Growing up, I would hear this saying again and again: 不到黄山非好汉 roughly translated as: He who never reached Huangshan peak cannot be called a real man. The saying is often used to encourage someone, or yourself, to persevere and not give up on your goal even if it's as difficult as climbing Huangshan mountain.
Huangshan is one of the most famous mountain ranges in China. What sets Huangshan apart is its 6,000 stone steps leading up to its peak. The steps were carved into the side of the mountain by pilgrims.
I always knew I would climb Huangshan one day. The summer following the sophomore year in college seemed as good a time as any. I set out to plan a trip to Huangshan Mountain.
Today, tourism industry is thriving around Huangshan. Hotels, restaurants, cable cars, porters, rest stops, practically everything you could think of to make you comfortable. To me, that just takes the sports out of it (pun unintended).
Back then, very few people went to climb Huangshan. There were no cable cars, no food and drink stands on the route, no porters for hire, nothing. The hardest part, though, was there were no bathrooms on route! But the mountain was unspoiled, rugged and natural, before commerce changed the face of Huangshan.
Another reason that few people went to climb Huangshan was that tourism simply didn't exist in China. It was just after the Cultural Revolution, and the economy had just started to recover. There was no room for tourism in people's income. Going to someplace 'without a reason', just for the fun of it, was almost unheard of.
I started asking friends and schoolmates if anyone wanted to climb Huangshan with me. Everybody I asked seemed to have plans and could not go. I secretly wondered if some people were afraid I'd become a burden with my prosthetic leg and all that. I couldn't blame them. It was kind scary to climb Huangshan with both legs. I might become a big responsibility. I decided it was definitely not due to lack of love and friendship. In fact some friends said as much. If I put myself in their shoes, I wouldn't go with me.
I knew if I was being reasonable, I should not go solo. But once again, my stubbornness got the better of me. I decided to go alone. What was the worst thing that could happen? The worst come to the worst, I was unable to climb. But I wanted to judge with my own experience.
I didn't tell Mom and Dad I was going to climb Huangshan. I said I was going to Qingdao Island to visit with friends.
Huangshan is about 800 miles from Beijing. There were no hi-speed rail then, and I couldn't afford airplanes. So I took the traditional, coal-burning train. It took about 10 hours to get there.
Back then we didn't have a great variety of food to buy for outdoors. Neither there was bottled water to buy. When you went on a trip, the most common food you'd bring was a slightly sweet, round shaped bread, sporadically laced with dried fruit bits. It cost ten cents. For water, we would bring a military style canteen, either made from tin or from plastic.
I knew I had to keep a balance between having some food and water in me and not having to stop all the time. At the train station I bought 4 pieces of bread and 2 boiled eggs. I had brought a plastic canteen from home with me. I filled it with tap water.
In the village at the foot of the mountain, I found two small inns. They were the villagers' homes that they turned to 'inns' by adding a single bed in their small and dark kitchen. Nothing else. There was no indoor plumbing in either of the inns. I picked the one that looked a little cleaner. It cost two Yuan, which at that time was a big sum, especially for this small 'inn'. Some villagers might not making that much laboring for a year farming. It was for the location, I tried to reconcile with myself. I bought a bowl of rice and some pickled tofu from the wife, after she finished cooking, for 15 cents. To avoid having to get up in the middle of the night to go use the outhouse, I tried not to drink water.
The next morning around 4am, I left the small inn with my backpack. I traveled light. In my backpack, there was the bread I bought the day before, a toothbrush, some very light cloths, and my wallet. In my wallet, I made sure I had my student ID with me, in case unfortunate events happened. I my canteen around my neck. Let the adventure begin.
One of my many deficits in life was that I don't have a sense of direction. Not even a bit.
I was standing on the street trying to make sense of a map when I heard someone say: "Do you need help to decipher that map?" I couldn't help but giggled. So the map was difficult. I looked up. A plainly dressed young man stood there with a backpack. On his left chest was a school badge that read Shanxi University. Everything about him was average and unremarkable, his looks, clothes, height, weight. Nothing about him stood out. I wouldn't be able to pick him out from a crowd.
I told him yes, I was having trouble to understand the map because I had no sense of direction whatsoever. He said casually: "I had marked up a route," while he unfolded and spread out the map in his hands. I saw a thick line in red ink on his map. He told me that there are actually several routes to go up. I was attempting to copy his route onto my map when he said: "Why don't we go together to conquer this little mount."
That was so unexpected that I thought I heard him wrong. “You mean, climbing the mountain together with me?” I asked him. “Yes, My name is Li Gang,” he said with a warm smile.
"Are you also crazy enough to come climb by yourself?" I asked him. "No crazier than you, but yes, I came alone,” he said with the warm smile.
Oh, I thought, in this case, it would be so nice to climb together with him, but I needed to let him know about my leg. I figured once he knew that, he probably would have second thoughts. Better to do that now than later. Seeing me hesitating, he said: "If you are worrying about your leg, don't be." He told me that he saw me walking toward the mountain by myself. He recognized I was wearing an artificial leg. "I thought you are so courageous. I admire that. But I think it would be too dangerous for you to do it alone."
I felt embarrassed. I said: "I'm not courageous. I'm really just reckless."
I said I would love climbing the mountain with him, but I would most definitely slow him down, maybe doubling the time to go up. On average, it took about 6 hours to go up and 4 or 5 hours to come down. We on the other hand would take at least ten hours to go up. "We might have to spend the night on the peak, without lodging, and come down tomorrow. Would that mess up your travel plans?"
Li Gang waited for me to get my thoughts out without interrupting me. When I paused to take a breath, he said with that same warm smile: "I already thought about all that before I approached you. As you'll see I'm not an impulsive person." Then he said: "I would be honored and flattered if you allow me accompanying you up the mountain. I have never met any girls with your determination. That's something we could all learn from you."
This university student looked plain and average in every way, but he had such a big heart, which was anything but average. He touched me deeply.
After we started climbing, it didn't take long for me to realize how foolish I had been, thinking I could do this alone without help. The steps were so narrow in places, I would have to go sideways to put my foot on the step. If I put all my weight on my toes on the narrow steps, I would lose balance and fall. Many places didn't have handrails. Without someone to hang on to, I wouldn't be able to climb those.
At the time, prosthetics were not very advanced in China. My artificial leg was basically a 'wooden leg'. I wasn't able to alternate my feet to land on different steps. I would raise my good leg up a step, then 'drag' my prosthetic leg up to land on the same step. It was almost like doubling the number of steps. Usually, the slower you go, more tired you get. Climbing with me forced Li Gang to slow down drastically. The climb would be tremendously more taxing for him just from the slow speed alone.
We chatted as we went. Li Gang was majoring in mechanical engineering. He'd been fascinated by trains since he was a toddler. He hoped to work as an engineer for one of the train manufacturers located in his region.
Li Gang grew up in a remote village in Shanxi Province. Both his parents were peasants. I was so impressed that he passed the difficult college entrance exams under those circumstances. He was the only one who got admitted to college, in not only his village, but also in all the surrounding villages that belonged to the same district. It was a much bigger accomplishment than people like me who grew up in major metropolitans like Beijing. And yet, he was so humble, with a quiet self confidence.
Li Gang told me he had a fiance back home named Xia. They were childhood sweethearts. Their families were close for generations. Xia had a half dozen younger siblings. Her education stopped at grammar school so she could help around the house and take care of her siblings. Since he started college, Xia had been going to his home and helping his parents, both in and outside of the house, with things that were traditionally a wife's duties. For all intents and purposes, she was practically his wife.
I asked Li Gang why Xia did not come to Huangshan with him. He said traveling for pleasure was still considered wasteful and luxurious. It didn't even come up that she would travel with him. Plus they were saving for their honeymoon. He was traveling with the stipend money from the government by skipping meals during the school year.
I told Li Gang how I lost my leg, and how Mom and Dad helped me to fight the authorities and the perfect health requirement for college admission. He asked me why I came alone, I told him all my friends had other plans for the summer, but in reality they were all probably a little scared and I couldn't blame them. I would not come with me. And I said it turned out they were right not coming with me. They wouldn't be able to help me climb like he was doing now.
We were not even one third up the mountain when the skin on my stump started breaking from the constant friction against the artificial leg. I did not need to look at it to know my stump was all raw and bloody. This made climbing the steps very painful, but I expected that. I gritted my teeth and continued.
At one point, a group of college students, all boys, caught up with us. We struck up a conversation. They were from Beijing University. They said they couldn't believe I would come to climb the whole thing. They said their female classmates all declined their invitation to come along. They climbed with us for a while, then they moved ahead. We would see them again on their way down. They tipped us off that there was some kind of a shed on the peak. Maybe we could use it as a shelter when we spend the night there.
The summer sun was kind of nice in the morning with slight mountain breeze, but it quickly showed its mighty power. I felt the ruthless heat on my back like fire. I tried not to drink the water in my canteen and just took tiny sips when the thirst got unbearable. The canteen had to last for 2 days. Maybe it's because we both were young and healthy, neither of us got dehydrated or heat stroke.
Growing up in Beijing, in summers, you would see popsicle stands all over the place. They were generally stationed by older ladies. The ladies would shout out in fluctuating tones, almost like singing: "Hawthorn berries and red beans popsicles, 3 cents each, and vanilla and chocolate popsicles, 5 cents each." My favorite flavor was hawthorn berries. As a child, one of my biggest wishes was to eat 10 of those hawthorn berry popsicles in one shot.
So I was stunned when I heard this familiar tone in the Huangshan Mountains. I thought, I'm dreaming but that's good, as I'll wake up happy. I said to Li Gang: "I must be hallucinating. I heard someone selling hawthorn berry popsicles." Li Gang said he heard it too and he thought the relentless heat was driving him out of his mind. There were surely no popsicle stands in the mountains. It just could not be. But the singing continued, becoming louder and louder. Then sure enough, an old village lady was sitting on a big rock under a leafy tree. In front of her, sat the familiar popsicle cart. I had never saw a popsicle cart this beautiful.
I counted out six one-cent coins from my wallet and laid them on the top of the cart. Two hawthorn berry popsicles please, I said. Hearing that, the old lady gave me such a strange look that I thought I had something on my face. "Three cents are when you are on the streets. This is in the mountains. It was not easy for me to pull the cart up the steps."
"Oh OK," I said, thinking it was very reasonable, "how much then?"
"One yuan per popsicle." Hearing this I almost fell off the mountain. At the time, one yuan could buy enough food to feed a family of 4 for a day. I told Li Gang we should pass and keep going. It would be unforgivable to be so spoiled as to buy a hawthorn berry popsicle with one whole Yuan. But I couldn't move, like my feet were stapled down. I imagined the slightly sweet popsicle melting in my dry and thirsty mouth.
Li Gang saw my internal struggle and said: "Why don't we buy 1 popsicle and share it. That wouldn't be too wasteful." I let that idea win the argument with myself. The popsicle had never tasted better before, and has never tasted better since.
The open sore on my stump where it rubbed against my prothetic leg was getting more excruciating by each step. Li Gang told me to lean on him to lessen the pressure on my stump. At first, I tried hard not to do that, but gradually without realizing it, I was leaning on him more and more. The tricky part was how to lean on him. Many of the steps were one person width so only a single person could climb through at a time. We came up with a solution. I would stand one step below him, and wrap my arms around his whist. Li Gang would carry his backpack on his chest, not unlike a front facing baby carrier. Then we synchronized our steps.
When I asked, Li Gang kept saying that he was not tired, that he was built of steel (his given name, Gang, means steel in Chinese). But how was it possible he was not tired? Toward the end, he virtually carried both of our weight up to the peak, at the most taxing portion of the climbing. If, as the sayings go, one is not a true man unless he reaches Huangshan peak (不到黄山非好汉 ), how should I describe Li Gang? Not only he reached the peak, he almost half carried me up, tripling the climbing time. I shamefully realized I over estimated my own endurance, and recklessly agreed for Li Gang to climb with me. Years later, I would hear Clint Eastwood say: "A man's gotta know his limitations," and I would feel tremendous shame for what I put Li Gang through to satisfy my own stubbornness.
When we reached the peak, it was almost midnight. We had been climbing steps for some 18 hours.
It was completely dark and no one else was around. But there seemed to be more stars, and they seemed to be brighter than in the city. The breeze over the mountains had become stronger and cooler. We found the little rundown shed, about which those students told us. We took out all the clothes from our backpacks and put them over what we had on. We lay down on the ground. We were too tired to talk or to eat the bread and eggs in our backpacks. We soon fell asleep.
The next morning around 5 o'clock, Li Gang woke me from my dream where I was enjoining hawthorn berry popsicles, surrounded by more hawthorn berry popsicles. "Almost sunrise time," he said as he reached out to help me get up from the ground. The open sore on my stump had dried up somewhat overnight. The pain was much more manageable when I walked.
We sat side by side facing the east. I'd never witnessed a sunrise before, let alone the famous Huangshan sunrise. It proved to be more striking and grand than I could have ever imagined.
We didn't get to see anything in the dark the night before. Now in the morning sun and mountain fresh air, we took in the striking panoramic view. We loved how clouds flicked among smaller peaks of various heights. We agreed it was worth every step we took.
Since there was no lodging in Huangshan at the time, the occasional climbers generally came down in the same day as they went up. As a result, few people had witnessed Huangshan sunrise from the main peak. We were among the privileged few who had earn our bragging rights. Today, with all the cable cars and four-star hotels, anyone can enjoy it almost without any effort at all. I wonder if it is just as worthy writing home about (pun unintended).
Coming down took us about 12 hours. Though it was a little easier than going up, it still challenged our physical and mental endurance greatly.
At the foot of the mountain, we found a small restaurant and talked over tea. We promised each other to write. Li Gang said he would come to Beijing again the following summer. I said I would be sure to not leave Beijing so we could get together. Then it was goodbye time. We needed to catch our separate trains, going the opposite directions. Back then in China we didn't hug. Not between parents and their children. Not between friends and classmates. Not with relatives. Even couples never hugged in public. Hack, they seldom held hands in public. If it was like now, I would have hugged Li Gang until he couldn't breathe, but then, after the unforgettable two days, Li Gang and I simply shook hands before we parted our ways.
A couple of weeks later, I received a long letter from Li Gang. In the letter, being a true Chinese, he complimented me on my grit and tenacity, and, apologized for not helping me enough! In my reply to him, I expressed my admiration for his extraordinary qualities and characters, and apologized for being so incapable, fragile, and slow.
In the second part of his letter, Li Gang said if he were not practically married to Xia, he would have proposed to me right there on the Huangshan Mountain peak. He said the way I just kept going, enduring great pain and discomfort, just grabbed his heart. A girl could not hope to be more flattered than that.
What a remarkable man with a unremarkable appearance. A unpolished diamond, but a diamond all the same.