William Mackesy’s account of this walk
Meeting a Dead Man (April 2003)
We were walking up a long, winding valley, some two hours out from the monastic town of Taihuai at the heart of Wu Tai Shan, one of China’s sacred mountain areas.
We had trudged along a track, through little strips of plough which clung, increasingly precariously, among the thickening boulders, past hamlets which seemed little changed for a thousand years, save for some crumbling houses around the edges and a gleaming new satellite dish.
Tracks sprouted off up side valleys, to little temples nestling under crags or high pastureland at the far end.
The villagers seemed increasingly dim and inbred as we progressed, curiously angled faces, sly squints. Pairs of bullocks, curly coated and wary-eyed, were reluctantly heaving primitive ploughs to the imprecations of man-and-wife or man-and-boy teams. The track narrowed and roughened as we left the last group of house and followed the bank of the gurgling stream through terraced fields. Above us, a flock of sheep nibbled grey-green grass beneath spindly conifers. It was the last day of April, but cold and grey and clearly just emerged from a long, hard winter. Patches of snow still lay in hollows and ravines.
Ahead, hidden in the clouds, were the grand 10,000ft peaks of the top of the range, patches of snow gleaming between the wisps of dirty grey mist.
The muted, tired greys and browns were clearly about to explode into exuberant yellow-greens.
Round a corner, the fields abruptly gave way to rock and rough grass. We clambered up the hillside above a small gorge, the stream rushing over small waterfalls a hundred feet below us.
We dropped back to a ford, our path zig-zagging up the opposite hillside. Around a corner, we stopped short. A peasant was lying stretched on his back, his trousers down around his knees. I thought for a moment he was asleep, but he was obviously long dead. His feet were black, his toes livid red among sock-rags, his thighs an angry purple. His blackened head was thrown back, lips drawn back from grimacing teeth, his eyelids nearly covering a black hole beneath.
We hesitated: were we in possible trouble – had he been killed, and would his assailants follow us, his discoverers or possible possessors of stacks of cash? He had however, been there for weeks or months, possibly recently released by retreating snow – in Russia, he would be called a snowdrop. There was no immediate danger, and we walked on up the valley although glancing frequently over our shoulders.
Who was he, and how had he died? He was wearing a thick, padded jacket, so had he fallen or frozen in a blizzard? Had his shoes been taken from his body, and his trousers pulled down in a search for valuables? Or were we the first to find him? Although we were only a mile or two above the last home, there were no marks upon the path and we may have been the first people there this year. Or had he simply been left lying where he was?
He looked poor, and was perhaps a pilgrim from outside the area so no-one was touching him. Did he have a wife and children, wondering in desperation why he had not returned? We pitied him, lying unburied, un-mourned, in this lonely glen.
The beautiful valley, amid its grand, sweeping ridges, seemed colder and more sinister. We pulled our coats around us and clambered away, quiet and thoughtful.