Now that spring has irrevocably sprung, the mystery of the disappearing season — winter — has emerged like a mountain from the mist, along with its solution. First, summer: hot, humid, cicadas to shout over. Then, precipitous chill, and season 2. Psychologically, initial incompetence transformed into habitual incompetence, and bedazzlement subsided to routine wonder (“I’m in freakin’ China!” lost its exclamation point.) The log of staggering events still grew, but then one day it was … March. And then April. What happened to the inbetween? What terrifying force could suck up the passage of time into a blink?
One clue: We came to China but winter stayed at home. Connecticut was buried, repeatedly. We read daily of school closures, storms so backed up they had to take a number, snow so deep you needed a core sample to find your car. The kids were envious; I felt both guilt and relief. Meanwhile Tianjin hovered in the 20s beneath a gritty sun, save for a pathetic centimeter of white some weeks ago — at which the entire Chinese civil service bureaucracy was summoned, wielding brooms.
In other words, Tianjin does not have weather. Seasonal change is beneath notice, and each day is almost the same as the day before. With subliminal seasons, time does not pass; its landmark events pile into an undifferentiated bin marked “over,” and one does not change.
The missing weather is compounded by the other absence in this urban vast: nature. The trees have been brown for four months now. There never have been any birds… or squirrels … or clouds… or stars … or sky. Or even sun, since (as reported earlier) here you can stare at the sun without hurting your eyes. The sole herald of spring has been the return of the diabolical mosquitoes, who enter our apartments by secret tunnels.
The Chinese world view blurs nature and human worlds under the heading of the beautiful. Several of the great nature sites here are half artifact. Mount Tai (September) is a big calligraphy scroll; even the county park, “Lion’s peak,” in Nanchang (February) is a crawl of aphorisms and self-referential description (“This is such a high mountain”…”Yes it’s high all right”….) Gardens, of course, are thoroughly designed. And everywhere we observe the maxim, “if it is beautiful, it is even more beautiful with loud elevator music.” These are the classical examples. Nowadays when nature threatens a drought, the government responds by seeding clouds, not just once but in more than 10,000 locations over several weeks. We owe our dusting of snow to this effort. So when it snows, the kids ask, is it fake?
So I expected Huangshan, Yellow Mountain, to resemble Taishan (Mt. Tai), a carved relic of several dynasties, a formal staircase (3,000 steps) among souvenir shops and hotels, perhaps with a soundtrack. A few slogans set me up: “When you have seen Huangshan, you do not need to see any other mountain” and Deng Xiaopeng’s comment that to see Huangshan is to discover the beauty of the motherland. Both of these would look nice carved in gigantic red characters on a cliff. But Huangshan is too big and too rugged and so perhaps humbled the chislers. Before cable cars, it’s hard to imagine climbing it at all, though various monks, hermits, rebels, and philosophers have intruded over the years. Officially it’s a massive tilted igneous uplift carved by ancient glaciers to leave a bouquet of sharp peaks, but you’ve probably already seen it. Most classical Chinese landscape painting depicts mountains like this, many of them depicting Huangshan itself. I thought the look of these paintings was just a style, a form of exaggeration, but Huangshan really does look like that. We arrived by cable car on a warm, sunny day to make our lofty way up hill and down dale to our hotel, one of three up there. Every few hundren feet we gawked at viewpoints, each labelled “Best view of Huangshan,” which was always right. We finally arrived at “Cloud dispelling hotel,” named after a viewpoint on up the trail. We unloaded and snacked for a bit, excited to be looking out across the high ridges.
Near sunset we walked further toward “Cloud dispelling platform.” And like all the other tourists, we were astounded by the “sea of clouds,” a cottony plane out to infinity from which the forlorn spires rise. It looks like a magic ocean, and it moves. While Rianna and I watched the sunset, the sea of clouds tsunamied a thousand feet, almost to our perch, swallowing mountains as it surged, and then it sank again in minutes. That night the sea rose into rain, but the next morning cloud dispelling platform continued dispelling, but now the sea gathered in cloud icebergs rising and falling across precipitous canyons and crags, while cloud waterfalls poured out of hanging valleys. That’s weather! That’s nature! We were traveling with my guh-guh (big brother) and soutze (sister-in-law), and the kids were on spring break, and by majority vote this was the Mountain Tour. I was thoroughly convinced that indeed after Huangshan, you need see no other mountain, but nonetheless we set out for hard-to-pronounce Zhangjiajie, China’s first national park (1980s). And … it’s different. You’ve seen this one too: Pandora! They played clips from Avatar on the giant digital screens (very Chinese) at the park entrance, and the Pandora landscape is exactly Zhangjiajie, even “Hallelujah Mountain,” which maybe floats — it was fully lost in fog (real weather!) when we were there. Unlike the other nature spots, this really had been a wilderness. Now it’s had the China treatment, and is crisscrossed with paved paths, stone stairs, and concrete railings that plausibly simulate wood. Our last day in this wonderland was spent one park over on Tianmenshan, Mt. Tianmen, a mile high platform that observes another Chinese maxim, “If you like it, put a cable car on it.” In this case, the cable car begins downtown, lifts off over the avenues, cruises just above the tenements, the suburbs, orchards, villages, and fields, and only then ascends stright up along peaks and canyons like Zion with trees. The trip takes 35 minutes, the longest cable car in the world. At the top, there’s a sprawl of restaurants and a temple complex. For me the most amazing part was a “plank walk,” a concrete ribbon stuck into the side of a 1,000 foot cliff, with those nice concrete railings (make this out of wood and I stay home). It’s not Tianshan or Huangshan but still very Chinese: The infrastructure built on this incredible chunk is astounding, far beyond any national park I’ve seen in any other country. As a result, people visit, lots of them, many in groups with guides with loud PAs. In China, you have to walk many miles to get away from it all, vs. the 100 yards to solitude in an American park.) The Chinese seem to have little taste for roughing it (perhaps life is already rough enough), so a good park has to handle grandmothers in street shoes. Camping and RVs — nonexistent. Westerners, also nonexistent, at least in Zhangjiajie, where we saw no Westerners for two days.
Will time start again after this shock of nature? Have to wait and see.