We were chatting so enthusiastically that his words caught us by surprise. But his accent was so heavy that we couldn’t understand what he was trying to say at all. “Huh? What?” Lao Yang asked him.
Seeing that we couldn’t understand him, the old man switched to heavily accented Mandarin and asked us, “I said, are you two planning on doing business here? Are you here to dig for some local products?”
I didn’t understand what he meant by “local products”. Plus, people in the south were usually indifferent to strangers. With the exception of salespeople, few would go up and casually start a conversation with people at roadside stalls. I didn’t know how to react for a moment, but fortunately, Lao Yang reacted quickly and copied the old man’s accent, “W-w-we’re here to travel. We’re not interested in any local products. A-a-are you trying to sell us some local products, old man?”
The old man laughed, waved his hand at us, and went back to his seat. As the two of us sat there puzzled, we heard the old man whisper to his tablemates, “It’s alright, it’s alright. Just two greenhorns going out into the hills. They don’t know a thing. Just ignore them.”
When Lao Yang heard this, his expression changed slightly and he whispered that we should leave. I found it a little odd, but seeing that he was so nervous, I simply dropped ten yuan on the table and left the roadside stall with him. When we rounded the first street corner, I asked Lao Yang, “Why did you want to leave? We were only halfway through our wine.”
Lao Yang furtively glanced behind us before saying, “Th-that old man just now told his tablemates that we were g-greenhorns going out into the hills. When I was in prison, I heard a few people involved in the business say that ‘going out into the hills’ is the local slang for robbing tombs here. ‘Greenhorns’ means that we’re not people in the business. This group smells fishy; I’m afraid they’re also here to rob tombs. They must have heard us talking about grave robbing just now and came over to see what we knew.”
I laughed, “It’s not like we had to leave. No matter what happens, we can just deal with it appropriately. What could they possibly do to us in a public place with so many people?”
Lao Yang patted me on the shoulder, saying that I didn’t understand and that it was too difficult to explain what went on in the underworld. He figured everything we said just now had been overheard by those people, but he didn’t know how much they had actually understood. Good tombs were already hard enough to come by now, but if they were eyeing us, things might just become even more difficult.
I knew he must have heard some wild and exaggerated stories from his cellmates when he was in prison so I didn’t bother arguing with him. Instead, I simply nodded and went back to the guest house with him.
The next day, we got up before seven o’clock and set off for the largest dragon vein in China, each carrying fifteen kilograms of equipment and dry food on us.
I had been to Qinling several times before, but each time came, I was always walking around with a tour guide. I could never quite figure out how they walked along these roads without getting lost. This time, however, I had to follow Lao Yang. He had also been in a tour group when he came here three years ago, so we were going to follow that same route. Otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to recognize the way.
We got on a bus that drove along the Xibao Freeway for about three hours before arriving at Changyang Mountain in Baoji City, Shaanxi Province. Then it turned and headed for the source of the Jialing River.
I was used to traveling on straight roads but the winding mountain roads here had a small turn every five seconds and a big turn every ten seconds. I leaned my head on the seat in front of me, feeling like my insides were churning. Lao Yang was in an even worse state than me—he hadn’t been in a vehicle for three years so he was already feeling motion sick, but these roads made it so much worse. He was covered in a cold sweat and looked like he was on the verge of puking his guts out. “I’m old, so old. Everything is useless when you’re old,” he lamented. “Wh-when I took this road three years ago, I was able to flirt with the girls next to me but now I c-can’t even open my eyes.”
I cursed, “Shit, quit spouting so much nonsense. If you don’t want to take the highway, the only way left is these winding mountain roads. It’s useless to regret it now.”
Lao Yang waved his hand at me and told me not to talk to him since he didn’t feel well.
At this time, I suddenly heard the sound of an explosion off in the distance. The shockwave made the bus windows rattle and caused a commotion among the passengers. I looked out the window and saw a cloud of dust filling the sky on the opposite mountain. Lao Yang jumped in fright and asked me, “Wh-what’s going on? I-is it an earthquake?”
There was a middle-aged man sitting in front of us who looked like a local. When he heard Lao Yang say this, he turned around and said with a smile, “If you two don’t know, then you must not be from around here. That’s someone blowing up a tomb. There are always two or three explosions a day during this time of the year.”
I was surprised, “Who would be so bold as to rob a tomb in broad daylight?”
He grinned, revealing a row of yellow teeth, “Although the Jialing River runs through the middle of these two mountains, the one on the opposite side is different from this one. We have winding mountain roads over here but there’s no such thing on the opposite side. Even if you were to call the police now, it would take them at least a day and a night to get there. Unless they can grow wings and fly, they can only watch helplessly from afar.”
I nodded, feeling a little speechless. “Does that really happen?” I eventually asked.
The man looked at the place where the explosion occurred and said with a smile, “This is also a special feature of our area, especially during this season. In fact, a group was caught two days ago. But there are fewer and fewer ancient tombs now so the grave robbers have been repeatedly plundering the same ones for a couple of years. There may still be some deep in the mountains but it’s too difficult to get there. In the end, the government has no other choice but to let it slide. Anyways, based on the sounds of the explosion just now, it seems like they used too many explosives.”
“Oh,” was all I said as I turned to look out of the window again. This seemed to be one of the numerous branches of the Qinling Mountains. I could see a vast forest spread out in front of me but it was impossible to see what was happening under the dense tree canopy.
Before setting off on this adventure, I did some research. The Qinling Mountain range in Shaanxi looked like a wasp’s waist, with the eastern and western sides divided into several smaller mountain ranges. The mountains were interspersed with valleys, and there were many rivers that cut deep into the mountains. The four-hundred-kilometer Qinchuan(1) region had been a famous gathering place of cultural relics and historical sites since ancient times, especially the northern slope, where there were many imperial tombs. There were also countless tombs of high officials, nobles, wealthy people, and members of the gentry so it was always a place where grave robbers would flock to. I just never imagined that grave robbers would blatantly blow up tombs here before they even entered the depths of the Qinling Mountains. It looked like finding one or two tombs to rob definitely wasn’t going to be an easy task.
The local was very enthusiastic and didn’t want to stop talking now that the topic had been brought up. He handed me a cigarette and asked, “Are you two kids here to travel? Where are you planning on going?”
“We want to visit Mount Taibai,” I replied.
He nodded and said, “You guys can’t go far without following a tour group. There are many twists and turns on this mountain so you can get lost if you don’t know the way. Do you want me to be your guide? I live in a village on the edge of a protected area just two mountains over. You’ll see when we get there. If you want to have a good time, it’s necessary to find a tour guide.”
As soon as I heard this, I realized that the guy might be a shady tour guide. The mountain folk here were formidable and just as likely to take us into a ravine and stab us than actually show us around. I hurriedly shook my head and said, “No need, no need. We’ve made our own arrangements.”
“Don’t shake your head just yet,” the man said. “This place is far different from any other place you’ve been to before. There are many dense forests on the mountains here. You guys will be in danger if you want to rush deep into the mountains by yourself. Take some time and think it over carefully. I’m considered to be a famous guide in these parts. I’m not trying to scare you guys for the fun of it.”
I felt that what he said was sincere, and it wasn’t good to refuse right away, so I told him that our main reason for coming here was to visit the ethnic minority villages in the mountains. We planned to stay at the foot of the mountain for a few days so we didn’t need a guide right away. But when we were ready to leave for the mountains, we would definitely go and see him.
The man immediately said, “It’s better to come to an agreement now than try to do it on your own. Out of everyone in the village, I’m the one who has taken this route the most. If you want to go to the nearest Yao village, you’ll have to cross this mountain.” As he spoke, he pointed to a seemingly endless mountain range stretching off into the distance. “It’s called Snake Head Mountain. Its highest peak is more than a thousand meters above sea level, and the whole mountain looks like a python’s head. That’s why it’s called Snake Head Mountain. If any traveler—no matter which direction they’re coming from—wants to go to an authentic ethnic minority village, they’ll have to cross that mountain. Many people have died there. In fact, there were several students from an art college who went in to sketch last year but never came back. So, do you really not want to hire a guide?”
I looked to where he was pointing and saw Snake Head Mountain stretching across the horizon as far as the eye could see. The mountain was covered in greenery while its peak soared into the clouds. Because of the climate, the rest of the mountain range was shrouded in clouds and mist so I couldn’t see what it really looked like. Only the side facing the Jialing River could barely be seen, but unfortunately, all I could see were sheer cliffs. They were so steep that I didn’t think even the monkeys here could climb them.
Those lines “Clouds envelop the Qinling Mountains, and I do not know where my home is; The snow covers Languan Pass and the horses will go no further”(2) really were true. As I looked at the scenery in front of me, I clicked my tongue in thought. Could I really survive climbing this mountain?
After driving for another hour, we finally reached the foot of Mount Taibai. When Lao Yang and I stumbled off of the bus, the sketchy tour guide insisted on guiding us to a hotel. I knew that since we were in his territory, I couldn’t keep refusing him, so we went ahead and followed after him. When he took us to a small hotel that wasn’t expensive, I realized that this man really was genuine.
After we got settled, he cupped his hands in front of his chest as a sign of respect and said his goodbyes. He also gave us his phone number before we left and said that whenever we were ready to enter the mountains, we should call him and he would guide us.
The proprietress of the hotel was very friendly and even cooked dinner for us. We weren’t comfortable eating with her family in the living room so Lao Yang and I went back to our room. We leaned against the windowsill and looked at the map of the local area while eating.
The sketchy tour guide was right—to enter the primitive forests of the Qinling Mountains from this side, we needed to climb over a mountain that was more than a thousand meters above sea level. This was something I hadn’t expected at all. With our current experience, going into the mountains by ourselves was tantamount to death. But if we asked that tour guide to take us in, he would definitely have to take us out. Making him wait for a day or two wasn’t a big deal but we would probably be in the mountains for at least a week, which was bound to make him suspicious.
When Lao Yang was here last time, his cousin had found a veteran grave robber to lead the way. But now that his cousin was stuck in jail, there was no way to find that guy. Lao Yang didn’t expect that he would wind up coming here again so he didn’t bother memorizing the route, which meant that there was no way to rely on him this time. I asked the proprietress if there was another way around but she said that there wasn’t. Whenever the villagers went to the market, they also had to pass through the mountain but she had never heard them mention any shortcuts. It looked like we were going to have a bit of trouble crossing this mountain.
As I was in the middle of trying to figure out what to do, Lao Yang patted me on the shoulder and said softly, “Old Wu, l-l-look. Do you see that man down there?”
I glanced out of the window, only to see five people standing in the hotel’s courtyard below. I looked carefully and found that one of them was the old man we had met at the roadside stall in Xi’an.
Why are these people here? I wondered. Is what Lao Yang said true and they’re also here to rob tombs?
Lao Yang drew the curtains until only a small gap was left and then said quietly, “These guys are also carrying a lot of equipment, just like us. Do you think they heard us talking in Xi’an and decided to follow us, wait for an opportunity, and then take all the treasure for themselves?”
I shook my head and watched as the proprietress came out and greeted them with a smile. “It doesn’t seem like it,” I said to him. “Look at how hospitable she’s being. I bet these people stay here often and are regular customers. There aren’t many inns or hotels around here so it’s probably a coincidence that we’re staying in the same place.” If Lao Yang was right and they had also come here to rob graves, then this must be their base. Every time they came to do work in these parts, they probably ended up staying here.
Lao Yang was still worried, “That’s not good. They already heard our conversation in Xi’an so if they see us here, it’s hard to guarantee that they won’t mess with us. Should we leave tonight?”
After thinking about it, I felt that this was not actually a problem but more of an opportunity. I shook my head and said, “No, these people are like flies to honey; they must have come here for a reason. Since we don’t have any experience, we might as well follow them instead of running around blindly. First, we can see if there’s any treasure here. Second, we can follow them over the mountain.”
“These people are all thugs,” Lao Yang argued. “Killing someone means nothing to them. If they find out we’re following them, they might just kill us on the spot. Isn’t it too risky?”
I laughed at him before saying mockingly, “When did you become such a worrywart? This is an old forest deep in the mountains. It’ll be easy to hide ourselves. And it’s not like we’re idiots. We can just run if we’re discovered. If you’re really that worried, why don’t we follow them for a bit to see how alert they are? If it doesn’t work out, we can just stop following them. We have nothing to lose, right?”
After listening to what I said, Lao Yang couldn’t come up with any more arguments and just nodded in agreement. We immediately started getting everything ready so that we wouldn’t be in such a rush in the morning. I figured the next few days might not be easy so I set an alarm clock to wake us up early and then told Lao Yang to stop what he was doing and go to bed. We both needed to be well-rested for tomorrow.
I was so exhausted after such a long journey that I didn’t hear the alarm clock go off and ended up sleeping until noon. When I opened my eyes and saw that the sun was high in the sky, I leaped up from the bed and hurriedly woke Lao Yang up. We went down to ask the proprietress where those people had gone and found that they had already left. They were headed toward Snake Head Mountain and hadn’t left too long ago.
The two of us quickly bought some baked sesame cakes to eat along the way and then rushed into the mountains after them. After running for about fifteen minutes, we finally caught up with them at the entrance to the scenic spot at the foot of the mountain.
<Chapter 2><Table of Contents><Chapter 4>
(1) Qinchuan is what the Shaanxi and Gansu Provinces were called in ancient times.
(2) This is from a poem by famous Tang Dynasty poet Han Yu. Someone already translated it here (and provided background info) so I just copied it.
4 thoughts on “Chapter 3 Tracking”
WOW so fast. Thank you thank you for your great effort. Love the poem note
“And it’s not like we’re idiots”…
oh Wu Xie, Wu Xie 🤦♀️🤦♀️
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This chapter was shorter than the previous. When I saw the end of the page, I thought maybe I left out a part of it without reading. 😅 Thank you for the chapter.
thank you for the chapter translation, this was one much easier on the eye.. 🙏🏼