The Taihang Mountains run right through the center of Henan, the province in which I live. Brandon, another teacher from America, and I went for a winter walk in a section of this mountain chain near the city of Linzhou.
We reached Linzhou by car. Brooks, a music teacher from our university, agreed to take us to the mountains for some money. His car was a subcompact hatchback made by a Chinese company called Changan. On the way, I questioned Brooks about his tiny car, with its whiny little engine and toy-like appearance and feel. He told me that it had a 1.0 liter engine and was made in Chongqing, a mega city in the southwest of China.
Brooks’ car did a fine job of getting us to Linzhou, but then faltered when trying to climb the road into the mountain park where we walked. As we entered the mountain park and the road started to climb, the car’s little 1.0 liter engine didn’t have the juice to haul three passengers up a moderate grade. The engine whined in bitter protest and the car slowed to a crawl. Brooks downshifted to the lowest gear but the car struggled to move forward. Eventually, he told Brandon and me to get out of the car and walk. He gave us brief directions on where to walk and said that he’d meet us later in the day by the park’s main gate. So off we went, two westerners on foot heading into unknown mountainous terrain.
The paths in the park were wide, hard-packed and with few signs. Instead of worrying about getting lost, I found myself admiring the beige facades of the flat-topped mountain ridges, the soil and rocks aglow under the azure sky. The weathering of the ridges had produced some interesting rock formations, one of which looked like the Sphinx in Egypt.
Since it was the off-season, there was almost no one else around. In a country with over 1.3 billion people, it’s rare to find a place with few other people, a place that gives you a sense of solitude.
Brandon and I walked at a leisurely pace, the sound of our footsteps absorbed in the silence of the park, our time spent in a pleasant combination of small talk and stretches of contemplative quietness. It took us about four hours or so to make our way back to the main gate. We found Brooks sleeping in his little white car. By then, it was late in the day. Brooks took us to one more place, a nearby mountain temple where I banged a giant gong in celebration of the new year.
It was a good day. It was my first trip outside of Anyang, the city where I live and work, since I arrived in China last August. As unlikely as it may seem, there are still places in China where you can get away from it all, as long as you go in the off-season.