Above the clouds

Before yesterday, I would never have thought that I could have made it to a high elevation hike. Don’t get me wrong. I love hiking. The high elevation is what intimidates me. For months I’ve been saying no to hiking excursions unless I could carry oxygen tanks (plural) with me. Yak herders village deep in the mountains sounds cool. But oxygen sounds cooler.

Then yesterday came when I had to lead a group of students to hike the Jizu Mountain, of which I had no idea of the elevation. As a famous Buddhist sacred mountain, there are over 100 big or small temples dotted in it. There are also Taoist and local Benzhu temples. I thought it was just a short hike that even Eloise could handle and then a cable car ride to Jinding Temple at the top of the mountain. Easy peasy. So I didn’t even bring much snacks or water. After we got there after a two-hour drive, guess what, the cable car was closed for maintenance. Fine, we are on foot.

At first, it didn’t seem bad at all. 4720m (distance) seemed totally doable. We chatted and laughed while walking up, and said no to people who tried to convince us to get on a horse ride upward. Passed through some monkeys’ territory who seemed to have got used to tourists around. Even friendly.

Then flights and flights of steps showed up, I started to have a hard time getting enough air in my chest. Quickly I fell behind. And curiously, I checked the elevation – just under 7,000 feet. Not too bad – I kept telling myself while taking a break every now and then. UNTIL some seemingly forbidding steps came into sight. “How high is this thing?” The more I went up, the more I doubted if I could make it. But the more I climbed, the more I felt I’d regret if I didn’t go all the way up. While torn between this overwhelming self-doubt and a tiny hope for a personal breakthrough, I went up slowly but steady. At a certain point, I had to take a break every 50 steps. Along the way, I noticed the changes in vegetation. Part of it was almost like a rainforest. Everything was wet and slippery. It was a little hard to hold my feet on the stone passage. I felt I was completely surrounded by water.

 

I had to take a long break and get some snacks at one of the food tents along the way. This man makes THE BEST potatoes ever! It was so good that one of my students ate FOUR of them! We sat down and had a conversation with him, and learned that he lives at the foot of the mountain, and makes a 14km round trip everyday high up here to support two monks by cooking two meals for them. To be able to support them, he brings up and sells water and food to tourists like us. THIS, is what I call dedication. While we were enjoying the potatoes, an allegedly famous Taoist stopped by and said hi to everyone. Seeing so many people under the tent, he sat down, took out his 箫 and played some super refreshing music for us.

 

After the break at the tent, we were told that it would take another 50 minutes to get to Jinding temple. I was very close to giving up. But I saw everyone trying their best to keep going. Strangers say 加油!to me while passing by. Everyone was exhausted but with big smiles. Somehow, that kept me going and going. For maybe the last 10 minutes of the hike, I felt much better with my breaths and the hike actually started to become easier. I wonder if that was because my lungs got a little used to the oxygen level. I have to say that I looked miserable when I finally made it to the top. The trip took me 4 hours.

There at the top, the elevation was almost 11,000 feet. I was shocked when I saw the number. 4720m compounded by 4,000 feet elevation rise is actually pretty significant. I would never have done it if I knew it from the beginning because my mind would have given up already. In a certain sense, not knowing was actually helpful.

It was an amazing view at the top, standing above the clouds. Everything looked small, so was the world. Every bit of thoughts that bothered me didn’t seem to matter at that moment. The all white pagoda was quite different from all other pagodas I’ve seen before elsewhere. It felt quiet and tranquil. When I stood on the flat ground in the temple and looked around, there was not much but the clouds. At that moment I realized why the temples are always built on the top of the highest mountain and the monks seek seclusion for self-cultivation/meditation. When all you see is nothingness, the only way to look is inward.

        

Although today my legs felt like two chopsticks that don’t bend, this was the best experience I’ve ever had. Being above the clouds is an experience that won’t be forgotten.

Lastly, look at this kid who is totally obsessed with the lichens – what a reward after a long day of tough hike. Bravo, kids.

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