Strange Mountain - Shenyang in the Twilight Zone

Written by Jan 4, 2006 01:01
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Onwards to the Strange Slope

It was with some relief that I learned of our impending visit to Strange Mountain - a routine of reading, writing and Mandarin study in my Shenyang home was beginning to chafe and I was feeling housebound. Strange Mountain, I was told, was a crazy peak where gravity went all nonsense, conveniently located quite close to Shenyang and charging 50 yuan a piece for entry.

It was an unusual day in its own right. For a start, there was a ridiculous amount of people getting married. In front of the doors of almost every restaurant on the streets were huge blow-up arches with the Chinese character Double Happy sewn in - indicating a couple had booked the premises for a reception. No one in the family I was staying with could offer any explanation as to why this day in particular was considered auspicious for tying the knot, although it’s not uncommon for couples to choose days for astrological or numerological, superstitious reasons.

It was a thickly overcast day, the factories having pumped a good week's worth of smog into the city for the event of the weekend. The sun seemed to hang amidst the smuts like a gleaming bronze coin. As we drove out of the City limits, the apartment blocks were replaced by squat brick houses clumped together along dirt pathways like motels. The land was carpeted by a tall brown crop that looked like corn - miles of the stuff. Again, none of the city slickers sharing the minivan with me had any clue as to what the people outside the city might be harvesting, so I stopped asking questions and watched the countryside pass by in the gray light.

We soon arrived in Puhe, a grotty town half an hour along the motorway from the outskirts of Shenyang. Perhaps it was unfairly rendered by the weather, being so it was a muddy and sad place which seemed a continent away from the shopping centres of the city. The township seemed to have been erected without any enthusiasm, boards stacked up randomly here and there to form a fence, a house, a cart for the sale of sweet potato and beer. The people I saw from the window had the same casual old smiles as the apartment dwellers in the suburbs, suggesting a resigned contentment.

One question I didn't refrain from asking was about Strange Mountain itself - what exactly was it? I was informed that it was a steep bank upon which you needed to accelerate to drive downhill, and if you stopped your motor, you'd roll back uphill. It sounded crazy, so I asked just how steep this mountain was. It was at this point that the status of Strange Mountain began to become a little more questionable. Being aware that the squat hills around Auckland are usually referred to as mountains, I asked what kind of scale this mountain had with regards to height. Upon interrogation, it was claimed to be closer in size to a hill rather than a mountain. After further questioning, Strange Mountain diminished in stature to that of a small hillock, more of a knoll. Its real name in Chinese is Guai Po, and my Chinese dictionary proved illuminating in its translation of 'Po' as 'slope'.
Strange Slope is, however, actually situated on a rather odd mountain, which seemed to justify in part its more mysterious title. The antigrav quality was apparently discovered not so many years ago, after which time visitors were so frequent and enthused that the investors saw an opportunity and made the place into a bizarre tourist trap which doesn't actually attract tourists, but locals.

Against Gravity

We entered the car park, around which were placed unusual bunk-hotels, a administration building with crazy architecture, information booths and several others, the purpose of which I couldn't begin to guess. The park is near the foot of the mountain after a short rise, and curves upwards to the slope itself.
Perhaps it was me, or the weather, but I couldn't initially detect any degree of incline to the slope. It was about a hundred meters in length, and consisted of a platform of rock which had been raised above the steady ascension of the mountainside upon which was laid two concentric ovals, like a racetrack, cobbled with a fine pink rubble. Several cars were attempting the outer ring amidst a crowd of spectators, and in the inner ring a few bicyclists were experiencing the otherworldly force ride against their pedals.

As we came closer, I had to admit that it did look a bit like a slope. And, when we tried it, yeah, it was cool - even if it was flat, the speed at which the van was pulled backwards was surprising. It was only fascinating for a few moments, though, and I encouraged the others not to go back for repeated attempts but to park and have lunch.

Ascending the Strange Mountain

Walking around the slope complex was fascinating. The air was cold and the ground solid and dusty, so littered with small scraps of food wrappers that the soil seemed white with paper. I reflected that Siberia is just 8 degrees north of Shenyang, and the area around the mountain was as cold and gritty as any soviet wasteland. If not for the humidity caused by the cover of factory smoke, the temperature would be positively arctic. The atmosphere made the dingy tourist buildings seem hopelessly out of place. To the left of the slope is a small museum - I declined on a visit due to the added cost and tacky decor. Behind and above is a large domed pavilion where we could rest and look out over the view. Through the dust we could make out distant apartment blocks in isolation on the plain, an odd conservation of dwelling space where none was necessary – why not build houses? Lower down on the mountain was the continual sound of gunfire - an amateur shooting range was the source, similarly oddly positioned. To the right and above the pavilion was a large imitation Qing dynasty palace.

Intriguingly, there was a pathway that led from the rear of the pavilion further up the mountain. In particular, I could see that suspended on a terrace near the peak was a huge gray geodesic dome which beckoned appealingly. The path was steep, and was hurdled by seated old women selling dubious berries picked from the summit, but I decided to investigate.

What I discovered was a whole series of surprises. There seemed to be a second congregation of strange attractions on a flat level semi-hidden from view of the gravity-defying slope at the bottom. I found myself standing in a courtyard of sorts, around which were placed several unusual buildings. The most pedestrian was a flat rectangular stone store which sold trinkets. To the left of this was what appeared to be a lunch bar in the shape of a locomotive engine. A few elderly men sat at one of the booths shovelling noodles into their mouths with plastic chopsticks. To the left again was a public toilet facility shaped as an automobile, which I studiously avoided. Behind me was the dome, a giant soccer ball of glass.

It all seemed hopelessly out of place. For miles around, dirty cold fields of the corn-crop, barren plains, the occasional smokestack which pinpointed shabby factories encircled by apartment lots. This was the old Manchurian heartland, still largely unchanged since its first cultivation centuries ago - remote, sparse, unforgiving. The whole Strange Mountain complex seemed a total enigma in the midst of all this, and these additional unadvertised attractions just didn't make sense. There just didn't seem to be the population to support any kind of development here... there was the shooting range, sure, which suggested that the area might be being employed as a kind of retreat - otherwise this elevated curious spectacle seemed merely to be art for art's sake.

The biggest surprise of all was the secret of the dome - I stepped up and peered through the mirror glass to make out its shadowy inner enclave.

It was a night club.

There was a dance floor, a bar... and, impossibly, the only espresso machine I had yet seen in Shenyang. It was closed, of course, for the likelihood of a patronage seemed as remote as its location.

This was turning out to be a very, very strange mountain.

Up and Far Away

There was more - at the rear of the trinket store was a path that curved downward into a small plateau before the mountain rose again to its peak. Here was to be found a stable with a few ponies upon which rides could be taken for a few yuan. Again, a pony ride seemed to be the least expected feature - even more odd was the 'toss the rings' game the stable-keeper had enterprisingly set up behind the horses. The game consisted of a small ensemble of prizes - one rather conspicuous stuffed Mickey Mouse toy and a few plastic breakables - over which you tossed hoops to try your luck at winning. Again, I abstained.

From the vantage point of the stables it was clear that behind the trinket store and the railway lunch bar stretched a long swing-bridge which crossed this small depression in the mountain and allowed access to the summit. I determined to make the crossing, even though there was another cost involved. I made my way to the trinket store, where a lady collected two yuan in exchange for a ticket. She then moved from the counter out to the side door where I reconnaissanced with her again to have her tear my ticket and allow me onto the bridge.

On the other side, another pathway led lonely to the peak, where a double staircase led upwards to a sole platform capped by an oriental arched roof. Here, a couple had decided to climb for a touch of privacy, perhaps escaping unconsenting parents. It was a good choice of venue; from here one could look out over the vista of agricultural Liaoning, perhaps hold hands, rest a head on a partner's shoulder, release a solitary tear?

 More Shenyang Travel Reviews
1. Early Impressions of Shenyang MISHEN from NZ Dec 31, 2005 00:12
2. Coal in the Snow - Winter in Shenyang MISHEN from NZ Dec 29, 2005 03:12
3. Liaoning's Cultural Crossroads - the Multi-ethnic Heritage of Shenyang MISHEN from NZ Oct 28, 2005 12:10
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