The Last Mountain

©Stephen McDonnell 2002

May 2. 2002

8. Lijiang, night party

My bones felt like they had cracked under his ministrations, I was glad Lilly had suggested the hot bath. Then I found out what he meant by getting a bite to eat when we drove to another area around the lake where two helicopters waited. As I boarded one with Lilly and Mike, I noticed a strange logo on the side of the fuselage. A round circle surrounding a square with a triangle in the middle. A crewman handed me some earphones and helped me strap in. I think it was an Agusta Bell; an expensively appointed executive helicopter.

Over the earphones, Lilly could talk to me, and everyone could over hear, so she kept her comments cryptic. She pointed out sites, Kunming Lake etc.

"Where are we going?" I shouted into her ear, because I didn't know how to activate the microphone.

"To my home, we are going home. Ligiang." She smiled at my surprise, then continued her tourist guide role, pointing out Dali and its three phallic pagodas; Qianxun Pagoda, 230 feet high. The helicopters were flying through the valleys, because we had not put on oxygen masks. Since it was my first time in such a machine, I excited and scared. Somehow what I had learned yesterday helped. I thought about the climb and how I had mastered my fear. It was like a morphine haze, the fear was there, but I ignored it.

Somewhere along the way we acquired an escort of military helicopters with the Red flag of China bright on their green camouflage. "Pumas, French manufacture" a voice tinged with a Texas accent whispered in my head phones, the pilot speaking out loud. They followed us down towards a landing field just as the sun was going down. We passed over a warren of houses huddled together "like fish scales". An army truck waited for us. And a bevy of reporters and cameramen. A melee ensued, with sharp exchanges of Chinese. The two reception committees seem to come to a Mexican standoff, and the Army got the honor of transporting us into town.

After such a strange day, nothing surprised me. In fact, I didn't know if I was still sleeping off a bad hang over, or if one of the climbers had not slipped me a mickey when he was talking about seeing a 'Specter of the Bröcken' on a peak he had climbed in the Himalayas.

"Mr. Ward, welcome to Basha airport, home of the Flying Tigers and The Burma Hump flyers." Zach intoned as he sat next to me on the truck bench. "How do you like reliving the past, son? Hemorrhoids and all." He seemed so damn happy, with the same cat with the canary look. Zach pointed out the beauty of the town we were entering, but I was trying to figure out if we were guests or prisoners. Ligiang had been destroyed by an earthquake, rebuilt and then named an Unesco World Heritage site, because of its innate beauty. Under a full moon, it seemed like a dream place, a fairy tale city, with cobble stones and lanterns, and water threaded its way through the entire town, a mini Venice.

Our truck stopped abruptly and, in my mind I wondered if a Flying Tiger pilot had such thrills, at least he had one of those passes, to show to the population so they wouldn't shoot. Instead of a firing squad, we were welcomed in open arms by the local communist commissioner and his entourage, we were the guests of honor at a Naxi concert and buffet.

"Look, Mr. Ward, this is my place, my people, and soon you will hear music that was composed a thousand years ago." She smiled at me, her almond eyes glistening under the lantern lights, reflecting the stars and the moon, and my heart skipped a beat. "Do you dance? Tonight is the festival of the full moon, and you have to show me if you are truly a man." With that challenge, she disappeared amongst of a throng of Naxi woman only to reappear a half-hour later in traditional dress. Yet somehow it looked as if Yves St. Laurent had designed her outfit, so sophisticated was her look. I could only watch with growing jealousy and she sat amongst the dignitaries and the Texans, laughing and smiling as she translated back and forth, the sallies of conversations and no doubt dirty jokes. Jack was no diplomat, and his oil rigger's vocabulary would make a whore blush.

A local yokel sat next to me, along with the helicopter pilots; we were the relegated to the lower benches, under the stars. The pilots seemed to be more interested in discussing modified Hellfire rockets and how to get laid tonight, than in conversing with me. They were having a heated discussion over the sexual habits of the Na versus the Xian ethnics, he gathered the Na were a matrilineal society with nocturnal visits by males to females, no holds attached ­ the perfect free sexual society.

The Xian local was friendly enough, almost a talking commercial, filling me in on the local dishes I was eating ­ at least it wasn't Cantonese food. The blood sausage reminded me of my favorite Cajun boudin that they cooked around Crowly not far from the Atchefalaya basin. Bean jelly was hot and spicy as well. The end dish was cake, ciba, served with snow tea. His companion continued a steady stream of tid bits on the local culture and practices. He was told that Naxi could also be spelled Nakhi or Nahi. The musical instruments were the flute, shawm, Chinese lute, plectrum, and zither. He listened while sipping Sulima Liquor, a orange colored concoction from Luga lake. "Very beautiful, if you take girl there she will fall in love with you," his new friend added, giggling from the effects of the drink.

She was there, sitting like an ancient Chinese goddess, right in front of his eyes. Surrounded by men. What was Mr. Worth worth? He had already lost her; she was some rich bastard's plaything.

I felt myself wallowing in self-pity, remembering this morning and his cowardice. Lilly will always think me a fool, I thought, and here he was getting drunk again. It must be something to do with the altitude. I was feeling lightheaded.

I got up and excused my self, avoided the line for the gents toilettes, the Texan's lawyer seem to be addicted to it, and I stepped out into the fairyland scene of the Lijiang by night. No way was this the pseudo western Kunming, this was the real China, the old middle kingdom that had existed for thousands of years, more advanced than all the rest of the world, having achieved a comfortable level of civilization until the white ghosts arrived, gua long westerners, foreign devils. Like Zachery and I, two interlopers. With no class nor knowledge, just shear American crassness.

Gary, you have to get some air and clear your head, I kept telling myself. The air was thin and crisp, tinged with wood smoke. Mountain air. I almost could smell the Himalayas, like smelling the ocean miles away. Each had its own smell.

The streets of Lijiang were still alive with people, and dogs. Here and there a young girls head would peak out at me tittering with a smile. Once a woman grabbed me and tried to pull me into her doorway. "No, no Lilly wouldn't like that," I mumbled to them and cast off. Was it the high altitude or the alcohol, my mind was at a heightened sense of awareness, with the full moon hanging over the Jade Dragon mountains, like a beacon. Maybe if I followed it I would find my way. So I climbed the town, following the flow of the water. Not exactly like Venice, the water ran in smaller canals between the houses, but the streets were as crooked. After an hour of so of this meandering, I found myself back at the banquet house. Outside Michel, the lawyer was loosing his cookies in the stream. I felt as sober as he felt drunk.

"Hi, how are you doing." I dipped my hand into a canal and splashed some water into his face, and he fended off the hand I put on his shoulder.

"Shit I hate this country and I hate the food. And I can't get used to the smell of excrement."

"You can get used to it, if you try" I remarked, trying to make small conversation.

"Mr. Ward, you can get used to being screwed too. Look at you." He gave me a ghastly smile that lit up his swarthy face. "Did you look at the non disclosure you signed this afternoon? He owns you body and soul. You can't say or write anything about him or what he does, never. Kiddo. He has got you by the balls."

"Well," I countered, "He is going to pay me for writing about the expedition."

"Shit, did you sign a contract saying that? No! He doesn't owe you a cent. Don't feel bad. You should see the one he had me sign." With that he doubled over and started barfing again. I didn't care, because what he had said had hit me, finally.

My eyes closed and I started to cry silent tears. Tears of disappointment? Feeling foolish I turned away and found an alley where I began to hit the wall in earnest. She knew, she had been part of the whole scheme. I had been taken for a sucker. Finally I let my back collapse and I sat down on my haunches, ignoring the crowd of people leaving the banquet. They sounded happy, pleased with them selves.

"Mr. Worth?"

When she touched my shoulder I didn't react. Her voice was like a knife in my back.

"What are you doing here?"

"Go away, leave me alone."


"You know, I'm working for nothing - I will not get paid. I am just another of Zacheiria's lackeys."

"If he does not pay you, the Chinese government will. Don't worry about that." I detected a sparkle of amusement in her voice. "You came to China seeking adventure ­ you have found it. Garry." When she used my Christiane name, I felt a bolt of electricity shoot through my body. It was the first time.

"You will catch cold here. Garry. Come with me." And she lifted me up. She was strong, I had forgotten. She put her arm around me and guided me down several deserted streets till we entered a courtyard filled with tiny bushes. A light made a line from a pavilion in the center; it came from the fire blazing in the room we entered. A young girl was tending the hearth, but she disappeared as I was pushed down onto a divan.

"What are we going to do with you? What are you worth Mr. Worth?" Lilly said this to me as she let her cloths drop, revealing the fantastic body I had seen for the first time this morning. "Show me that you are a man, Garry."

And I did




Jiliang after banquet alternate treatment

Dogs barked at me, one even peed on my pants. Girl's heads popped out of windows, giggling. Several women even tried to grab me and haul me inside their houses, but I kept saying, "Lilly, Lilly won't like that." I noticed the streets were no like Venetian canals, because no canal was that small, no boats rowed by. Still, the sound of water was everywhere, and so was music and voices speaking dialect. I had started to tell Mandarin from Cantonese, but the other dialects escaped me. Somehow I wandered back to the banquet hall, where I found the lawyer pucking up his guts. I threw some water in his face, maybe not such a good idea, but it helped revived him. And he started to ramble on, his lips loosened by the drink.

"Shit, man, I am so shit faced. Thanks man, but you know you and I, we are screwed. So messed up."

My Dad told me never to argue with a man in his cups, especially in a bar. But I was intrigued. "Why is that Michel?"

"You don't know? You don't have inkling, even a tiny one? Man, you signed your soul away this afternoon."

"Why do you say that?"

"You signed a non-disclosure, man, you can't say or print one word about him or what he is doing."

"Well he is going to pay me. It is fair."

"Hah, did you sign a contract with him for the money?" Michel looked at me now, pushing his hair from his face, a drunken leer on his swarthy face. "Did you?"

"No, but a man of his stature. And there were witnesses."

"Who? I am his mouthpiece, I have my butt in the crack, and my non-disclosure is longer than yours is, and I have client lawyer privilege over me. But you just walked into the trap. Like a lamb to slaughter. Business is business Mr. Worth, not worth crying over spilt milk." He growled, and then lost it again. "I hate this lousy country and its lousy food."

I walked away, cold sober not caring if he drowned in his barf. I found an alleyway, and started to flail away at the wall. She found me there, somehow. I felt her touch on my arm.

"I think is time to go home Mr. Worth." She called to me, her soft voice cutting into my heart. She was part of the conspiracy. Part of my dream turned nightmare.

"You knew."

"Knew what?"

"About his intentions. How Weatherspoon tricked me.

"You mean about writing his book, about being his chronicler; all rich men want one and you were there. He will pay you, or the Chinese government will, not to worry, Mr. Worth."

"I wish you would call me Garry."

"We will see about that." 'She lifted me up, an arm around my waist and took me down another street, down and down, into the old Town, till she found a door and we entered into a moon filled court yard, with tiny trees around the edges. Light shown from a shuttered door and it turned out to be candlelight, and a fireplace that was filled with burning logs. A young girl sat tending them, but Lilly shooed her away. Lilly shed her costume; it was becoming a habit, letting her skin shine in the glow of the candles. I was sprawled on a canapé, half bed, and half couch, covered with shiny silk embroidery. It had dragons and tigers, withering across a blue green background.

"Mr. Worth, I have been told you were wondering the streets at night. If you do not already know, it is dangerous for a man to be out alone. Naxi women are famous for their sexual appetite, and you do not want to be eaten alive, at least by them. I have reserved you for me." She started to hum while she unbuttoned my shirt and divested me of my cloths.

"I have done this once already today, I hope you can be better prepared this time?"

I was.


In the morning light, she was even more beautiful. Not shy like Rose, Lilly would never, could never be shy. Her courage was ingrained and no one could take it away, not even me.

Outside, the courtyard was silent, except for the calls of birds. Placed around the walls, were tiny trees, Bonsai, her father's collection she told me when I asked. Flowers also bloomed, some exotic ones. In a white vase, in the middle of our room, on top of a mahogany table, was a purple flower that had gold inside it. I approached it and kept staring at it. It was the most exquisite thing I had ever seen.

"We Chinese call it the Black Orchid. But it really is a sub species of Lilly. Only found in the high mountain pastures of Zhongdian." She had come in carrying a platter with a tea set.

"It is beautiful, and so are you. Thank you for last night." She smiled at my halfhearted compliment. What could I tell her? That it had been the best night of my life? I was learning that Chinese were a subtle people and they appreciate it in others. "Where is Zhongdian?"

"Garry, you are in Zhongdian prefecture!" She laughed, "Actually they renamed it Shangri-La to attract more tourists."

"Is this the Lost Horizon, the one Hilton wrote about?"

"Who knows? Reality and fiction are close together here. What do you think?"

I showed her what I thought, making her cry out with little whimpers as we made love again. I must have been getting used to the altitude. Finally, we sipped the green tea she had brought.

Outside an old man came into the courtyard and began to do the shadow boxing exercises of Tai chi, the same ones I had seen done by old Chinese all during my trip. He seemed to be enacting a slow motion ballet, to music only he could hear.

"My father is a scientists, but he believes his 'chi" needs to be strengthened every day. So he practices both sciences."

"That man is your father?" Thinking, he knows that his daughter was doing last night here with me.

Lilly looked at me, somehow divining my thoughts, "Garry, we are Naxi, or I am half one from my mother's side. It is a matriarchal society. Many Naxi men never work, their women support them. Many of us decide who to take as lovers." She asked, "Is that not what you do, isn't that what woman's liberation about?"

My answer was forestalled by a familiar voice, Siegfried! He came barging in the same gate and he seemed to take up the whole space, accompanied by Jason, who gave me a wink and a nudge. Jason added sotto voice to me; "It looks like you discovered Shangri La before us." I smiled, as we all seemed to be old comrades at arms.

Siegfried informed me that they had flown in from Yunnan in one of Mr. Weatherspoon's company's C-130s, and they had off loaded here, as the planes couldn't carry the extra weight up to Deqing city and then onto Meili Snow Mountain.

"Are you ready to come with us?" Siegfriend asked, looking at me with his cold blue eyes. I hesitated. We were standing outside Lilly's house, her father had disappeared as had she, and I was alone with the two other men while a jeep waited for us. My mind thought of the Robert Frost poem, the road less taken, about walking in a New England wood and the decisions that confront us, either to seek the less trodden road, or to stay on the steady path.

To my right, I could walk down the hill to the train or bus station and go back to Kunming, its bars and pseudo western culture, to continue my research on the Flying Tiger's book. Or, here were a bunch of crazy mountaineers who had taken over my life, even my destiny, and I had no idea where it would lead. Lilly came out as I was hesitating, dressed in trekking gear, and got into the jeep without looking at me. What did Chip call it? Chick power. It took over, banishing all my doubts, and I climbed into the jeep. Sans baggage, sans reason, but my heart knew what I was doing.

So I followed my heart, not my reason.

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