“To be tramping under the stars toward a great mountain is always an adventure; now we were adventuring for the first time in a new mountain country which still held in store for us all its surprises and almost all its beauties.”*
George Leigh-Mallory wrote that in 1922 after his first reconnaissance of Mt Everest. He would die on its high and unforgiving peak two years later, just below the summit, to lie there frozen and unfound until the famous expedition of 1999 discovered his corpse, pale as alabaster, somewhere below 8,200 meters.
I wasn’t thinking of this as we climbed the considerably lower rock slopes of Borneo’s Mount Kinabalu – I just happened on that passage reading Leigh-Mallory’s book on the plane to Kota Kinabalu. But his words describe perfectly the feeling we had that morning, at 3,900 meters and still short of the summit, with a big moon directly overhead and the Southern Cross low on our left side. Pale clouds filled the sky below us, surrounding our little rocky island in the night sky.
This is a story about the Great Wall, but even more than that it’s a story about a guy I know who’s really, really into the Great Wall. Yes, I know I’m into the Wall – every second entry on this blog is about it – but I am nothing more than a young, naive Luke Skywalker to this guy’s Yoda. In May 2013 I joined him on an expedition to explore obscure, remote parts of the wall out in Gansu Province, as far west as historical China extended during the Han and Ming dynasties. In a week with Yoda, I would climb a rockface, navigate by night, gather Han potsherds, thumb rides by the side of the freeway, and eat stir fried gizzards. I also learned a lot about the Great Wall, and made a good friend.
Once, a mighty tiger roamed the mountains of ancient China. He ruled the steep cliffs with impunity. But along came a hunter, as mighty in the world as the tiger was in the wild. Slowly and carefully, quietly and expertly, the hunter stalked the tiger. Through forest and clearing, up mountains and down, until late one night, above the river, the tiger was cornered. A huge cliff behind him, and the powerful, deep, ice cold waters of the river below. The hunter drew his arrow, the bowstring stretched back ready for the killer shot. All was quiet. Savouring the moment, taking quiet satisfaction in his expertise, the hunter loosed the arrow.
Yon with friends, December 2014
“Don’t worry”, said the old lady, “just relax, it will all be fine”.
That was the best advice we heard about giving birth. Simple, straightforward, and spot on. It didn’t come from a doctor, a midwife, or the author of any of the veritable library of pregnancy books around our place or any of the generous friends who’d shared them along with their own stories. Instead, it came from the woman in the blue apron in the photo above, a mother of two from a small rural village in China who, doubtless, had given birth in what most of us would consider spartan conditions. The lady spoke quietly, gently and wisely, but more than what she said, it was how she said it. Yon, by then more than eight months along, smiled, and relaxed. As the uncertain father-to-be, I felt the anticipation ease as well. It was almost the first time I really thought “we can do this”.
It’s almost a cliche, the wisdom of an old lady in a remote village. If a backpacker told me the story in a bar in Bangkok, I’d probably roll my eyes. If Hillary Clinton wrote a book about it, Oprah would give it a glowing review. But sometimes, people who do things the old ways really do know how to do them best. And all we need to do is listen.
Storm blows in towards Lake Son-kul
A breeze can turn to a blast in seconds. We lazed at the door of our yurt in the last light of day, and the wind did just that. “Ai!” yelled the matron of the camp, if that’s the way to describe a tough as nails Kyrgyz mother. Seeing her start tying down the other yurts, we clued in quickly and did the same to ours. Moments later the storm hit, sending dust flying and causing the horses to whinny in complaint, their high pitched wail rising high over the thumping flap of woolen yurt doors cutting loose from their ties. Rain splashed down, brief but hard, and then, almost before it had come, it was gone. The sun put in one last effort, the air was soft again, and the cold night fell.
Tall green trees wave in the wind, blue sky behind them. The call to prayer rises, wafts in through the open window, alluring and mysterious. We lie on the bed, staring out that window, listening to the singing float on that cool wind. Later, as the sun sets over a huge white Buddhist stupa, we sip a fresh lime soda and stare at the Kangri Range. Stok Kangri’s summit, a grey wedge of rock streaked with snow, reaches up 6,137 meters above the range. It catches the last of the yellow evening light. We are in Leh, a mountain town in northern India, and after just one day we already love it. A happy, peaceful mix of local Ladakhis, Tibetan Buddhists, Kashmiri Muslims and a sprinkling Indians from down south, this place seems to us to show that people can just get along. It’s stark but beautiful, its people practical, hardy, but above all peaceful, friendly and refreshingly warm.
PAZU: “Laputa” is an island floating in the sky.
SHEETA: An island that floats in the sky?
PAZU: Yes. And although it’s said to be a legend… My father saw it!
Flashback of his father flying a dirigible through a storm; he catches a glance of a city high in the clouds and takes a photo
PAZU: It’s the photograph he took then. …Now, there’s no one living in the palace any more. But a lot of treasure is sleeping there. But nobody believed it. …But, my father’s not a liar.
PAZU: Now I’ll make it real — I will go and discover Laputa…
If you love anime, you’ll love Miyazaki. And if you love Miyazaki, you’ll love “Castle in the Sky“.
And if you love that, you’ll love Choquequirao, a real-life lost and ancient Castle in the Sky.