Yangshuo (阳朔), China, exists not as a cultural center of tradition, food and localized goods like many cities in China. It, instead, boasts one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world. Among flat planes of farms, rivers and ponds are giant vertically rising cliffs. Karst mountains are built up in areas of heavy limestone and bedrock. After millions of years of acid corrosion, the landscape shows off its limestone cliffs, jutting out of the flat base almost spontaneously, dotting the landscape like soccer cleats.
The mountains during the day stand tall and majestic. You float by on bamboo rafts and they look like statues—they stand as spectacle. At night though, the mountains take on a different shape, they dance. The light pollution from other parts of the landscape backlight the mountains, showing massive spiritual bodies arching over you and staring. You feel voyeuristic among the mountains, their eyes surrounding you as audience.
My trip to Yangshuo was a solo one. The furthest I’d traveled within China at the time—the landscape was something that I wanted all to myself. This, though, did cause some problems. Without multiple eyes on maps and recommendations, I was left to wander on my own.
The lady working at the front desk of my hostel was named, if I heard correctly, Chenguang (晨光, tr. morning light). She loved to hear my Chinese and so I spent my mornings at the desk, speaking to her and watching people check in.
My first night I was getting in from dinner and giving her the keys to the bike.
“Dengwei,” she said in Chinese. “Do you want to see something really beautiful?” She pulled out a map and traced her finger along a small trail next to the hostel. At night, she told me, the trail is lit, but across it you can see the outlines of the mountains. “You still have two hours on your bike rental, better hurry.”
Halfway down the trail and I saw it. Something about it looked wrong, like when you invert the colors of an image or stick together a collage. The mountains bolstered up and were pitch black. Behind them, the light of the town loomed over and lit the edges. It looked as if gravity had been reversed, and a curtain hung from the earth, dipping slowly into the bright night.
Around me, frogs croaked among the rice fields, and I stared out at the mountains and felt a feeling that I hadn’t felt in a long time. I basked in it for a moment and remembered the first time that I came across such an acute feeling.
When I was being confirmed at my church back in 2013, the final sessions of our last retreat consisted of going into a small, candlelit church in the back of this reservation. It was nighttime and the fields were quiet.
We took turns walking into the church alone, and when I went and sat, I felt my heart bump into my throat and my vision blur. I felt as if my body was melting away and my brain was exploding with different colored lights. My senses felt turned off and I was attuned to myself outside of my body, a passive yet lucid experience.
I’ve thought about this feeling for some time. It’s ethereal for sure, something otherworldly and hard to understand. But every time I feel it, I feel a bit closer to what I’ve come to China for—I feel I get a little bit closer to what I’m supposed to be doing here.
I returned. I thanked her and she smiled at me like she knew. She knew that feeling, and I smiled back. I handed her the keys to the bike and she hung them on a ring underneath the desk and I imagined if she had felt the lights, had felt her senses fade away, had felt the curtain which defied gravity and the frogs of the rice fields—I imagined her sending me there on purpose.