Even with my eyes closed, I could feel it. An emptiness of everything and a simultaneous filling of nothing. Walking as far to the edge as possible, I opened my arms to embrace the contradictions. The breeze kissed my cheeks and lifted my hair. The great Tianmen Mountain was behind me as I followed a path built on the cliff face of the mountain, with metal railing painted and sculpted to look like wood. I was two weeks into my backpacking trip in China, where I was seeking to see a country beyond the crowded megacities and serene rice fields that usually come to mind.
Climbing at a height of 1400 meters, I was walking on clouds. When they disappeared, the houses at the bottom of the mountain appeared as dots, and the roads were like fine lines. The earth seemed devoid of people, and I imagined that the people within the houses looking at the mountain, thinking it was silent and free of people too. This emptiness between us was breathtaking, mouth-dropping and spirit lifting.
I am not scared of heights, but every so often, the sight of nothingness underneath us was overwhelming. It evoked a feeling of fear I had to fight against. Fear is good, it makes you feel alive. I found myself thinking about a bird wandering from it’s nest with the best view over the world. Birds fly this high, right? If I was a bird, I would.
We followed the path along the rungs of the mountain. Until we saw a crowd. The crowd was queuing to walk on the glass platform, known as the glass skywalk. I had been anticipating walking on it since I first heard of it years ago on the news back in Portugal. Sadly, it was nothing like I had imagined. People were jammed into the path on the way in and out, leaving no physical space for the desired feeling of adventure. I would have to create adventure on my own.
I found the adventure I was seeking on the way down the mountain. The way down was divided in three different phases. First, we entered a man made tunnel, tiled with metal boards and artificial light and started descending down on an escalator. The tunnel is 692 meters long and is operated by 12 escalators, one after the other. I didn’t start counting it until the third? fourth? or fifth escalator struck me out of the clouds, where my dreamy head was still living. At the end of the tunnel, we landed right underneath the natural hole carved in the mountain wall, blessed with fresh air.
We entered the second phase, the steep “Stairway to Heaven’s Gate” with 999 steps. Carefully measuring our steps (you don’t want to miss one here) and praying for the people behind us who would be doing the same, we made our way to the bottom safely. Phew! The further we got away from the hole, the bigger it became. Like a camera lens, I had to zoom out to perceive the grandiosity of the “Heaven’s Gate”. It attracts Buddhist pilgrims, as it is believed that Heaven’s Gate is the door on earth connecting the common world with heaven. In the Chinese culture, 999 is an auspicious number that means eternal life. People come from all over China to climb the steps for religious beliefs, some even with children on their backs.
Finally, we hopped on the bus for the final phase, a road with 99 curves. Counting down as we rounded each turn, we took each curve as a big achievement on this journey.
When I got to the bottom, I couldn’t look at the mountain the same way as I had that morning.
Climbing to the top helped me understand the size of the emptiness between us, and fill it with a sense of respect and admiration. So much has changed, not the mountain, but me. After all… moments earlier, like a bird, I was walking in the sky.