After a five-hour trek the next afternoon, we finally made it around Snake Head Mountain and came to the first small village at the foot of the mountain. We profusely thanked the village secretary who brought us here and then parted with the group at the village entrance. Since Lao Yang had come here before, he took me to find the house where he had stayed last time.
This village was built on a steep mountain and was hundreds of years old, as indicated by the various stone houses built in the styles of the Ming and Qing Dynasties.(1) The road running through the village was made of bluestone slabs that sloped upward to follow the mountain’s steep incline. This meant that the foundation of the houses at the end of the road was a hundred meters higher than the ones at the other end. A mountain stream passed through a ditch on the side of the road, and there was green moss everywhere. I looked at our surroundings as we walked and found that the walls of many houses were a mix of bricks from tombs of different eras. It could be inferred that it was a common practice in ancient times to take bricks from tombs that you had dug up to build houses.
We bought dry food from the family Lao Yang had stayed with last time, took a bath in the stream by their house, and then washed our clothes. As we waited for them to dry, we sat by the stream in our underwear and discussed what to do next.
It was both impossible and unnecessary to try and catch up with that group of five, especially since we had successfully crossed the mountain anyways. Now we would have to rely on Lao Yang’s so-called mark to find the place where he had visited three years ago.
When I asked him what mark he had made and why he was so confident that he could still find it, Lao Yang told me that in order to get to the sacrificial pit he had visited last time, you had to pass through a very strange landform that all the locals called the “Narrow Ravine”. After passing this landform, the sacrificial pit wasn’t far off. But Narrow Ravine was more than forty kilometers away from this village, practically in the depths of the primitive forest.
Since we had already endured the painful experience of entering the mountains without a guide, we consulted the village secretary to see if there was a guide who would be willing to take us on a more difficult journey.
The village secretary sent his child to take us to find an old hunter. We followed the butt-naked child several times around the whole village before finally coming to a two-story house with a tiled roof. The child pointed to an old man with a white beard who was basking in the sun and said, “That’s him, Old Man Liu.”
Old Man Liu was an outsider who came here when he was young in order to escape being drafted into the army. He settled down here and became a respected hunter. He was now in his eighties but he was still in good health. In fact, almost all of the scientific expedition teams, archaeological teams, and grave robbers that entered this old forest would ask him to be their guide. He was always happy to do so because it was a quick way to make money and gave him a high status. He wasn’t surprised when we explained the purpose of our visit. Instead, he just shook his head and said, “Not possible. You can’t go to Narrow Ravine during this time of year.”
I was puzzled to hear this, and so I asked him, “Why not? It’s a good time to hunt now that it’s autumn and the weather is so crisp and dry. But if now isn’t a good time to go into the mountains, then when can we go?”
He asked his son to serve us some tea and said, “This is the time of year when the mountains are full of evil energy and the hauntings are especially fierce. I’m over eighty now; I have no reason to lie to you. That place, Narrow Ravine, is actually a plank road that ghost soldiers use. If you run into them when they’re passing through, your soul will be swept along with them, never to return. That place is very evil.”
I had never been to that place and didn’t know what the geography was like, but I found his response a little funny. The older generation had their own worldviews, however, so it wasn’t like we could force them to change. He continued to refuse even after we begged him for a while so we ended up asking him about the route into the mountains.
The old man told us that once we left this village, we’d have to go deep into the towering mountains and precipitous ridges of the Qinchuan region. After heading west for seven days, we would see another mountain, which was called Tianmen Mountain. It had cliffs on both sides that couldn’t be climbed, but there was a strange crack running through the middle of the mountain that was only wide enough for two people to walk through side by side. This kind of landform was normally called “a one-line sky”(2) but Lao Yang had said that the locals called the one here the “Narrow Ravine”. According to legend, at the end of the Northern and Southern Dynasties, some locals saw a Northern Wei Dynasty army using the plank road to try and enter the Qinchuan region. This army was very strange in that no one spoke as they marched straight into the mountain gap. But when the army passed through this gap, the mountain suddenly shook and the huge gap suddenly closed, trapping the troops inside the mountain. After that, no traces of the army could be found, nor did they ever come out again.
In the Qing Dynasty, several feng shui masters came here to pick out a burial spot for a rich man. They went into the mountains for ten days, but when they finally came out, they were almost inhuman. They all said that inside Tianmen Mountain, there was a Yellow Springs(3) waterfall that was connected to the underworld. They ventured a little inside the mountain but almost couldn’t get back out.
The mountain people didn’t believe it at first, but later, many people said that they heard the sounds of horses galloping in the ravine. The rumors spread and became more and more outlandish. Some people even said that the underworld’s ghost soldiers used this Yellow Springs waterfall to enter and exit the underworld, and the Northern Wei army that disappeared was actually a troop of ghost soldiers who were returning to the underworld from the land of the living.
The old man said that we could walk to Tianmen Mountain, but that was as far as previous generations had gone. No one knew what was in the forest beyond that mountain. From ancient times up until the present, no one who went inside—whether it was the Tatar army of the Qing Dynasty or the defeated troops of the Kuomintang—had ever come out. He was too old to take us there, and no one else in the village had ever been, but if we were really determined to go, then he could at least point us in the right direction. As long as we followed his directions, we would definitely get there in seven or eight days, but he wouldn’t be responsible for anything that happened after we went in.
My grandpa wrote in his notebook that you had to pay special attention to places with detailed folklore whenever you were looking for tombs, so I listened attentively to the old man’s story. By the time he was done talking, I was already somewhat certain that the place we were headed to was indeed near that area.
We thanked the old man and got ready to leave, but he must have had few guests because he enthusiastically insisted that we stay for dinner. After we stubbornly insisted on leaving, he had no other choice but to give in. He did, however, pack us some marinated meat dishes to take with us. I didn’t want them because it would be too much of a hassle to deal with, but when I saw the roast meat and remembered that all I had eaten over the past few days was dry food that didn’t even fill me up, I immediately took them.
After a day’s rest, we went on our way again, this time with a clear goal in mind. We followed the direction of the compass and gritted our teeth as we crossed various mountains and rivers, plunging into the most mysterious and vast primitive forest in the heart of China.
We walked the whole way in silence, the journey so difficult that I didn’t even want to write any notes down. All I know is that seven days later, Lao Yang suddenly shouted that he could see Tianmen Mountain above the tree canopy. We stopped to get our bearings and found that we didn’t look much different from a bunch of savages.
Lao Yang looked around and told me that this was the place. Once we went through Narrow Ravine, there would be a small crater where the sacrificial pit was located.
I climbed up a huge old fir tree, pulled out my binoculars, and took a look through the one eyepiece that was still functional. Tianmen Mountain’s silhouette was tall, straight, and oddly majestic. I could even see what looked like ghostly pine trees on top of the mountain. Although the scenery was very strange, the mountain didn’t necessarily look like a gate to Heaven so I didn’t know where the name Tianmen Mountain had come from. (4) In addition, the one-line sky in the middle of the mountain just looked like a thin black line from my current position.
We climbed up a low ridge and continued to approach Tianmen Mountain, checking the terrain up ahead as we walked. By the time we finally reached the foot of Tianmen Mountain, it was almost noon. We could see a rocky ridge in front of us that was the entrance to Narrow Ravine.
The Qinling Mountains were really a wonderful place with a lot of beautiful scenery, especially those areas that had not been developed for tourism. The view looking up directly from the bottom of Tianmen Mountain’s cliffs was particularly spectacular. To put it simply, it was like a huge rock had been split by a sharp sword, and a tiny crack was formed in the middle. At the bottom of this crack was Narrow Ravine, which had a different one-line sky landscape than the ones you would see on shorter mountains. This was because the mountains here were extremely tall, so when you looked up, you could only see a tiny sliver of light far, far above, as if the whole sky really had condensed into a single line. If you didn’t experience it yourself, you wouldn’t be able to appreciate it.
There were many rocks piled up at the bottom of Narrow Ravine, along with clear springs periodically scattered on both sides. The stones were covered in green moss, which made it very difficult to walk, but the ravine wasn’t as narrow as it appeared to be from afar. Plus, there was a lot of light since the part of the mountain at the entrance to the ravine wasn’t very high so the one-line sky was wider than normal.
Lao Yang recalled that it took them at least one afternoon to pass through Narrow Ravine. It was very windy inside the gap and the ground was wet so it would be inconvenient to start a fire in there. As a result, we stopped a short distance from the entrance, lit a fire, and had lunch. We combined the food that the old man had given us with the leftover canned food we had, heated it over the fire, and ate it like a hotpot dish. The mountain people’s cooking didn’t taste very good since it had a heavy flavor, but it was already several times better compared to our dry rations so we had eaten it sparingly over the past few days. Now that we were close to our destination, however, we no longer felt the need to restrain ourselves, and Lao Yang and I practically devoured it in record time.
I still wasn’t full but I remembered that there was some marinated pheasant meat with fried bamboo shoots left in our food bag. I figured that we should just go ahead and eat it all, but I was surprised to find that when I reached back to grab the bag, it was gone.
I searched everywhere for it but I couldn’t find it at all. Feeling perplexed, I was just about to ask Lao Yang if he knew where it went when I suddenly heard him let out a curse, “Damn it, why did you spit the leftover bones into my collar?!”
I looked at him in bewilderment. When I ate just now, I practically swallowed all the bones. Why would I waste them by throwing them at him?
Just as we were pondering over the strangeness of the situation, another bone suddenly fell from the cliff above us. I looked up and saw that a dozen large golden-haired monkeys had climbed up the cliff wall above our heads at some point. One of them was holding my bag with the pheasant and fried bamboo shoots inside and eating the meat. Based on the way it was going to town on that pheasant, it had probably never eaten anything so delicious before. It enjoyed the food so much that it actually almost ate the bag itself.
It wasn’t long before it cleared out the whole bag and then climbed down and stared at our backpacks.
Not good, I thought to myself. These monkeys probably think that our bags are full of food. If they snatch them from us, then we’ll really be in trouble. As soon as I thought this, the monkey let out a screech, and all the other monkeys instantly began to approach us.
<Chapter 6><Table of Contents><Chapter 8>
(1) The Ming Dynasty was from 1368-1644. Info on the architecture style here. Qing Dynasty was from 1644-1911. Some info on architecture here (wasn’t having much luck finding pics of commoner homes but that one at the bottom should be close enough I guess).
(2) A “one-line sky” can be called a “thread of heaven” or “thread of sky” but I never got any google results with that so we’re sticking with “one-line sky”. Can look like this:
(3) Yellow Springs is the underworld of Chinese mythology. Felt dumb to say “underworld waterfall connected to the underworld” (obvious much?) so I went with what you see.
(4) If you couldn’t tell Tianmen (天门) can mean heavenly gate/door or door/gate to Heaven.
3 thoughts on “Chapter 7 Narrow Ravine”
Wu XIe shouldn’t mention Tianmen name in front of Xiao Ge. And why does he mention that they sit by the water in their underwear? Maybe he is afraid that someone will read this story and misunderstand him.
Thank you for the chapters.💕
Thank you so much for the chapter!
thank you for the chapter 🙏🏼