Alone in the mountains with my mind

Five years ago I was also in Wuxi (无锡), on the same peninsula that sits in between two north bays of Taihu Lake (太湖). But five years ago, I just went here because I looked at Google Maps, saw a green patch and figured there’d be some nature. I couldn’t speak or read Chinese, didn’t know how to use Chinese apps or ask for directions. I just remember a boring walk alongside a long road and a park half under construction.

But now I’m back, using an app (两步路户外助手, a sort of Chinese AllTrails) and instead of guesswork, I got GPS-tracking for a trail uploaded by a lady called 美渣兔 (Pretty Scum Rabbit). Her route 军嶂小环 (Junzhang Mountains Small Loop) is 18 kilometers, which she completed in 3½ hours.

For the first time in two months, my body feels strong. (And yet, Pretty Scum Rabbit was half an hour faster than me.) In January this year, I made a trip to the US, and later went back to the Netherlands for two weeks — which didn’t feel like a holiday because you have to squeeze a year’s worth of family visits into half a month. My body felt exhausted. But not today.

Yet despite my GPS’s accuracy, I do sometimes make a wrong turn, which turns into a shortcut or detour, but it doesn’t matter. Junzhang Mountains Small Loop is alright, it’s similar to Suzhou’s mountains such as Tianping (天平山), Lingyan (灵岩山), and Dayang (大阳山). This is nature ok — not a park, but no real wilderness either. On the east side of the mountains you can hear the city.

Cycling may be my first love, but walking is a good second. The beauty in cycling is that you only use your body’s energy to move yourself forward, so you take ownership in the distance covered. Another difference to traveling by car is that you see so much more of the world. Walking is the same as cycling, but slower, and more ancient. It’s poetic to walk, as you sort of slide into a natural pace that has always been there. Humans have walked before we were humans, and people probably walked here a few hundred years ago. My shoes may be a bit better, I’m taking photos with my phone, I have bottled water and a sandwich from Starbucks, but the experience is very much the same.

And also Pretty Scum Rabbit walked here five months ago, and I’m walking literally in her footsteps, as I climb and descend hills. Trees with leaves alternate those without, and I cross tea fields, some ruins, a few small towns, and pass a lake, a temple, and little gardens where people hang big water bottles on the branches of trees — I guess to make them grow wide instead of tall.

I’ve got to walk 18 kilometers. And the thing about a road that is let’s say, 20 times as long as you’d normally walk, is that it doesn’t just become 20 times more. It becomes something wholly different. The road itself becomes ‘the thing’. Maybe this is the cliché that it’s the journey, not the destination, but doing 25.000 steps in over 4 hours with an average heartbeat of 120, that does things to you.

I try to think about famous walkers from literature or history, but can only think of Frodo. I think of my youth when our parents took us to walk. I think about the randonnées (a fancy French word for a long walk) that we did with the owner of the campsite in the French Pyrenees. This now is a journey of the mind as much as the legs, because when you go for a walk, you never know what kind of things you’ll see, or which things will pop up in your mind. But you can be guaranteed both will happen.

So I’m here all alone and that’s the thing. My feet slowly start to hurt, my backpack bites into my shoulders as I carry too much water. My mind roams. When you’re alone in the city, you often start to feel lonely. But being alone in nature can make you feel wholly at peace.