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Sandstorms, Icy Trails and Face Masks: A Tale of Chinese Mountain-Climbing

When most people think of cultural immersion, they think of a homestay, eating local food or finding a language partner. Me? I chose to conquer a mountain—literally.

After arriving in Beijing for a semester, I realized it would be difficult to get the kind of cultural immersion I desired—after all, I was living with Americans and taking classes with other foreigners. Unless I counted my tutor, teachers and taxi drivers, I wasn’t getting any real interaction with Chinese people. My Chinese ethnicity didn’t help either—while my blond-haired, blue-eyed roommate Brittany got plenty of attention and curious questions from strangers—without the company of my white friends, I simply blended in. And without local Chinese interaction, what would be the point of coming to China?

So determined to make Chinese friends, I made sure to peruse the clubs at the involvement fair in the second week of school. One particularly enthusiastic group of students caught my eye. The clusters of students gathered around the table indicated the club was a popular one. Curious, I approached the table and asked one of the girls at the table what they did.

“Mountain climbing and rock climbing,” she said.

Never mind the fact that I don’t possess an athletic bone in my body and the most exercise I had gotten prior to coming to China was heaving my bulging suitcase down the stairs—I signed up. I’m not quite sure what I was thinking. But the club, called “Mountain Eagle Club” was departing for a camping trip in the mountains that very weekend. It would be an adventure.

Yet, hesitant to embark on this adventure with 70 Chinese students by myself, I enlisted Brittany and a few friends to join. 

Excited for the trip, I told my tutor over my next meeting. “Mountain Eagle Club?” she repeated after I told her. “You know…people have died in that club. That’s why it’s so well-known.”

Deaths? Whoa. I had wanted to get the true Chinese experience, but if that meant risking my life…I wasn’t sure. Perhaps they were just rumors. Alas, my roommate came home concerned too—her tutor had also told her about the deaths. Maybe they weren’t just rumors. Furthermore, both of our Chinese tutors had told us the club was too intense—even they feared joining the club—the members were simply too athletic and intimidating.

On Friday night, the night before our departure, we went to the club meeting. After sitting through a good hour of speeches from various club officers, the majority of which neither Brittany nor I understood, somber music began to play. On the Powerpoint projected on the wall, four photographs of people appeared as a voice narrated the story of the students’ deaths.

Apparently, about five years back, four students on the trip had died (this carried a particularly unlucky connotation since in Chinese “four” has the same sound as the word for “die”). But their deaths weren’t because of negligence on the club’s part, an unpredictable and unexpected avalanche had occurred, killing the students.

While normally hearing this might’ve discouraged others, Brittany and I were relieved; it had been a natural disaster that could’ve happened anywhere. We went to sign up for the trip. After hearing my accented Chinese and looking at Brittany’s telltale blond hair, the club officer looked sharply at us. 

“Will you be able to understand our instructions?” 

We nodded hesitantly. 

“Make sure to listen to me on the trail, don’t wander off by yourself.”

That night we got a call from one of the club officers who rattled off a list of items we needed to bring—among them, gum (apparently, there would be no time for brushing teeth), chopsticks, and one word I didn’t understand, “zhi jing.” 

“Zhi jing?” I repeated.

“Uhh, handkerchiefs.” The girl on the other end said in English.

“Why would we need handkerchiefs?” I asked. 

“In case things get dirty and you need to wipe them,” she replied.

I couldn’t imagine why I’d need a handkerchief rather than the disposable tissue I’d been carrying around with me anyway, but nevertheless, the following morning, Brittany and I rose bright and early to buy our supplies. I couldn’t find a handkerchief, so I bought a small towel, hoping it would suffice. (I later found out that the Chinese tended to refer to tissues as “handkerchiefs” and they had really meant tissues.) 

But after packing our bags and preparing to leave, Brittany’s phone rang. Bad news. The club officer on the end informed her that she couldn’t come. They feared the path would be too icy, slippery and dangerous and that because she was foreign, she wouldn’t be able to understand the leaders’ warnings. Also, there would be “sha chen bao.” I fumbled for my iTouch and typed in the pinyin…Oh. Sandstorm. Surely enough, I looked out the window and the air was grimy and dust-filled, the sky was a smoggy brown, the wind blowing strong. 

Five minutes later, they called me, too. Determined to go and indignant, I insisted that I would be able to understand their instructions. I was in advanced Chinese, I told them. There would be absolutely no problem with communication, I insisted. (Inside, I was filled with fear my Chinese would be inadequate, but I was bent on going.) Begrudgingly, they said I could come.

So bags in tow, Brittany, three other American friends and I showed up. She was hesitant as they had told her she couldn’t come and she didn’t exactly blend in with her blond hair—but once there, they reluctantly let her come too.  But we were scared—we didn’t understand everything they said and they themselves had tried to discourage us from coming. Was it really that dangerous? Would we be able to understand their instructions? Most people probably wouldn’t have wanted to go on a mountain-climbing trip with a club that had tried to persuade us out of it, on top of having had four deaths in the club, on top of it being a particularly icy trail, on top of there being a sandstorm, on top of not being fluent in Chinese, the language of instruction, on top of being athletically inept—but we had gotten this far and we weren’t going to give up.

After a long trek—a 20 minute walk, a half hour bus ride, another short walk, another hour-long bus ride and an awkward bathroom break in a rural bathroom without stalls let alone walls which left one with no choice but to pop a squat and expose one’s buttocks to one’s neighbors, we finally made it to the mountain, called Golden Mountain.

It didn’t look particularly golden—the air was heavy with sand and it smelt of dust. The leaders handed out face masks—and though we Americans had laughed at the Chinese who are fond of wearing them in the Beijing pollution, we gladly put them on. (One negative side-effect we discovered, though, was that face masks can be deceiving—Chinese boys will look deceptively more attractive with their face masks on, leaving you disappointed when the mask is shed.)

We then began to set up camp. The club provided tents and sleeping bags. After setting everything up and eating, it was time for games. 

I quickly discovered that the games Chinese college students play are drastically different from those American students might play. While American college games might include beer pong, a sexually explicit round of “Never Have I Ever,” drinking games and more drinking games, the Chinese students were exceptionally innocent. 

One game they played involved sitting in a circle. Each person would think of a nickname for themselves—at each person’s turn, they had to recall the nicknames of everyone before them, if they forgot, there was a punishment. (This posed particular problems for Brittany and I since we had difficulty remembering even regular Chinese names.) The “punishment” consisted of standing in the middle and telling someone the group would choose for you in a melodramatic voice, “I love you. Why don’t you love me back?” This elicited a raucous amount of giggles, teetering and laughter. Despite the numerous amount of times it was repeated, it was hilarious to them each and every time. Curiously enough, the group never chose someone of the opposite sex for the one to be punished. Perhaps that would simply be too embarrassing, for a boy to have to say such things to a girl. Fortunately, Brittany and me were let off the hook since we were foreigners. They found it amazing that we could even remember two names.

Another game that seemed to be a crowd favorite reminded me of a third-grade math game. Boys were assigned a certain value, say, 50 cents. Girls were worth one yuan or one dollar. The leader would call out a value like three dollars and 50 cents. Everyone then had to rush to form groups equivalent to that amount, for example, three girls and one boy would make up that amount. Groups that failed to match the amount in time were punished by having to perform a dance around the bonfire. I wasn’t fast enough. And so, in front of 140 Chinese eyes, I was forced to perform a dance around the circle that consisted of rhythmically patting my butt and bunny-hopping back and forth. Needless to say, I was embarrassed. 

It had been a long day and finally, it was time for rest. After retiring to our tents, a leader came around, offering us a special sort of herbal tea meant to ward off sickness and the cold. We were each supposed to take a swallow. After everyone in our tent had done so, we went to sleep.

At six in the morning, we were woken up. After dismantling our tents and eating breakfast (and I admit, I rebelliously brushed my teeth instead of chewing gum and seemed to receive a few judgmental looks) we divided up into groups, either rock-climbing or mountain-climbing. Fearful we wouldn’t be able to understand the terms for rock-climbing equipment in Chinese since we didn’t even know them in English, we joined the mountain-climbing group. 

“Boys, help the girls,” the group leader advised to the group. “Take care of them. I don’t mean to offend anyone, but please watch over them.”

He told the group that girls were to go in the front for the first 20 minutes of the hike, after which the boys in back were supposed to intersperse with the girls, one boy behind every girl. I was a little surprised. I hadn’t sensed any difference in treatment of males and females in my time in China, but suddenly there seemed to be a very discernible difference in gender treatment. 

But I soon found I needed it. Hopelessly out of shape, I found myself struggling and lagging behind breathlessly after just the first 20 minutes up the mountain. Brittany was even worse off. Her shoes were completely flat and lacked any sort of grip at the bottom, meaning she kept sliding on the trail which grew icier as we made our way up. Fortunately for us, the men came to our rescue. As Brittany struggled, a round-faced graduate student offered her his gloves to keep her hands warm, another man took her coat while a third took her backpack. The round-faced student took her hand, helping her the way up. When we paused for a break, he faithfully waited by her. “I’ll help you again,” he said, taking her hand. (His name was Tang Yanwei and though mild-mannered and gentle, he was from Sichuan, famed for its spicy fare. He would later become Brittany’s language partner and friend for the rest of the semester and take us on trips to the museum and restaurants. In fact, they still stay in touch today.)

As we made our way up the mountain with the aid of our male helpers, I contemplated the differences in America’s emphasis on gender equality and China’s adherence to the tradition of gentlemanly behavior. Though American males might be willing to help, the help isn’t so readily offered as oftentimes they fear offering help to females on the basis of gender would be insulting. But the Chinese men had no concerns about this. “It’s our duty to be junzi,” said my male helper when I thanked him. The term junzi is a term that was used by Confucius to mean “gentleman.” 

Though I could think of many American feminist friends who would be upset by this treatment, I didn’t mind it. When we finally, desperately out of breath, made it to the top of the mountain, one of the group leaders doled out mini fruit gelatin cups—but only for the girls. Our Chinese comrades were generous with their snacks too. One boy even had Oreos and milk to dip the cookies in, to boot. Milk and cookies on top of a mountain? Now that’s luxurious. 

Finally able to catch our breaths, we were able to converse more with our Chinese friends, discussing everything from politics to how Chinese parents choose names. One boy’s name had the character for “snow” in it since he was born on a snowy day, the first time it had snowed in five years in his village. Another boy was from Kaifeng, an area in China famed for a historic Jewish community that used to inhabit it, and recommended museums for me to visit. 

When the break was over, we began to make our way down the mountain. But unfortunately in this case, downhill was not easier. The slope was even steeper and icier. The further we went, the icier the trail became. Eventually, there was more ice than soil, and our shoes and pants became soaked. It became necessary to cling onto branches to keep from falling. At this point, skiing seemed more realistic than trying to walk. But falling was inevitable and after one too many tumbles that resulted in a wet butt, I gave up, crouched down and propelled myself along the snowy downward trail with my hands, sort of sledding on my own feet, much to the shock and aghast expression of my male helper. But despite the difficulty of the trail, the spirit of everyone was almost tangible. 

“Jia you!” one person would yell, which would be echoed by everyone else. The term “jia you” literally means “add oil,” but can be equated to the English term of “keep going” or “come on!” 

Finally, after six hours of hiking, we made it to the bottom of the mountain. Sore, sweaty, exhausted, dusty, disheveled and not to mention, with soaked butts, we exchanged numbers with our new Chinese friends. It had been a long journey and we had braved death rumors that turned out not to be rumors, icy trails, a sandstorm, stall-less bathrooms, public humiliation by bunny dance and not to mention, soggy butts, but we had gained cultural perspective, Chinese friends and most importantly, a unique experience. I couldn’t climb stairs for the next week without being stopped by Chinese and foreigners alike concerned for the poor girl limping awkwardly down one step at a time, but I can write with conviction: it was all completely worth it. 

Stephanie Lau, '11
China—CIEE Beijing