The air grew thick with humidity and soon distant claps of thunder could be heard. We climbed ever upwards, sweat pouring off us, and for long periods I was lost in the meditative motion of our rhythmic footsteps. The thunder grew closer, and then a deluge rained upon us. The young lady, my Red Army friend and I stopped, and the three of us huddled under my flimsy umbrella in a vain attempt to shelter from the rain. The slightest breath of wind sent the rain streaming into our faces. At one point, the young woman squeezed my jacket at the shoulder, and sent streams of water running of down my back and front.
This is getting silly, I thought to myself. Obviously the soldier thought so too, and sprang into action, scooting off on a short scouting trip, returning to shove me and my bag under a small overhang, and he found another one for himself and the young woman and the other bags. We crouched in the dirt, watching the rain transform the steep staircases into cascading torrents.
Despite doing the sensible thing, and huddling under the overhang, I enjoyed the rain. I loved the splashes of earth that the drops threw up on my legs, the water soaking through the seams of my clothes, running down my face from the brim of my cap, washing away the grime, pollution, dust, and air-conditioned banality of civilised Beijing.
When the rain finally stopped we brushed off what we could of the mud and set off again. As we sloshed upwards, feeling every bit like the drowned rats we surely looked like, I noticed that the other pilgrims we came across had a similar look. Knowing smiles were passed between walkers. The path itself had been transformed; before the rain, the birds and trees were muffled by the clammy air, and were now free. The air was cool and fresh. The mountain was no longer a restrained grey – it was now an exuberant green.
We began moving up the Eighteen Bends towards the distant Southern Gate of Heaven. At a fold in the path, the mountain had improvised a waterfall, where we stopped to pose for photos. The locals stood straight and proud for their photos. I casually slumped, my hand on my knee, raising a smile, while Yvone snapped with my digital camera. “Very handsome” she remarked softly, almost to herself.
The mountain, from the Pilgrim’s Path to the summit, contains many of the finest specimens of Chinese calligraphy found anywhere. Almost every flat or prominent stone has a poem, a romantic tale from the past, or a proclamation by an emperor or noble etched into it. The scripts show the development of Chinese writing through the ages – from the early pictographs to the more sophisticated recent forms of writing. Chinese calligraphy exhibits beauty not just in the meaning of the words – there is also beauty in the characters chosen, their form, and the way the characters combine with the others in the poem. Some of the more significant engravings are the Tang Dynasty Rock Inscriptions – where in 736 A.D. the Emperor Xuan Zong ordered that an account of his pilgrimage be inscribed on a stone 13 metres high. The account is written using 966 characters.