Shadows in the Mountains

Star Tribune, 3 April 2005
© 2005 by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

Photo by Greg Breining

BENDING BENEATH LOADED PACKS, we trudge up endless switchbacks. Though the trail has been groomed by decades or even centuries of use, the stepping stones shift beneath our feet. They are wet, too, and slick.

"My god, I forgot to buy life insurance," my friend Yue Jianbing blurts out as we start up the first of four wooden ladders lashed to a cliff face. Drenched with fog and sweat, we climb until, topping the last rung, we resume plodding along the trail. The old Tujia farmer, whose house we are hiking toward, brings up the rear, contentedly smoking.

I have in mind a painting I saw in a Beijing store window—not great art, but a typical Chinese landscape. Now I see it all again, as though we've stepped into the painting. We walk the same footpaths, stare into the same foggy valleys and climb the same humpy mountains. Too steep to be real, you might think. But weighed down with backpacks, I don't think the paintings exaggerate much at all. Everything is here—everything except the tiger perched on a jutting outcrop, roaring into a valley of fog. 

So far, no sign of tigers. And, frankly, I don't expect to find any, even though Hupingshan National Nature Reserve, a swath of hardwood, conifer and bamboo forest arrayed along the mountainous border in northwestern Hunan Province, is reputedly one of the last bastions of the South China tiger. Three years ago I walked some of these same trails with Chinese and American biologists looking for signs that the wild tiger of China's heartland might still survive. But as days passed and we found none, we began to realize the wild tiger was no more real than the dragon or phoenix, the victim of shrinking habitat as farms and communities have spread into the forest and of poaching—of the tiger itself, and more important, perhaps, of the deer and pigs the tigers depended on for food. We had been chasing a shadow.

Now I'm back. Tigers or not, I was seduced by the memory of Hupingshan's humping mountains and deep valleys—the sort of scenery that informed China's "mountain-water" paintings. I wanted to make my own way through the country, to camp in the mountains, to talk to people about how they live. While I might wonder if something so wild as a tiger could somehow survive, I might also temper my romance with reality. 

This time, I travel with my 20-year-old daughter, Kate, and several unplanned companions. As we shoulder our packs and start up the trail, Kate calls out: "Hey, Dad. Did you realize that this started out as the two of us and now we're up to six?"

Yue Jianbing is the graduate student of a friend in Beijing, who dispatched him to guide us safely through China. Like Chinese everywhere, my friend is convinced that no foreigner could possibly navigate a country so incredible and complex as China. I beg to differ, but still, I welcomed Yue as an interpreter (even though Bejingers often find the South China dialects impenetrable). I love it when something meets his approval. "Cooool!" he says emphatically. 

Then there is Xiong Jian-li, a voluble graduate student conducting a reptile and amphibian survey of the Hupingshan reserve. We have barely begun hiking when he spots a toad the size of a hot-water bottle.

There is also the cubby-faced and phlegmatic Huang Jian, who clutches an airline carry-on and small plastic bag of odds and ends as though he is boarding a plane. 

Finally, there is Xiao Zunwu, a farmer we meet along the trail. Xiao also works as a ranger for the reserve and, since he's traveling in the same direction, offers to guide us up the mountain. He mentions that he has seen stump-tailed macaques in this region. 

Recently? I ask. 

A couple months ago, he says.

Has he seen a tiger? No, he says, not for 30 years. 

AT MIDDAY, sweaty and exhausted, we arrive at a farmhouse. The farm family brings out basins of cold water for us to wash. 

The hill folk here are ethnic Tujia, who raise pigs and chickens, and vegetables and tobacco in garden plots grubbed out of the mountain. Only three people live in this large house, a bushy-haired man named Mao, his pretty wife, and their son, age 3, who rolls his eyes backwards to impress Kate. The relatives evidently have been alerted that strangers are about, because the lunch crowd takes up two rooms, including the living room where a giant TV blares. 

We eat chicken and pepper hot pot, pork and peppers, fried potatoes, peanuts, cucumbers, smoked meat, and preserved eggs. The little boy sits next to Kate and flirts incessantly as he deftly wields chopsticks to pluck the chicken head from the pot and pop it in his mouth. He strips the comb with his teeth and sucks on the noggin. After a moment, he spits out gleaming bone, cracks open the cranium, and sucks out the brains. Kate, who blanched at fried eels and duck feet in Beijing, gives up on lunch and takes a swig from her water bottle. 

Xiao, our Tujia guide, is in his cups after two glasses of homegrown moonshine. But before we leave, he insists on another big shot and a bottle of beer — for each of us! I wave him off, but he barks back. 

"It is his custom," Xiong translates. 

"Too many customs," Yue mutters. 

We trudge up the mountain. Xiao follows steadily. Neither liquor nor chain-smoking deters him. At 55, Xiao is built as solid as a stump. With a hand-carved walking stick, he climbs this mountain daily. We are climbing toward his house, where we will stay the night. He says he lives "in the middle of the mountain," according to Xiong's translation. I like that—of the mountain, not on it, as though he is one of the Daoist immortals. 

XIAO BUILT HIS HOUSE with lumber he sawed by hand. The floor is packed earth. His wife cooks over an open hearth. We crowd around a table beneath a single bare bulb. As we slurp noodles for breakfast, Xiao mentions he has three sons. Two farm far away in Shandong. The third farms near Hupingshan town, on lower ground, where the farming is better than in these hills. 

"Will any of your sons come back here to live?" 

"Maybe not." 

"And when you get too old to climb the mountain?" 

One of his sons has a place for him, he says. 

We set out, hemmed in by fog. Ferns and small bamboo cascade down the hillsides. The trail turns to broken rock, mud and slick outcrops. Stones roll under our feet. Mud sucks at our boots. Xiong walks far out in front, never stumbling. Xiao pulls up the rear, puffing as he walks, after a wake-up call of moonshine. 

We stop at the two-story house of a farmer and his wife and squeeze around their warm stove. They tend a grove of trees, the bark of which is used for Chinese medicine. The market is only so-so, says the farmer. The couple is also Tujia; she is the sister of the man who fed us lunch the day before. Their 11-year-old boy goes to school 20 miles away. He stays in distant Zhangping 10 days and visits home for two. 

Hiking the trail eastward, we soon see a motorcycle parked along a dirt field and a man spraying weeds. He begins jabbering as we approach. 

He has heard a tiger roar in the mountain, he says. 

"Just now?" I ask. 

"Yes," says Xiong, about 40 minutes ago. 

Xiong interrogates the man as Huang takes a GPS reading. The man points to the woods at the edge of the field and makes the chuffing sound of a tiger. 

I am incredulous. So is Yue. "In my opinion," Yue says, "maybe Mr. Xiao's cough." 

After listening to the man's story, we follow the trail into the woods. 

"Watch out for the tiger," I say. 

"You'll be okay," says Kate. "It will get me. I'm the last in line." 

OUR THOUGHTS SOON TURN from tigers to other creatures. A small waterhole is trampled with prints of wild pig and serow (imagine a cross between a goat and a deer). Xiong spots a golden pheasant sneaking away through the underbrush. With all the moisture, the land leeches are active. I notice one on my ankle and pull it off, leaving a spot of blood on my sock. The bleeding won't stop and soon my sock is drenched.

Suddenly, Xiong shushes us and points to the side of the trail. A snake! he says in Chinese. As it begins to crawl away, he steps on it, and asks for my hiking pole, which he uses to pin down its head. He lifts it up, showing off its cottony mouth, curved poisonous fangs, and the rusty brown diamonds along its back. Kate, fearing he's going to kill it, protests. I understand: You hate to see people kill things on your account. On the other hand, how much you miss if you are always thinking of the appropriate moral response. 

No matter, after asking me to take photos, Xiong tosses the snake into the brush.

We continue on, down a long muddy decline, and then come to a large tree, not distinctive, except for the deep claw marks of a tiger or exceptionally large leopard, that once stood on its hind legs and worked over the trunk as if it were a housecat shredding the furniture. The gouges are dark and weathered. The marks are several years old. In fact, I had seen them on my earlier trip. Still, it is the freshest sign of a tiger we have seen—then or now. 

As old as these marks are, they are perishable in comparison to the stories and legends that remain, even after the tiger is gone. "The tiger dies, but his stripes remain," goes an old Malay saying. Like the man we met earlier today, people everywhere are prone to believe that a beast lives in their midst and haunts their world like a ghost. If only there is a mountain to live on, a rock to stand on, it somehow survives, stalking the shadows in the chasm between faith and science, the eternal spirit of a vanquished wilderness. If only that were true in a modern world. I'm afraid the tiger does live, but only in the imagination.

We hike through the day. Fog closes in. Then mist. Huang tells us we must hike faster to make camp. The trail, little used in this area, dodges through brush and under deadfalls. On one side the hill rises steeply toward the clouds; on the other, it falls away into a gray abyss. The footing is treacherous. I slip three times, one time after another. Yue flies down a rocky slope and cuts his hand. Kate gets weepy at the prospect of climbing down a steep hill. I hadn't considered what we were doing dangerous until now. Coming down a rocky section of trail, Kate tumbles and slides on her backside. Then Yue falls, and I fall, too.

We arrive at a weathered shack. Xiong and Huang find a place to sleep inside, but the rest of us pitch tents. "Very good," says Yue. "I will never forget this trip."

We dip in a spring for water, gather wood, and cook dinner. After, we boil tea, smoke and talk. We feel better now.

The gray shapes of trees and mountains hover at the edge of sight. I imagine a deadly creature padding silently in the fog and darkness, somehow able to survive while avoiding detection, existing sight unseen as though in a parallel realm. Might the South China tiger somehow live on this mountain? I've spent three years asking that question, hoping that it might, doubting that it could. Today, as I've walked this mountain, I've decided it is time to quit searching for a China that might be and instead to look for the China that is. My mind turns from tigers to more immediate dangers. We have a long way down to get off this ridge. As wet and steep as the trail is, tomorrow may be difficult and perilous.

The fog turns to mist and the mist to a light patter. I hear birds, then frogs, and as night falls, only rain. 

If You Go
You need a visa to visit China (except Hong Kong). The normal processing fee for a single-entry visa, good for a stay of 30 days in a three-month period, is $50. The Chinese Embassy no longer accepts visa applications by mail. To apply, visit the Chinese consulate in Chicago, 312-573-3070. The practical alternative: pay a small charge to a visa service such as Expert Visa Services, (312) 663-6667. 

To reach Hupingshan from Beijing, travel to Changsha by train. Cost: About $65 for the "soft sleeper." Tickets are available from most large hotels. Tickets for the three-hour train ride from Changsha to Shimen in northwestern Hunan cost about $10. A bus is a practical alternative. Buses run daily from Shimen to Hupingshan town. You can also hire a cab. 

Several small hotels, restaurants, and grocery stores are located in Hupingshan. 

Guides, which can be hired through the nature reserve office in downtown Hupingshan, charge about $3 a day. 

The Shen Jin Zhai resort a few miles west of Hupingshan runs raft trips down a whitewater stream of moderate difficulty.