Chasing Waterfalls

While reading about the botanists of the early twentieth century, I stumble across a reference in the works of Joseph Rock, a man whose prose is described by his own biographer as “brutally unreadable”:

“Between Dü-gkv and Nvlv-k’ö is a meadow called Mbamä. Here a large spring called Bao-shi gko-gyi issues from the mountainside under a grove of century-old maples where Na-khi sorcerers perform Zä-mä, a ceremony for the propitiation of the Llü-mun (Serpent spirits).”

The ceremony in question supposedly grants fertility to those who drink from its waters. Mack the fixer and I puzzle over the quasi-Tibetan Romanisation, and eventually work out that the place in question is now called Xuesong – the Snow Pines. Since we have nothing better to do, and any mention of “fertility” is a step closer to successfully completing the episode, we drive over to the spring, which is now an area of sheltered parkland, in the grounds of a temple.

We walk through shady forest paths around ponds and lakes of a clarity I have never seen before. The carp in the pond seem to be floating in mid-air, and the waters are crystal clear all the way down, linked by a series of bubbling waterfalls. The park is remarkably quiet and peaceful, thanks largely to the fact that there are hardly any Chinese people in it, and we climb mossy stone steps to a little shrine in the hillside. Here, between a golden statue of the Goddess of Mercy, and a stone statue of the Earth Mother, there is a hole in the rock where the spring of the Crown Prince God bubbles to the surface, watched over by the fat effigy of a young naked boy, swaddled in red ribbons. From here it cascades down the hillside, through several ponds, around a water wheel, and then into a fountain in the temple grounds, where locals can be seen filling up with buckets. This is an ideal place to film… and it is locked.

“GO AWAY,” shouts a horrible old lady through the grille. “WE’RE CLOSED.”

You can’t be closed, reasons Mack. This shrine is the focus of the entire park and we’ve all paid twenty kuai each to get in. What time do you close if the gate is still open at the front…?

There is a long pause while the old lady thinks through the ramifications of her various possible answers, any one of which requires her admitting that her daily routine comprises of knocking off early and putting her feet up. But we have filming permission from her boss at the front gate, who plainly expects the shrine at the top of the ridge to be open for another hour, otherwise he wouldn’t have let us carry our gear up the mountain.

In a great sulk, she lets us in and then hunches over the balcony, fuming at having been caught out. I dash off a piece to camera about the spring, and we are gone. It could have been a substantially more sedate piece, with me walking in the picturesque surroundings and talking about Naxi culture, but the hostility of the “caretaker” has kind of put us off.

I wish I’d taken a picture of those fish, seemingly hovering, so you would believe me. But there is rarely time or opportunity for me to point a camera, or even carry one. I am in the car feverishly revising Mandarin technical terms for an interview, or swotting up on the next location. I am pacing up and down in a forest, trying to parse my lines. I am in a hotel room carefully trying to make sure my face and hair and clothes all look the same from day to day. Or I am thousands of miles away, trying to remember it all before it fades.

Jonathan Clements is the author of A Brief History of China. These events featured in Route Awakening S03E05 (2017).

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