Thursday, May 3, 2012

The Naming of Chong Shan

May Day is one of the dwindling Chinese holidays. It used to be a full-on Golden Week, with the entire population of China free to vacation simultaneously for 7 days, but nowadays it’s a micro-holiday with three days off from school in most cases. I’ll blog more on Chinese holidays later, right now I want to share our adventure this week that led to the Naming of Chong Shan.

For those of you not linguistically bent towards Mandarin Chinese, “shan” means “mountain.”

The May Day holiday worked out this year to two half days and one full day off from teaching and since it was also our wedding anniversary, Angie and I decided to take the family to the beach.  We always have a good time at Zha Po and it’s only a bit more than a three-hour drive so off we went. We packed our cooking gear, a rice pot for Angie and a folding hot plate for me (and of course my coffee-maker). The girls packed their Barbie accessories and dolls, their beach toys, and a mess of books. Baba came along toting nothing more than a small bag with a change of clothes. We threw a beanbag in the back of the BYD (we have an S-6 SUV) for the kids to lounge on as we drove and under a warm, spring sky we set out.

Every time we go to Zha Po we always stay at the same place; The Shadow of Sails Hotel.  It’s old, moldy, and cheap but it has three things that we love: It’s at the far end of the beach, away from the masses; it’s got an interesting design and the room we always book has two floors with sky light views of the sea, sleeping up stairs and entertaining downstairs with a nice big ocean-facing balcony; and finally, we know we can get away with breaking a few rules there.

When you go to a seaside town in China, the only restaurants are seafood joints that charge outrageous prices for mediocre meals. We know this and we bring our “kitchen” with us when ever we go. Angie runs out to haggle with the local fisherman and she often comes back with seafood far superior to anything the restaurants serve. She also knows where to get the best “beggars Chicken” which is something everyone should enjoy at least 1,000 times in their life. Beggars Chicken is made by the locals in Zha Po, tucked away from the sea in the hills above the town. A whole chicken is covered with seasonings and oil, wrapped in paper, and then encased in a block of clay. The clay blocks are then laid out over a large coal bed and covered with soil (sand? More clay? I don’t know.) When its done baking, you break away the clay block, unwrap the blackened paper, and then with plastic-gloved hands you tear into the hot, aromatic chicken, ripping away the flesh and bones with little or no effort. It is delicious, messy, and my absolute favorite way to eat chicken.

Next to our hotel is the South China Sun Holiday Resort, a massive and abandoned hotel with similarly abandoned beach amenities such as a beachfront garden, snack shop, acupuncture walking trails and so on. There seems to be nothing wrong with the building, other than is it empty, and falling into negligent dis-repair. My theory is the resort failed because despite the beach and beckoning surf, swimming is not allowed. There are men wearing green camouflaged fatigues stationed at one end of the beach, which is delineated by a rope with colored flags that runs from the end of the “paid area” of the beach along the surf-line of the beach to the mountain that juts into the sea. These men are armed with whistles and unrelenting energy. They are ever vigilant and they will pursue you if you dare to cross the surf-line. That does tend to discourage holiday travellers from staying at the South China Sun Holiday Resort, when just down the beach, in front of the “paid access” beaches, there are countless other hotels.

Next to the South China Sun Holiday Resort is the mountain that I had eyed on previous visits. A mountain with a steep trail carved into it that appeared to lead to an undeveloped hillside that invited unimpeded ocean views, the “shan” in our newly named Chong Shan.

I decided that I'd climb the mountain in the morning after our first night in Zha Po. It's a pretty steep climb so my first thought was to just take Annie along. She's almost 7 now and I wanted to start including her in big people adventures. By the time we actually left for the mountain our adventure included Mandy, my four year-old daughter, and Baba, my wifes father. Angie, five months into our third pregnancy, was to stay behind and shop for supplies.

The base of the mountain trail was steep; sometimes hands were required in climbing. Everyone did great. Mandy banged her knee (again, she is known as fall-down baby) but she didnt cry. Annie was wearing her shiny red lantern shoes something like a cross between fancy strap sandals and tap shoes, which were not really suitable for climbing mountains, but she did so wonderfully. The real adventure started when we reached the forested part of the mountain, just after the steep climb.

Baba had the lead, Mandy was next, then Annie, with me in the anchor position. Baba and Mandy had stopped and were looking up at something when I reached them. They were looking at what I thought were a couple fishing lines caught up in the trees. I thought of fishing lines because it appeared there were live, wriggling worms on hooks across the pathway where we were headed. It was bizarre. The "worms" at first looked like little dog-bone shaped twigs, somehow dangling from a spider-like thread. A closer look revealed irregular "legs" that seemed to be actually spinning the web that held them suspended and in fact the insects were descending from the tree tops, down towards us!

Baba picked up a branch and swatted the insects and their invisible web to the ground. As we progressed deeper in to the wooded trail we were horrified to find that these things were all over the place. The girls, to their credit, other than short squeals and squeaks at every new discovery, bravely continued on. Baba had to break off a bigger branch, and, undaunted, he resumed the lead, bush whacking his way through the descending worms. At one point we stopped because a particularly large specimen had fallen onto the trail and my brave, adventurous daughters were trying to overcome their fear and step over the wriggling monstrosity. It was then that Annie noted, with a soft, horrified whisper, that the insects appeared to have red mouths that gaped like the goldfish we keep in the girls bathroom. That upped the creepy-factor a ten fold. But I began spinning my own web. I told the girls they were probably caterpillars on their way up to the tree tops to spin cocoons before later becoming beautiful butterflies so let's not fear them and let's march on and we can do this, to the top of the mountain I cried and so we resumed.

Every now and then I'd tell Baba to stop as I picked wriggling hitchhikers off his shirt collar, or from his hair. Baba never flinched. He whacked and we climbed and he whacked and we climbed until we reached the top of the mountain. The view was magnificent but the trail continued. It forked, one path going down to a beautiful promontory on the ocean side and one turning back into the mountain, back into the heavily treed canopy like what we'd just hacked through. I asked the girls if they wanted to continue and in unison they responded to the negative. No whining, no crying, just a statement. We've had enough wiggling, dangling, red mouthed worms dropping on us from above, let's go home. So with a longing glance at the ocean bearing path and the rocky promontory below, I turned and took them back down the mountain.

The worms were there, all the way back down. Dozens descending, some small, some as long as three inches, all swinging on invisible thread that between the reality of web-to-skin contact, and the imagined web-to-skin contact, had us all a little weirded out. Annie was slapping at her ankles, I was running my fingers through my sweat soaked hair every chance I got, Mandy was concentrating on not falling down and Baba, well, Baba was unflappable. 

When I told Annie how she could regale her classmates with tales of our adventures she cheered up immediately, and by the time we hit the bottom of the trail Annie was running ahead excitedly to tell mom everything. We decided to name the mountain Chong Shan, which translates to worm mountain and we all agreed that while the end view was great, the journey was just not worth it.

Me? I wanted a shower badly. I could not shake the creepy sensation of clinging webs and creepy crawlers and the image that I had of Baba' neck where I'd pulled some of the worms off. He had a couple small, red nicks near his shirt collar, like he'd cut himself shaving. Baba is Chinese; he rarely shaves.