Tiger Leaping Gorge: Day 1

I’ve been back from my three-week trip to China for almost a week. The lack of internet access prevented me from posting while I was there, but I hope to share some of my experiences now, unfiltered, transferring my scribbled notes here. This is the first post.

I’ve let my body down. Pleasure, laziness, and grief have made my heart, body, and breathing heavy. Straight up hill through the dust. Bright sun and still air. It’s beautiful, but I barely notice. I’m not sure I can do this and start to imagine my failure one hour into a three-day hike. Many of us are struggling, but it’s only my short comings I see. An old man follows us closely with his burro, hoping to make a few extra kuai by carrying our packs – he probably walks this trail several times a day, yet here I am struggling to do it once. No way will I give him the satisfaction of carrying my belongings, even though my face is already flushed with the first signs of heat exhaustion. This is the first hours of a three-day hike.

IMG_4259

The uninspiring beginning of the trek.

Then the path levels off and the smell of pine urges me on. I give thanks to it and the lingering cherry blossoms (or some pretty pink flower), somehow surviving in this unlikely climate. I’m simultaneously reminded of why I don’t hike and why I should do it more often.

IMG_4261

One of the only pictures I took that day. I was too stinking tired to take more.

The blossoms fade off as the terrain changes back to rock and dust. Two butterflies, my totem animals of change, lead me down a steep path. I separate myself from the group, part ahead and part behind. I let the grief come through, though the tears only last a few minutes. Molly should be here. Some would say she is, but I’m not the sort who believes that.

We reunite for a snack break near a farmhouse. The scenery is beautiful. We guzzle water, make small talk, and rest. Moods are positive. It’s hard to be anything but content in such a setting. I watch an old woman in traditional Naxi dress coming home from the fields. I wonder what her life is like living here, and don’t come close to having any perspective of it. Her life and mine are worlds apart in every possible way.

IMG_4269

Naxi woman carrying vegetables from the fields.

IMG_4264

The beautiful farm lands.

Off we go again. Soon after, we arrive at the Naxi Guest House, and I don’t feel so bad. We made it one day, and will spend the night before embarking again, moving forward. The tea given to us by the guesthouse staff is floral and slightly sweet, a true welcome after our “easy” hiking day. I hand-write this memory in my notebook while sitting outside, sipping the warm, comforting beverage. Relaxed, happy, grateful. It starts to rain.

We take shelter under the eaves and I notice my breasts are still sweaty and the wind on my back plus my perspiration cools me down. The tiny trek was tough, but I did it: the unforgiving inclines, blissful straight-aways, and slightly slippery descents. At some point the man with the burro had given up on us, seeing we were going to reach our destination. I didn’t notice exactly when that happened.

The rain comes down harder, and somehow the air is even fresher than before. They’ll turn on the electricity at seven tonight. In the meantime, I watch my friend and his daughter play UNO and wait for the sun to set.

It’s (I’m?) Beautiful Now

One of the first days I’ve felt warm since I arrived a little over two weeks ago. Spring is finally here, at least in climate. I walked in the one direction I have yet to explore – up and over the hill toward the freeway. When I was here in January, Dave and I made it up to the bridge that took pedestrians over four lanes of constant traffic. Today, I crossed it.

crossing the bridge

The entrance to the museum was deserted. Apparently it doesn’t reopen until May, taking the two preceding months off. But since the sun was shining, I was happy to continue on exploring behind the large buildings I would someday return to when spring was well underway and the exhibits open.

Behind the museum was a sizable park, its main entrance on the other side. I had no idea it existed; never heard it mentioned, hadn’t read about it in my limited research on Cheonan online (or if I did, I certainly didn’t remember). Yet there it was – just a 10-15 minute walk away.

I first encounter a small “palace” of some sort – it looks more like a large ancient pagoda, but it’s important enough for its history to be written in English (only one other object shared that status). The king had stayed there in his travels to Cheonan in the early 1600s and, after the structure had been moved several times for various reasons, it currently rests, reconstructed, on the side of the small lake where it originally stood. Two adjumma (older women though the connotation, according to Dave, is that they are somewhat grumpy) huddle in its corner, intensely conversing. They stop, look up at me, and assess by the color of my skin that I cannot understand their gossip and resume.

The palace/pagoda. What do I know?

The palace/pagoda. What do I know?

I continue strolling on the uneven paths, taking pictures of statues whose meanings I fail to grasp. Birds made of logs and sticks; people in dance poses from traditional to modern; two entwined dragons. The only other English I see provides an explanation of a monument commemorating youth and fire fighters in their bravery in defending Korea from one of Japan’s many invasions. An unlikely pairing it seems, and the brief explanation of the memory leaves me wanting to know more about this youth movement of the 1940s.

duck statues

Is that breakdancing I see?

Is that breakdancing I see?

The monument honoring youth and firefighters.

The monument honoring youth and firefighters.

The sun continues to shine, but the landscape is sparse, needing more rain and warmth to wake it up from its temporary death. I stop to look at a small grove of trees, and think to myself that it will be beautiful here when things start blooming.

At that moment, a small orange and black butterfly crosses my path and floats into the trees. It’s not a monarch, but its message to me is the same: I am witnessing/experiencing transformation and possibility. What I see here, what I am experiencing in my life right now, is just a part of transformation. The scenery may seem bleak, but it’s beautiful now. Not later. Right now.

The tree grove -- it's pretty neat now.

The tree grove — it’s pretty neat now.

I used to be the type of person who doesn’t believe in signs, but in the past year I have been shifting that frame of mind. Perhaps before I began to slow down, I never really gave myself the chance to see things that were right in front of me, signals blaring; my head down or my mind too preoccupied to notice. But today I was able to process what I needed to. The butterfly helped me see the park as beautiful today. Similarly, I need to see my own current struggles with control and change not as failures, but as part of my life that is still beautiful.

I took my camera back out and took pictures of the park itself – not the art within it – appreciating its pre-spring beauty (I’ll work on appreciating myself and where I’m at later). Sure, it’s going to look better later when there’s more green, the flowers bloom, and the fountains are turned on, but there is a lot to appreciate here and now.

park lake

the palace again

Feeling better about pretty much everything, I head home. As I begin to cross the small footbridge over the small, mostly dried up, creek, I see a crane standing on the bank. Almost immediately, he swoops in front of me and flies off. I’m not sure who was more startled by the others’ presence, but this bird was clearly not interested in sharing space. I watched him fly off and land near the bridge that would bring me back to the proper side of the freeway. I followed, pretty convinced that I would not see him again, even though I really wanted to catch another glimpse of the tall, awkward, wonderful bird. I did get my second chance as we spot each other again before he took off allowing me one small picture of him leaving me behind. I read that “If you see a crane flying, it may be drawing your eyes to the heavens, lifting your spirits, and inspiring you to trust in the universe.”  and I hope it’s true. I’m probably supposed to believe it is, but I’m not quite there yet.

crane2

Change

My last week in Auckland. Four monarch butterflies dancing together in the garden. They land separately, but not for long until they are flying together again. Symbols of transformation and possibility keep me company today, along with the cat – my faithful companion who loves to catch and eat them and succeeds more often than I want (I wish for never). But Coco now sleeps on my bed so the monarchs (and I) are free to enjoy the sun and flowers.

I stand with my camera, hoping to sneak in a picture or two. I somewhat succeed. No way can I capture them flying together (the better image in my mind), but I am settling for what I can get. I would need a better camera and a lot more patience to get an image of them all together, and I have neither. Still working on the latter quality, though I have already come a long way. There is no real need for the former.  The monarchs fly inches from me – are they mocking or inviting me? Probably a bit of both. I put the camera away and just watch them. Wonder-full.

Butterfly spirit animal has gone from a caterpillar that is only capable of crawling ever so slowly long a twig to a Butterfly that is capable of taking flight across seas and continents. This is a message of what is possible in our own lives, of going beyond what we believe is possible.” — Presley Love

I think I may have found part of my next tattoo to commemorate this year.

One of the four that kept me company that day.

One of the four that kept me company that day.

So much easier to photograph them staying still (which wasn't often)

So much easier to photograph them staying still (which wasn’t often)

Coco often waits for butterflies.

Coco often waits for butterflies.