“You know… if irony could kill… not many people… would survive this mountain.” I gasp.
I look at Jasper, my equally fatigued Belgium climbing companion. His eyes move from the empty bottles, candy wrappers and oxygen cans strewn over the ground to the sign, that inspiringly proclaims in white, block letters, “Love nature Protect Environment.”
Leaning over, with his hands on his knees, he shakes his head, “I doun’t care… whot they say… I’m naut paying focking… 230 kuai for this shite.”
I’m inclined to agree. And though the hypocrisy is infuriating, I know part of our animosity is just anger at ourselves for being caught, as we were, without tickets. But only part.
Kawagarbo (Meili Xue Shan in Mandarin) may be the most magnificent mountain I have ever seen- dominating the alpine skyline like some glaciated, ethereal fortress ripped from the pages of a fantasy novel- but the corrupt fat-cat bureaucrats who sell the tickets certainly didn’t build it, and they sure as hell aren’t maintaining it.
And that just sucks. This soaring peak is one of the holiest mountains in Tibetan Buddhism; a throne upon which supposedly sits the powerful warrior god of the same name. Tibetans believe that if man ever transgresses upon its summit the warrior god will leave, and that his departure will be accompanied by all manner of cataclysmic events.
Luckily for them, despite 7 attempts by both Japanese and American expeditions, no one has ever made it to the top. A nighttime avalanche during an attempt in 1991 saw all 17 members of that Japanese-Chinese team killed in one of the deadliest mountaineering accidents in history. Now, due to its religious significance, it is illegal to climb the peak.
But the while Kawagarbo itself is off limits, the area surrounding it is turning into a tourist magnet. The villages of Upper and Lower Yubeng, nestled in a stunning, forested valley near the base of the mountain, are at the center of this storm. And our refuse littered trail is the most direct route to get there.
This saddle, with its forest of prayer flags rippling over the sea of garbage and pine needles, marks the end of our last climb of the day. We started hiking 9 hours ago, at 8:30am, taking a small trail that dropped 2,400ft to the headwaters of the Mekong River. Then, after sating ourselves on dumplings and Snickers bars, we continued across the river to the trailhead, then 3,000ft up the opposite side of the valley.
It wasn’t the most direct or the fastest route, but we had heard that if we went this way, we could avoid the ticket offices. We heard wrong.
Though our furious power walk almost got us past the ticket office at the trailhead unnoticed, at the last second a shrill 20-something and her screaming baby saw us and sprinted over. A series of inspired lies, and shamelessly taking advantage of every culture weakness my three trips to China have taught me, managed to get us through the encounter without paying. However, we were promised that if we didn’t present or buy tickets at the office in Yubeng ‘there would be consequences.’
Our ruse had, however, bought us an extra 4 hours to think of a way around this unjust expense. But, despite our best oxygen-depleted efforts, we couldn’t think of any realistic way to get away without paying. And as Occam’s razor cleaved each new and more convoluted idea asunder, our anger and depression, along with the piles of trash along the sides of the trail, grew.
Brainstorming gave way to self-entitled bitching.
Oh sure, it was no problem to build ticket offices and hire people to wait at every entrance in order to ensure that no poor traveler could get in without paying the rough PPP equivalent of $180, but god forbid these selfless bureaucrats use that money for anything other than furthering their own personal enrichment.
I mean, why not just push the concept of irony to its breaking point and become the utter antithesis the egalitarian leaders that Marx had envisioned? Is it too much to ask that a little of that money is put back into the mountain? But no, that might mean these socialist champions of the people, their immense forms reclining on ornate day beds in their Kunming penthouses, with imported Swiss chocolate smeared across their quivering jowls, would have a little less extorted money to gamble and launder out of the country through Macau. With less ill gotten Yuan they might not even be able to -in the middle of one of the worst droughts in decades- get their brand new Audis washed every single day by their conniving man-servants. And if that inalienable right of power and privilege were lost, then what was next? If that domino fell then how could they even be sure that their Lacoste-clad butterball children would be able to have even the most basic of comforts, like the latest smartphone and iPad? No, that would simply be going too far. That is one slippery slope that, thankfully, a one party authoritarian system has allowed these Jabba the Hutts to avoid.
Now, thoroughly impressed with our own vast insight and moral superiority (our anger, of course, had nothing to do with the fact that the cost of the ticket might cut into our beer funds), Jasper and I now broadened our gaze from Yunnan’s politicians to the Chinese system as a whole.
We decided that it is that same insecure, one party system that, like a jealous lover who doesn’t let her whipped partner even look at the other girls, is the cause of most of China’s woes.
Though the centuries old concept of the Mandate of Heaven still gives the highest levels of government in Beijing credibility among the masses, no one even tries to deny that the country is riddled with large-scale local- and provincial-level corruption. An AIDS prison camp that was set up to hide the local government’s responsibility in Henan’s HIV explosion, and a reinforced concrete cap placed on an ancient Silk Road well because of the local party leaders acquisition of a bottled water company, are just two examples among thousands.
The central government claims to despise this type of corruption, and, in one sense, I believe them (though I think it’s more of a ‘sorry we got caught’ than a ‘sorry that it happened’)- the corruption seriously undermines their legitimacy and represents a real and growing danger to the continuity of their power- but what can they do? Encouraging citizens to report corruption helps, but local police often arrest troublemakers before they can get to Beijing. An anti-corruption bureau would seem an obvious answer but it, by definition, would need to be independent of the power structure of the Party. And, by the Chinese Communist Party’s calculus, creating such an organization could risk that new entity becoming a more popular and attractive alternative than the government it was created to monitor. Severely punishing a few high-profile perpetrators may have helped a little, but until the culture of such compartmentalized and potent authority is fundamentally changed, Lord Acton’s words about absolute power corrupting absolutely will continue to ring true.
“I’m naut gauing to pay… they can kick me out, but I’m naut suppoorting this.”
Again, I agree with Jasper that this is ridiculous. But though I have no interest in being complicit in such flagrant and immoral profiteering (or losing some of my beer money), the last hour of analysis and wining has reminded me of a fact so fundamental it is can easily be lost in the details; China is, on a very fundamental level, different than the West.
Their imperial form of government hasn’t really changed for last 5,000 years (though have been calling it something else for the last 70). There are no elections. No low-level need for the opaque, Kafka-esque bureaucracy to prove their usefulness to the people. No one in power here gives a shit what you think of them. Not unless you have several million armed, angry peasants with you. And even then they would probably just send the army.
“I’m with you man, but I think that they would probably just have the police pick you up when you came down. They’d keep you in jail overnight, and then just make you pay a huge fine (read bribe). It’s China.”
Jasper takes a deep breath, looks away and doesn’t say anything.
In another 20 minutes we arrive at the ticket office on the trail just before Yubeng. 2 local adolescents briskly step out and ask to see our tickets. They have obviously already been warned to be on the lookout for two grungy, bearded young foreigners. Thankfully, Jasper seems to have decided that his rebellion, though completely justified, wouldn’t solve anything. He sits back and lets me try to handle it. After ten minutes of trying all manner of excuses and stories, I give up and digress into bargaining.
Though the situation sucks, it’s impossible to be angry at the 2 teenagers. By the end they are apologetic and, from what they say, the villagers hate the sleazy local officials and their negligence more than we do. But they have a job to do. In the end we get away with half-price student tickets. Plus there is also an additional 5 Yuan fee that the villagers collect for helping keep the village clean. Feeling a bit less defeated, we pay and continue down the trail.
Coming around the last bend, we are greeted by the most idyllic mountain village that I have ever seen. The ring of traditional packed-earth Tibetan homes, tucked against the forested cliff on the east side of the narrow valley, quickly gives way to radiantly green terraces dotted with pink cherry blossoms and pine trees. All this against a backdrop of towering, knife-edged peaks. Their white, ragged blades stabbing up into the red, flaming clouds and deep purple sky of the sunset.
Not only is the view spectacular, but the village is immaculate, not a candy wrapper or bottle in sight. The contrast between this utopia and the eroded, litter-strewn trail couldn’t be much starker. The altitude seems to have rarefied attitudes along with the air.
When we descend two days later with a motley group of Chinese travelers, we take a different path. This trail, running through forests and narrow fields filled with grazing Yaks, is almost as clean as the village. And, to our horror, by the time we get to the van that our new Chinese friends have organized, we haven’t passed one ticket office.
At the end of the trail, as we wait for the rest of our group to catch up, we lie down to rest on a rickety bridge that stretches over the muddy waters of the Mekong. I wonder aloud to Jasper why it is that in this country, which some analysts have claimed has a purer form of capitalism than America, the monetary cost of experiences seems to be inversely proportionate to their quality. He shrugs and closes his eyes. “I don’t know man. Like you said, it’s China.”