Watching dawn break from the pinnacle of Mao’er Mountain is a unique experience. Few places on land provide the same perspective of the undulating tops of clouds crawling seeping over the peaks of dragon-fanged hills and breaking like waves on a rocky beach. Chairman Mao once stood here, probably contemplating the struggle beneath his feet. Though the country below has changed radically in the seven decades since the Great Helmsman’s visit, the view has not. From 2,141 meters, change is measured in geological, not political time. There are no visible lines on the ground below to demarcate provincial boundaries, just the abstract knowledge that, according to maps, Hunan lies to the north and Guangxi stretches south.
This must have been important to Mao, who counted on the loyalties of people to whom these distinctions were critical. He’d climbed this mountain with a ragtag bunch of Long Marchers (or so goes the accepted party line), dodging the bombs and bullets of Chiang Kai-shek’s airplanes and snipers. My own ascent was luxurious by comparison. I’d come to the mountain the night before with Lu, a beautiful Kung Fu master from Yangshuo, and her American boyfriend Eddie. While the ancient van we’d hired from the base of the mountain had no shock absorbers and a heavy exhaust leak, nobody was trying to kill us. But we had one struggle up on the Chairman: He didn’t have to bribe the park authorities to get in, and we did.
I’d only learned of the existence of Mao’er mountain the previous morning, after running across an article in the People’s Daily that spoke of a seldom-visited mountain north of Guilin, the highest peak in Guangxi province and home to several dozen species of rare and endangered flora and fauna. A few of these, said the article, could be found nowhere else on the planet. Further, the whole mountain was a protected wildlife area. What the People’s Daily neglected to mention was that the mountain was protected not merely from hunters and gatherers, but also from westerners. Mao’er Mountain, I’d find out later, was one of those increasingly rare places in modern China from which foreigners were legally barred.
Except for us and the farmers, the only other people on the final leg of the trip from the main road to the base of Mao’er mountain were a group of students from Guilin university. They carried with them thin plastic bags holding watermelons, sunflower seeds, and various jerked meats. Aside from eating these items from the top of the mountain, their plans were as vague as our own.
“We are going to walk up to the top of the mountain, then back down.” One of them said. A few moments later the group, realizing that a hike of 25km in the dark (literally but not figuratively a walk in the park) would be no cakewalk, decided to hire a van to take them up, spend the night stargazing, and walk down at the crack of dawn.
As the minibus wound its way along a road skirting terraced rice fields and old villages, I overheard some chatter from the farmers leading me to believe that foreigners were not often seen in these parts. It was only when we pulled into the last stop, a one-tractor town at the base of Mao’er Mountain that the reason why was made clear. I’d suggested to one of the students that we all might save a few Yuan by arranging transit as a group. He went off to chat with a woman running the last restaurant before the park’s entrance, emerging a few moments later with a long face.
“The boss here says that she can help us rent a van. Unfortunately, you can’t come up because foreigners aren't permitted on Mao'er mountain.”
I laughed it off. “Is it because Mao hid here during the long march? Because that cat’s long out of the bag.”
The student just shrugged. “I don’t know the reason, but the boss says everyone in town knows that foreigners aren’t allowed inside the nature preserve.”
It’s a cruel thing to be told after enduring six hours on three busses and one Jackie Chan video that you’re being denied access to the area’s most pristine wilderness area based on national identity. We weren’t about to turn back, and wisely decided not to enter into potentially sensitive negotiations on an empty stomach. We sat down to a chicken hot pot, sending Lu off to assess our options. “Be civil but firm,” I advised. “Mention that you’re a Kung fu master, then hint that we’re important foreign botanists.”
Twenty minutes later she returned, looking confused, holding a business card on the back of which she’d scrawled several phone numbers. “At first the boss said there was no way. Then she said we needed to go back to Guilin to get a special pass. Finally, she said that we might be able to arrange a very special pass with the park authorities,”
She rubbed her thumb and forefinger together in the universal sign indicating payoff .
Naturally we were dubious, but it seemed foolish to let ourselves be turned back without even looking into the possibility of bribing our way up. Lu made several calls, and after a few false starts she reached someone connected to the park living in town. The situation was unusual, he told her, as Mao’er mountain wasn’t officially opened to foreign tourists. However, for a special fee a guide could be arranged to accompany us. This fee amounted to 100 Yuan per foreigner. Transport would cost an additional 200 Yuan, and once we saw the vans available – miembao che, so-called because of their resemblance to small loafs of bread – we realized that doubling up with the students was impossible. In addition, we would need to pay for the guide’s room at the hostel. The trip was getting more expensive by the hour, but turning back at this stage seemed the worse of two choices. Lu told the park employee that the conditions were acceptable, and we were told to sit tight and wait for the guide to arrive.
An hour later a short man with a thin lupine face showed up and told us he’d be accompanying us up. His lack of enthusiasm over spending Saturday night with a group of westerners was palpable. I tried to engage him in conversation on the trip up; he answered most questions with grunts, and it was clear that his role was to be not so much guide as babysitter. His only concern was that we, the foreigners, understand that there would be things up on the mountain that we would not be permitted to photograph.
“Military things?” I asked.
“Trees,” he answered, then added mysteriously “but only certain trees.”
At nearly twenty-two hundred meters high, Mao’er mountain has the distinction of being the highest peak in Guangxi province. And on top of the mountain, our taciturn guide informed us, are a number of species of tree found nowhere else on the planet. Though our trip from the town was not long in miles, road conditions – winding and unpaved – made the trip feel more arduous than if we’d actually hiked, and by the time we got to the top we were exhausted.
There are two options for lodging on the top of the mountain; the first is a two-story concrete rectangle that doesn’t so much blend in with the idyllic surroundings as it does insults them. But this is better than option two, a converted military installation half a kilometer away. We settled on option one. Eddie and Lu took one look at the dorm accommodations – long, Spartan rooms with rows of two-tiered bunk beds built out of lumber – and decided they’d rather pay an exorbitant room rate for a private room. This left me to share dorm space with my guide and the students.
But the accommodations proved too Spartan for a generation of young Chinese raised on finer things. True, the inside of the dorm smelled like mushrooms, and not in a good way, but only the most foolish traveler would expect more than a bed and blanket for 30 Yuan at this altitude. While their elders may have endured deprivation in the name of revolution, the students were having none of it. The beds were hard, complained one, and the quilts were musty. They had a quick pow-wow, and reached a consensus that they’d begin their hike down the mountain at once, watching the sunrise from the village. I fell asleep quickly to sound of the guide chatting with his girlfriend on his cell phone. In an odd moment of camaraderie, he confided in me that the reception from this height was especially good.
It was the same mobile phone which jangled me awake five hours later.
“Get up,” the guide told me. “It’s still a twenty minute climb to the top, and the sunrise is a famous view.”
I rose groggily and asked him if photographing this daily occurrence would constitute a breach of state security.
“You can take a picture of the sunrise. But not the rare trees.”
My compatriots were waiting in the lobby. They looked genuinely unpleasant.
Their bed was hard, they told me, and their blanket stank of mold. We made for the peak in darkness, woefully underdressed for the thin, cold air as we climbed the rocky single-track path to the pinnacle. From far below us came the sound of tortured wind, reminding us that we were crawling along a precipice, and that any misstep would be fatal.
On the pinnacle of Mao’er Mountain sits a large boulder, and set atop this is a metal-pipe railing. On this spot, according to a tablet, Chairman Mao himself once stood, though it’s doubtful that the safety railing was here at the time. The Chairman, after all, was a man who scoffed at danger, though the modern day climber takes the idea of being swept into the void more seriously. To the east, a thin wisp of orange was just beginning to lift up the dark, wet sheet of the pre-dawn sky. In the young morning light waves of gray and white clouds crawled in from over the horizon like albino penguins floating in an stormy sea, and the wind wailed like a tormented child.
Over this caterwaul, a yell came from beneath me.
“Foreign man! Good morning!”
I looked down and saw that the Guilin students had again changed their plans, apparently having had second thoughts about descending 25 km in the pitch black. As I was watching the sunrise, they’d been huddling in a crevasse at the base of the boulder, shivering in their light summer clothing, looking exhausted.
“Did you sleep here?” I yelled down over the howling wind.
“Sleep? Are you crazy? We’ve been freezing to death up here all night!”
The boys looked exuberant, as if they’d accomplished something, and the girls just looked exhausted. I realized then that, despite their addiction to modern comforts, the pampered grandchildren of the original revolutionaries were not totally lacking in gumption. The students and I chatted over the wind for a few minutes, until our guide reminded us that he was eager to get an early start, because it was still a long way down and if we kept him out past noon we’d have to pay double. We returned to the hostel, and after a quick breakfast of bagged peanuts, packaged cookies, and hot water, we began our long descent.
Less than a kilometer from the hostel we passed a number of unusual trees, tall gangly trunks punctuated by only a few spindly branches up high and crowned by fat, puffy globes of leaves that looked like green afros. They resembled something Dr. Seuss might have sketched. If the Ents (the gigantic walking tree-creatures from Lord of the Rings) had fielded a basketball team, than these were their first round draft picks. They were strange trees all right, and apparently not particularly enamored of the company of their fellows. Rather than being clustered together, they were scattered, one here and another there, their puffy heads sticking out above the other treas. This made it easy for our guide to make sure that no illicit photos were shot by the wayward and not particularly welcome guests.
Lu, being Chinese, was allowed to photograph anything she liked, which I found particularly irksome. At one point thought I could outsmart the guide by standing on a rock and taking a series of shots, ostensibly to be stitched into a panorama later. If one of the weird trees should sneak into one of the shots, who could be blamed? But as I twisted for the last shot (the one in which the Seuss tree would have been), I heard a loud “bu xing!” behind me. I turned to see my guide wagging an index finger accusingly.
The photographic cat and mouse game continued as we walked, and I developed grudging respect for the guide; despite the ridiculousness of his task – keeping two camera toting foreigners from photographing certain trees, while allowing them to photograph others, he took it as seriously as if he were guarding the president.
“So why aren’t foreigners allowed to take pictures of this tree?” I asked at one point. He answered without skipping a beat.
“Because Mao Er Mountain is the only place in the world where these rare and valuable trees exist. We don’t want foreigners to come here and dig them up.”
“But Chinese visitors are allowed to photograph them. Isn’t it more likely that a Chinese poacher would steal one?”
“No. We have a guard station at the bottom of the hill. We would catch them.”
“But foreigners also need to go past the guard station…”
He replied like Sherlock Holmes making a critical point.
“Ah, but foreigners can’t take pictures of the trees. Therefore, they won’t know where they are!”
I pounced on the fallacy in his argument.
“But Chinese visitors can take pictures of them. Couldn’t they just give the pictures to a foreigner, thus making the whole no pictures for foreigners pointless?”
The guide was flummoxed by the obvious logical flaw, and I worried that his head might start smoking, like a robot confronted with the “everything I say is a lie and I’m lying to you right now” paradox.
But there was no Exorcist-like neck twisting, only a quick re-iteration of the rules before we headed on. Eventually, through a combination of luck and skullduggery, I was able to snap two pictures of the weird trees. At first I assumed that my logic had convinced him, and that the ranger had switched to a policy of don’t ask, don’t tell. However, when I saw him eyeing me with deep suspicion moments after snapping the illicit shots I became paranoid, and in my fear of being caught I surreptitiously swapped the memory card from my camera and stuck it down my underwear. Fortunately the mystery trees only grew in the higher altitudes. Once we passed below this level our guide relaxed. At one point we passed through a grove of Ginkgo Biloba trees, source of a valuable and trendy brain tonic, and our guide again grew tense. I decided to press my luck no further.
Just past the Gingko trees was a spring bubbling from the ground before slipping languidly under thick foliage. A plaque on a nearby boulder proclaimed that this was the source of a tributary that would eventually feed into the Yangtze, Lijiang and Pearl rivers. I tried to imagine these pure waters mingling with the mucky fluids of much larger rivers. Good luck, I wished the stream. Aim for the Lijiang if you can, Yangshuo is lovely this time of year – but avoid joining the Pearl at all costs.
We walked several kilometers down the trail, passing a number of stunning overlooks with elaborately poetic Chairman Mao Stood Here plaques set in nearby stones. By ten AM it was already hot, and our guide again reminded us that we’d have to pay double if we kept him past noon. Having seen the most beautiful parts of the mountain, and paid far more for the privilege than we’d wanted, we instead opted to flag down a passing park truck and beg a lift to the front gate. The ride was bone jarring, but we made it down with time to spare. Our guide jumped out by the front gate and ran off without even saying goodbye, clearly happy to be finished with the odious duty of guarding camera-happy westerners. We could hardly blame him - we were happy to be rid of him as well. Mao’er, like many tall, daunting mountains, challenged all to come, see, and conquer! While we’d conquered little more than bureaucratic stupidity, we’d surely come and seen, and had a couple of pictures to prove it.
Happy to have conquered in this sense at least, we walked through the gate back into parts of China in which white people were legally permitted.
Verboten Mountain first published in the September 15 Hong Kong Weekend Standard