bus ladies in China always speak truth, I was very grateful I did not attempt the climb by myself for 五指山 quickly proved to be the most daunting mountain I have ever hiked.

The 1800 m mount proved to be a treacherous, slippery, and exhausting 7 hour hike. At times I found myself clinging to tree roots and the occasional strategically placed metal bar perched precariously on an exposed vertical face of the mountain, empty expanse stretching beneath my feet. About halfway up the mountain I emerge above the misty cloud cover and blink as the startlingly bright sunshine dries my dew drenched cloths.

Beautiful. Truly beautiful.

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If only life were as easy to climb as mountains….

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