Immortality was within my grasp, the thought made me laugh like a loon – who wouldn’t come over a bit howlin’ mad at the prospect of living forever. All that stood in my way was an army of purple-rinse demons who knew they had no chance of achieving immortality and had created a green-eyed blockade to prevent other, more worthy, souls from touching what they could not.
This was no time for sentimentality, I took a deep breath, hunched my shoulders and charged forward like a Dallas Cowboys’ quarterback.
I was particularly excited about visiting Fengdu, China’s ghost city. Although some describe it as tacky and a bit of an amusement park, I think they miss the point about the richness and mythical aspects of Chinese culture. But then I’ve been a fan of Chinese storytelling since being spellbound by A Chinese Ghost Story, enchanted by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and thrilled by Hero. The city itself is now underwater, but the hill in which the King of Hell lives still exists.
Visiting the ghostly Ming Mountain sends a delicious tingle down my spine – I love all the hullabaloo surrounding the place, the stories – true or false I don’t know and don’t care – about ships not being able to dock at night and shopkeepers insisting customers drop their coins in a bowl of water so they could tell who was from this world and who wasn’t (ghost money floats).
Shortly after arrival a face in the crowd turns toward me and dark eyes set in a blood red, grotesque ghost mask fix on mine and follow my progress as I pass; it’s disconcerting. From there onwards I’m bombarded and overwhelmed with fantastical tales and unnatural images of sculptures designed to shock including one with a deer suckling a woman’s bare breast. It’s a wet and grey day, making the trip to hell not particularly pleasant, but then you wouldn’t expect it to be.
Every so often our group is asked if we want to undertake a task. The first is related to male fidelity which is tested by the ability to lift a huge, round boulder. Any man that can lift it is pure, any that can’t is a philanderer – it’s a no win situation. One of our group is foolhardy enough to give it a go. He huffs, puffs, grunts and groans as his face turns the same colour as the ghostly mask; the stone doesn’t budge an inch. His wife laughs…but I’m sure I see her eyes flicker, she certainly seems subdued afterwards. Every other man in the group sensibly declines and a short stocky Chinese man not much bigger than the stone appears and shows us that it can be actually be done.
The next test involves gently rubbing the rim of brass bowls filled with water. If the water jumps, the person doing the rubbing will be rich. If it doesn’t, poverty beckons. I’m happy to give this one a go, the water does nothing for a second… and then bizarrely starts to dance – it’s a result.
Then comes the big one, the three steps to becoming immortal. I have to say at this point that the tests are weighted in favour of people who are fit (sort of makes sense). Standing for three minutes on one foot perched on a stone outside a temple gate isn’t as easy as it sounds but, as a means to becoming immortal, there are more difficult tasks I can think of.
My memory betrays me about the name of the second test (or maybe I’m just keeping it a secret) but it involves running up a long, long set of steep steps in one breath. Most of the the people on these tours are ‘mature’ or, if I were describing cheese, ‘extra mature’. They’ve no chance…but they do get in the way. I take a deep, deep breath and set off, taking the steps two at a time. I’m ashamed to admit it but all grandmas and grandpas who block my progress (and there are plenty) are brusquely and ruthlessly ‘bumped’ aside on my quest for immortality. I reach the top and exhale with such force that some of the frail creatures coming up the steps behind me teeter and look in danger of falling backwards down the steep stone steps.
The third test is a dawdle as its name suggests. Walk across the Nothing-to-be-Done-Bridge without falling into the pools below it and that’s it; job’s a good ‘un. There’s only one little catch – there are two parallel bridges. Hold hands with the person crossing the parallel bridge and you will stay with them for eternity.
Thankfully I’m with Andy, who has also passed the previous two tests. We wait our turn; in front is an old couple in their seventies and in front of them a young couple in their early twenties. As the young girl prepares to step onto the bridge the old man rushes forward with surprising speed and agility, grabs the girl’s outstretched hand and drags her across the bridges before she or her boyfriend can do anything about it. We stand open-mouthed and shocked by this dastardly piece of skulduggery. We might have different western beliefs, but you just can’t shift that little ‘what if’ seed. The old man’s wife is furious whilst the girl is in floods of tears. Who can blame her? The poor girl’s eternity looks decidedly bleak.
When it comes to our turn, I take Andy’s hand in a vice-like grip and glance behind me lest any other toothless old codger has hatched similar plans. But we cross without incident and make our way triumphantly back to the un-ghostly comfort of our waiting ship to continue our river cruise up the Yangtse.
Fengdu exceeds all my expectations.