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Loose Pulleys or The Sedans of Szechuan

by Rosemay North Shortlisted for the Skylines Travel Writer of the Year 2001
© Photo Rosemary North



Sitting in a sedan chair is much like sitting in a deck-chair with a sunshade and extra long bamboo armrests. Very relaxing. Until the sedan chair suddenly grows two pairs of legs like Terry Pratchett's Luggage, and starts running up the nearly vertical cliffs in front of you. When the hydrofoil - known locally as the salix-leaf boat - deposited me on the bare iron pontoon at Baidicheng in the Chinese province of Szechuan, there appeared to be only two ways up the almost sheer wall of the Qutang Gorge. I could climb the thousands of steps cut into the side of the gorge, rising from water level to the temple perched high above, or I could be carried up. I had read that a "loose pulley" was available in Baidicheng. There was not a pulley to be seen, loose or otherwise.

As the salix-leaf boat disappeared around the bend in the Yangtze River, the last echoes of its engine died away. Nothing was moving. High above, wisps of smoke hung motionless above industrial chimneys until they congealed into the layer of dusty pink smog which obscured what should have been a clear blue sky. The sun was warm. The steps seemed to multiply as I looked at them. I was loaded with luggage - the legless kind. I chose the easy way up. A sedan chair standing on level ground seems like a restful form of transport. As it is hoisted shoulder high, the recumbent passenger is reminded of an elephant's howdah. You tilt forwards, slither backwards and are tipped sideways. Worse is to come. With the sort of shouted ejaculation usually accompanied by a karate chop, your bearers jerk into life. You find yourself being bounced up the cliff with a rhythm not altogether unfamiliar. Lie back and think of China, you tell yourself, and stay inscrutably calm. But this is difficult when so much of China seems to be receding beneath you at a frightening pace. You dare to look down and realise that one false step by your bearers could hurl you down the cliff face. All that stands between you and certain death is a pair of men half your size and twice your age doing a sort of synchronised slow-motion trot up the north face of the Chinese Eiger. The thought flits through your mind that no skeleton would be found in future years, only a few heaps of chalk dust marking the positions of the scattered body parts at the bottom of the cliff. Then you remember that soon the gorge will be flooded, on completion of the dam down river at Yichang, so even your bone dust will be washed away. Resolutely you fix your eyes upwards. You wonder what a "loose pulley" is, how you managed to lose it, and whether it would have been better or worse than this. As usual, you wonder what possessed you when you decided to explore China off piste. You utter the usual prayer promising unspecified good deeds and to refrain from unscripted wandering in future if only you might be allowed to survive this time. You speculate about which God resides locally, if any, to hear your prayer.

Suddenly your sedan chair lurches to a halt, you stagger to your feet and wonder where you left your knees. Thousands of yuen change hands. By the grinning faces and the fact that your bearers retire for the rest of the day, you know you have paid too much. But what is too much? The experience may have cost you about ten times the rate paid by local passengers, but there are no other visitors to be seen and you may be the only burden arriving this week. A dozen sedan chairs lie idle at the top of the steps, waiting for work which rarely comes. How can you haggle over a fair price for a twenty minute vertical trot by Atlas and Hercules, when your understanding of transport economics only extends as far as fuel costs and mileage per gallon? So you willingly allow them to rip you off, which helps to purge your guilt about taking the lazy way up. You need food, water and a bed for the night. You need a hotel. Nobody here speaks English. You take out and flourish one of your few words of Mandarin Chinese. "Fandian?" you enquire hopefully. Heads nod and grins grow wider. You wait for someone to tell you whether, and if so where, there is one. Nods and grins continue, but no information is forthcoming. Then you remember that in Mandarin Chinese, pronouncing the word correctly is not enough - you must use the right tone (neutral, high level, rising, falling-rising, or falling) to distinguish between possible different meanings. 'Tang' with a high-level tone means soup; 'tang' with a falling-rising tone means to lie down. You need to be very careful if you want to ask someone to join you for some soup. You say "fandian" several times using different tones, high-level, rising, falling, falling-rising and rising-falling just for good measure. At last the rate of head-nodding increases and the grins threaten to split their faces. They point behind you. You turn. Behind you is the elegant facade of a temple. Across the top is the word HOTEL in English.

You look around you and notice for the first time that you have reached the top of the world. Before you is a temple; below you the meeting of two deep gorges formed at the confluence of the Yangtze and one of its tributaries. You decide that every moment of the hazardous journey up here was worthwhile for this magnificent view. How else could you have scaled the nearly sheer cliffs? You walk to the wall surrounding this Shangri-la and look down over the edge facing away from the Yangtze. A few feet below is a garden of rare sub-tropical flowers, below that an orchard of orange trees. Birds sing, a distant monastery bell rings; life has not changed here for many centuries. But there is another sound, for some reason curiously reminiscent of skiing. You peer down between gnarled trunks of lemon trees. Swinging up the side of the mountain only a few feet below you is a chair-lift worthy of Gstaad or Val d'Isere, with seats in shiny pairs of bright blue or yellow plastic: the lost loose pulley.

Rosemary North All photos Rosemary North


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