From day’s beginning, I could feel spring infecting me. The rainy season is full of energy: it is the worst of travel, it is the best of travel. With it come the rains, floods, and landslides that epitomize the very worst of China travel. It is also vibrant China at its best. The mountains are green, the paddies are freshly sprouted with new rice, and the rain keeps everything brilliantly colored all day. I had always avoided travel for the negatives, but now find the beauty tucked behind the foreboding veil.
Four of us hitched a ride with a delivery minitruck, and, on the way to our cutoff, missed numerous great opportunities to stop and relish the beauty walking would have provided. Finally, I asked the others if they would mind walking the remainder, and with all positive responses, we jumped off and walked along the road with a waterfall, views of the terraced mountain fields, and distant farmers carrying crops on their shoulders up and down mountain faces.
With directions about “a stone trail just around the mountain curve there,” we found our path leading away from the road and up to a small village, and took the first steps toward what we thought was going to be an average mountain slope type Dong village–we initially headed toward this village because of a museum (yes, up on a mountain side) that turned out being not much more than a just started shell. Heading up the trail, with only an educated hunch of where we were headed, we simply hailed a farmer on a nearby mountain side who, though in Dong, sufficiently communicated that we were on the right path. Up we went, with glimpses now and then of a house roof or village gate. We had taken little time to look back, and thus were innocently drawn into this mountain community with little idea of their view of the world.
Though we thought it was just the area weather, we imperceptibly ascended into their cloud city, not so out of reach, but clearly different. About the time we reached the main village entrance, mist and drizzle began falling, marking the line between their cloud and all others. The entrance was a small bridge wedged between to inclines covering the waterfalling stream that would guide us further in and higher up to greater beauties.
With the bridge as a temporary dry center of movement, we maneuvered around for views up into the diversly wooded parts of the village visible, and down, as a watchman on a wall, toward all places below. After a few moments of rest, the stream lead us up to a proper village gate and into the village itself. Here everything changed, everything from sanitation habits to gardening tastes. All was quiet; all was purposeful.
Walking through the domestic heart of the village, filled with houses, outhouses, smoke houses, and dog houses, we began to ascend to the upper edge. The best was saved for highest. We first walked under the cover of the drum tower, and briefly enjoying its beauty, were instantly drawn to the fountain just a level of steps higher, where all the people, seeming to have hidden when we walked the lower domestic section of the village, congregated for pails of spring water, stream clothes washing on the smoothed rock platform, or vegetable cleaning in a separate pool. This was the village center, the heart.
Something about the fountain head drew attention, despite the fact that the spring water was pouring out of a rock face just below a small etched face, protruding from the rock. The water poured out into a stone carved basin, which was atop a five foot graduated pillar of stone. The water bowl has two spouts carved in for easy filling of pails of water without dipping or back bending. The constant dual stream falls a few feet down to the pool below, where on the left the stream flows down into the pool to provide a double spring fed, crystal clear pool.
Two sides of the pool are skirted by a flat hewn rock platform just above the water level. The other two sides of the square pool are rock wall: one with a fountain head looking over the water bowl and another simply a barrier to the above garden. The two walls are the lower edge of a lush garden, not turnip, potato, and squash, but bush, flower, and tree garden. Rarely is there any spare space wasted on beauty, but an entire section of the cloud village is garden. Is it for beauty’s sake or is there another purpose?
Following the stone trail and the quickly flowing stream up to the left, the garden reveals an unobtrusive door standing among bushes and trees just a few steps up from the pool wall. This is the only walkable entrance to the garden, with stone steps branching off the main walkway up to the door. Notice, there is no mention of anything connected to the door; it is a portal of sorts, a transition to the garden, free standing and locked for those who should not enter, not to mention guarded by a rooster that never left his post.
The main path, ascending above the garden, and around the top and back edge, provides a few glimpses into the mysterious greenery within. Just behind the door stand two very purposeful bushes, used–in other villages as well–in sacred places and obviously connoting a spiritual meaning as understandable as a foreign language: they have meaning, but we do not understand it. The mysterious village begins to provide some clues to its purpose. Do they just like the beauty of their garden? Is it just a nice place for a garden, well watered, and pleasantly decorative?
Walking on, confused by the language of the garden, we head higher, leaving little to find except the upper village gate. With the constant rain and drizzle, we took temporary shelter under the small roof of the gate. We were really just enjoying a view of the garden from the top and talking about what it said to us, when, in a change from rain to drizzle, we walked out the top end of the village and finally looked back. The entire time, we had been heading higher up and had never considered anything outside the village, though the village itself does not provide that view from within. Only on the perimeter, at gates, can those things outside the village be seen.
Stretched before us, the village fell down and out of site, following the quick falls and descent of the stream. Framed on each side by mountains, the village was only the foreground to the distant mountains, being clothed, as royalty dressed by servants, with mists, indecisive on a final wardrobe, constantly changing, revealing, and restless. As the mists moved up, down, and around the peaks, villages would appear for seconds as if to intice you to their own cloud paradise, sirens calling you to your fate.
Outside the gates, the world revealed itself. Inside, the centripetal draw led all to the garden, to the heart of the village. Inside, it is hard to know if it is revealing its heart or leading you straight to its heart without drawing back the veil. Inside there are no answers, only unanswered beauty. Passing through any of the village gates provides the full revelation of nature, but even from there, once known, the garden lures.