There’s a specially-built platform, behind a high wall that blocks the view from un-paying people on the road behind. For 80 Yuan, you can have the Mountain presented to you, a picture in a coffee-table album.
The photographers line up at six a.m, waiting to take the same picture that everyone else takes. Today the Mountain doesn’t oblige; you wouldn’t even know there was a snow range there on the horizon behind the thick cloud. Nature thumbing its nose at commercialisation. I wonder if the photographers got their money back.
Two days walk to get closer to the range, and waiting for the Mountain to reveal its summit is a lesson in patience and abstraction. It’s a collection of black and white and grey shapes, constantly changing outline, and yet impossible to catch the moment when they change. The Mountain puts itself together, point by plain by angle by curve, out of sky or cloud which suddenly become rock, become snow, and the Mountain is a whole snowfield bigger than I thought.
Rumble roar, and that’s an avalanche falling like a slow-motion waterfall; the Mountain endlessly remaking and reshaping itself like a live thing.
I have to look away to nearer, greener things, because all that black and white vast distance is doing peculiar things to my eyes, to my sense of scale. The nearer slopes are grey-green toothy crags, huge and steep enough, but manageable. When I look back there’s a whole new, higher peak to the Mountain, and I still don’t think it’s the top.
In the end I turn my back on it and walk away. But the Mountain follows me down the valley, getting bigger and more solid and complete every time I turn round. Over the ridge and down the other side; I’m almost back at the village when I turn one last time and it takes my breath away because it’s all there, right up to the summit, far higher into the sky than a piece of the earth has any right to be.
This landscape is too huge, my appetite for walking it bigger than my ability to do so, as I hike out from under the Mountain’s shadow, leaving behind the mossy ancient forests and the roar and rush of a hundred waterfalls for the stony, barren, steep-sided wind-tunnel of the Mekong Gorge.
The river brown and terrifying sucking along far below, the prayer flags on the chain-bridge blown out too taut to even flap once in the relentless wind. Clouds of dust and grit boiling up from the depths of the gorge, a glaring low sun, and me tramping along pretending I’m a Tibetan pilgrim chanting ommanipadmehum, tramp tramp, whenohwhenisaliftgoingtocome, tramp tramp, and in the sides of this bone-dry, dusty, hellishly inhospitable gorge there are tiny magical oases of villages and bright green vineyards floating, suspended half-way between towering crags and deep roaring river, and look, there’s the road on the other side winding up laboriously loop-de-loop ohshitthat’ssofar all the way back…
At long last I do get a lift in the back of an open truck, and then it’s just forget the aching shoulder, twisted ankle, sore feet, gritty eyes – because the sun’s setting and far on the horizon the magic Mountain is no abstraction; beautiful Kawa Gebo is shooting a rainbow plume straight upwards into dazzle-edged clouds. We’re climbing up up up this ridiculously winding road, the vast valleys and gorges and tiny villages and pocket-sized fields of green and gold are laid out below me and hover above me because it is all so big and grand and I’m just a speck, a mite, an inconsequential scrap of flotsam blowing through it.