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In Search of Mark Kitto

Forward: I originally published this on January 5th 2013 after my first visit to Moganshan on two blog sites I used to run. I’m republishing my best work here. Enjoy!

Journey to Moganshan

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The Decision

My first encounter with Moganshan and Mark Kitto came about a few years ago when I was looking for places around Shanghai that could provide an easy weekend escape from the drudgery of 001-202x300Shanghai living. Moganshanlodge.com satisfied my initial curiosity and I put this mountain oasis on my China bucket list and promptly forgot about it. Just a few months ago the China expat internet was on fire with the (perhaps unfortunately named) article, “You’ll Never Be Chinese: Why I’m leaving the country I loved.” and like all foreigners abiding here, made immediately aware of our permanent outsider status in China, and what that means if we ever want to, say, start a family or a business here. Rather than jump on the China exodus bandwagon, or the “damn it, I’m too stubborn to leave” side of things, I considered his words and decided to pick up his book, “China Cuckoo” if I ever saw it for sale.

Fast forward to one week ago, busily preparing for the holidays, working through Christmas (of course), I took some time out to head over to the Foreign Book Store on Fuzhou Lu, where, to my surprise, in addition to various literary offerings of interest, there was a copy of Kitto’s book for sale. Not hesitating a moment, I plopped a copy on top of my ever growing stack of books (1500rmb worth) and headed to the cashier. A short jaunt later through streets too crowded for anyone’s comfort level. I squeezed myself into an overstuffed metro train for the long cramped ride to my home in the suburbs (where I live simply because things are just a slight bit less cramped there).

Standing in a huddle of locals who have yet to discover the benefits of soap and deodorant, I reached in my bag and hauled out Kitto’s tome. Although I had been aware of his lost war with corrupt Chinese bureaucracy, and his fate of living the life in recluse on some not too distant peak, I hadn’t really had the faintest clue as to who this man really is or why he chose Moganshan of all places to run to when Chinese government shenanigans tossed him out of the publishing company he had built from the ground up.

Having read near 40 pages by the time I finally reached my stop, I was immediately taken with the notion of cramming my camera and a few necessities into a backpack and making my own trek to Moganshan. It just so happens I had a few days off for new Year’s and my girlfriend had been pestering me about deciding on a place to go during the holidays. Later that evening I talked to her and said, “Let’s go to Moganshan!” with all the due excitement in my voice that such a destination reserves. “Why? It’s winter. What can we do there?” Unsure of really what there was to do there, I couldn’t answer her second question (objection?), but the first was easy. “We can get away from people!” I exclaimed. “There’s too many in Shanghai. I need a break…” I then went on to relive the frustrations of my day trying to get a bit of shopping done when most were having their day off. Though less enthused than I was at the prospect of “getting away from Chinese people!” than I was, she submitted and I went about planning my trip to Moganshan, the home of Mark Kitto.

Getting There

On the morning of January 2nd, the first day we both had free, we scrambled to the local high speed train station to catch a train to HangZhou. We missed it by 3 minutes. Though not the perfect start to our week long awaited vacation, it was little trouble to jump on the next train heading to HongQiao terminal where we finally boarded our train to HangZhou. After less than an hour we arrived in HangZhou where we boarded another, non-high-speed, train to Deqingxi, a town near Moganshan where we caught a cab to the base of the mountain. The cabbie wouldn’t run the meter and we had to agree to pay 50rmb up front, but this was a minor expense and we’d be practically there at ride’s end. Well, not quite. Getting out at the base of Moganshan in some village I never caught the name for, we were presented with the prospect of hiking 6 kilometers to the mountain’s summit and our hotel, the Bai Yun.

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As we started on our journey I was distracted by a man claiming he was a taxi driver. “But the mountain is closed to cars.” Informed and inquired. “I can take you half way up, 3 kilometers, for 30rmb” he assured me. I called my girlfriend over and informed her of the possibility of getting a lift part way up the hill. She was not impressed and preferred to just walk from here like a busload of tourist were embarking upon about a hundred meters in front of us. “Naah. It’s getting late. Let’s try. I don’t want to be still climbing when it gets dark”, I protested. She relented and we climbed aboard. About one kilometer up the mountain, as we approached a slushy icy patch in the road, the driver suddenly slowed just before it and got his rear wheel driven breadbox van stuck.  “I can’t go any further.” He said and requested his payment. My girlfriend was not impressed and quite rightly, didn’t want to pay. In the interest of getting off on the right foot, I decided not to let her argue with the “clever” driver, paid the man, and we set off on foot. Over the course of the next 4 or 5 kilometers, at least a half dozen breadbox vans with rear tires chained passed us on the way up.

During the hours we had climbed the hill I overwhelmingly became aware of the greatest asset Moganshan has to offer, “silence”. Other than the sound our boots crunching in the snow and the occasional breadbox taxi cab with chains slapping the road, there were almost no other sounds than the rustling of the bamboo and the sound of my breath. It was exactly what I had been craving, an escape from the noise and the people who made it in Shanghai.

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“Silence”

Arrival

After a two hour climb (a very beautiful one) we arrived at our destination: Bai Yun Hotel perched on the side of the mountain just above Moganshan Village. We checked in and the hotel clerk quickly pointed us in the direction of Mark (Ma Ke) Kitto’s mountain Lodge down some snow covered stone steps and pathways towards Moganshan Village. Ten minutes later we were warmly welcomed to “The Lodge” and were seated by a roaring fire awaiting hot coffee and tea. “Is Mark around?” I inquired. “Oh. He just left” was the response. “But he will be back for dinner, you can meet him then” I was informed by our kind foreign hostess. We drank our coffee and tea, reserved a place for dinner, and headed out to explore what we could during the fast receding daylight.

On the previous train rides of the day I had gotten another 30 pages into “China Cuckoo” and I was eager to see the European style stone summer homes that had captured mark’s imagination on his first, also mostly unplanned, visit to the mountain. In particular I wanted to find at least one I could break into to have a look around just as he had done before he finally took the leap of faith and set up his own home here not so many years ago. Although I did not find an abandoned villa I practice some B & E like a truant high-school student, purely for the thrill of it, I did find countless hundred plus year old homes quietly ticked away on the hillside far from roads, noise, and, most importantly, other people.

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The thick bamboo that grows on the mountain’s side is partly responsible for this sense of seclusion as it grows so tightly knit that even houses separated by a few dozen meters are completely blind to each other. Also, the fact that all the homes are connected by narrow stone paths and stairs surrounded by this same dense bamboo means that there is very little open space beyond the gardens of the homes. No noise travels, if indeed, there was anyone to make noise. Though not abandoned, most of the residents of the hill had gone for winter. Walking for a couple hours through the bamboo groves, emerging from hidden paths to gaze in awe at the splendors of hidden homes, we never met a single soul.

With the light fading, and the snow and ice packed stone steps fading from view, we decided to pack it in and return to Mark’s lodge for dinner. We find our place by the fire vacant and retook our places in its warmth and warmed up helped along by a couple glasses of hot mulled wine and waited for dinner to be served.

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Meeting Mark

About a half hour before dinner, Mark arrived looking over the guests (I think) surprised to see such a large turn-out for the evening meal. After a quick tour of the premises he settled into a seat near the front door and flicked open a newspaper. Not wasting any time, I pointed him out to my girlfriend, excused myself from our fireside retreat, and went over to introduce myself. “Have we met before” was his first question after my impromptu introduction. “Oh, non no.” I replied. “I just started reading your book and thought I’d heads up here like you did in the dead of winter. Just wanted to get away from Shanghai.”

A few moments of idle chitchat later, he asked me what I did in Shanghai (manager) and I brought up the topic of Sinolicious and my personal blog on KalanStar.com. “Sinolicious… Yeah, I’ve heard of that. Who’s behind it do you know?” he wanted to know. “Well, I am” I said, overjoyed at the fact he had heard of it even though KalanStar.com is where I’ve published better articles in far greater numbers. We talked a bit more. “Have you seen that article where 79 academics wrote that letter talking about violent revolution?” he asked. I had, and as we talked I got the distinct impression, that the topic of the CCP’s eventual demise was one not far from his heart, with good reason I was to find out later as I read another 100 pages of his book. Finally he asked me for my card, which of course, I have never gotten around to printing. Scribbling my name and website addresses on the back of one of his, I retired to the dining area where dinner was about to be served.

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And what a dinner it was! It was absolutely superb food worthy of the most upscale laowai restaurant in Shanghai. Thoroughly stuffed with beef stroganoff, green beans, and mashed potatoes, it was topped off with a desert of proper English pudding. After the meal it was time for drinks. More mulled wine, some beer, and ending with gin & tonics, the night passed quickly. Mark sat at the table next to us engrossed in a chess game but never too busy to participate in the friendly banter at the tables surrounding him. As the night came to an end, I with a few more drinks than I’m used to (I almost never drink in Shanghai), I went over to bid mark goodnight and ask if I could get a quote or my blog (this one). “Sure. Not a problem.” he said. We bid him farewell and went back up along the ridge where our warm hotel room was waiting.

Second Day on the Mountain

The next morning we rose late. It was after 11am before we crawled out from under our warm covers and made the trip to the hotel’s front desk to find out if we could add another nights stay onto our room as we weren’t ready to head back to the noise and grime of Shanghai just yet. “No. The pipes will freeze.” we were told by a less than energetic clerk. So back to our room we went to pack. Just across from Mark’s lodge there is a hotel called ZTE. We checked in there and walked across the street up to the lodge from some breakfast. “Good morning K____!” Mark piped up as soon as we entered. This place was starting to feel like home.

We took a seat at a table and took a look through the menu. I decided on the Bacon Sandwich, having already devoured a “Lodge Burger” the pervious afternoon, and of course, a pot of coffee, to wash it down. Mark invited us to join them at dinner again (An offer we graciously accepted. After-all, I still hadn’t got my quote.) and bid us farewell as he left to take care of some errands. The food came and it was predictably delicious. Having eaten yet another wonderfully prepared meal, we left out into the cold and genteelly falling snow to see what other treasures the mountain had to offer. At this point in our trip, we had spent more time in The Lodge than anywhere else on the mountain during our waking hours.

Having seen most of the houses, the church, and the two temples in Moganshan Village, we decided to go a bit further down along the side of the mountain and perhaps find the house where Mao took a nap. Rather than sticking to the road that winds around the side of the mountain, we decided to venture once again into the Bamboo bush on the side of the hill. In doing so we found more of the mountain’s famous European style homes and some ruins too. Ruins were another sight on my ‘to do’ list, but we were more interested in perhaps finding Mao’s naptime retreat and a home to break into, an abandoned one of course. After going as far as we could sticking to the paths, we opted for the road and after rounding a few bends past hotels and fabulously large and restored villas, we came to the entrance gate for the Mao house.

"Moganshan Ruins"
“Moganshan Ruins”

Mao’s Naptime Retreat

Inside the “entrance gate’ there were more abandoned houses to be seen and we were just lucky enough to see that one had a rusty door handle that broke off as soon as I gripped it. So, inside we went like a couple kids snooping around a ‘haunted house’. The only thing this house was haunted by was communism. No furniture had been left inside, but the walls were covered by different old faded polygraphs of Party and PLA officials. Outside there was a plaque designating the building as a heritage site under protection, but other than the hanging of defunct heroes of the revolution on a few walls (to scare the rats away perhaps…) nothing had been done to protect the place. Upstairs the roofs were leaking and in one room suffering from years of leaky roof tiles, the water damaged and likely rotten floor cracked unnervingly loud as I entered. Quickly I retraced my steps and got out of there. Outside the concrete and bricked in arches under the veranda (more communist protection… aka “destruction”) gave way to urinals and sinks installed after Mao and his merry band of thieves stole these properties from their foreign owners. One can only imagine how much better these old homes would look today if aesthetically challenged Chinese communists had not seized and did their best to ‘uglify’ them…

"Scare the rats?"
“Scare the rats?”

Outside once again we climbed more steps; saw more beautiful homes partially succumbing to communist ‘uglification’, disrepair, and time, but still no Mao Museum. By this point I was actually wondering if the place hadn’t crumbled and fallen down the cliff face. Another thing I was searching for was a bathroom. Rounding the corner at the back of a villa I assumed to be vacant; I was surprised to hear running water behind a window. Looking through the window and pushing a door out of the way, I was treated to the sight of an impromptu fountain created by a burst faucet on a sink. It had been running for some time and had soaked the entire bathroom. The lights were also on inside, so I went farther along the wall and entered when I stumbled across a door to take care of business.

We rounded the corner of the house and were greeted by a sign saying that this building, the one with the bathroom floor flooding dsc_0589-199x300doing irreparable damage to the structure no doubt, was the “Site of Mao’s Temporary Stay.” A local elderly man was acting as the host of this fine ‘cultural relic’. “Can we come in?” we asked. “Do you have your ticket? It costs 80RMB for a ticket. You have to have one or you can’t enter” he replied. We had paid our entrance fee at the bottom of the mountain just around the corner from where our taxi driver got “stuck”, but we had left it at the hotel. Rather than pay again, this quite ridiculous fee if you ask me, we satisfied our curiosity by staring in the windows at the barren and decrepit rooms. A few pictures hung on the walls to prevent a rat problem, but other than that, we couldn’t see what could possibly be worth 80rmb inside those walls. And with that, we decided after 2.5 hours of trudging around through the snow and cold that it was time to head back to the lodge for tea, coffee, and some hot mulled wine.

Arriving at the Lodge about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, Mark was nowhere to be found, but I had his book with me and settled onto the couch, tossed a log on the fire, and delved into his book once again as I gingerly put back a pot of coffee and eventually, a mug of hot wine. The afternoon flew past and before we knew it, it was 5:30. Having yet spent most of another day in the Lodge, we decided to head back to our hotel room and give the couch and fire place over to some other visitors. Dinner was at 7pm, and I thought I’d grab a hot shower in between then and now to drive the mountain chill from my bones. At the hotel, we found a frigid room and I made the unhappy discovery that the “hot” water was “lukewarm” at best. Still, I took a shower and then spent the remaining hour huddled under the sheets with Mark’s book. By the time dinner time came round, I had made it into chapter 8 where Mark focuses on the history of Moganshan.

Getting “The Quote”

When we arrived back at the lodge our dinner was waiting: beef and gravy, mashed potatoes, veg, and a desert of apple crisp. I was starting to get very comfortable with my day and a half old existence on Moganshan, thanks in no small part to the fare at Kitto’s Lodge. As with the previous meal, food gave way to drinks, and I once again found myself heartily downing beer and gin and tonics. At least slightly inebriated by the time 10 o’clock rolled around, mark had finished entertaining other guests with card tricks and witty conversation and now it was our turn. I tried to pay attention to the tricks, but I confess, they are a blur. I was trying to keep my mind ready to quiz Mark and get a quote I may remember come morning. Finally, I got my chance.

Going to the bar, Mark grabbed a beer for himself and another for me. “Alright”, he says, “I’ll give you by the time this beer is finished to get your quote.. or you can just make one up” he laughed. (I’ve done my best not to, of course.) So I asked: “What do you think is the future of Moganshan?” In my opinion it was prefect just the way it was. Like many foreigners (I assume), I hate official ‘scenic spots’ in China as they are invariably tacky, noisy, and often dirty. In other words, they are Chinese. “Nothing. Nothing is going to happened with Moganshan so long as it is controlled by the central government. Around the base of the mountain, in resorts like “Naked” , lots of things are happening. The area is developing into a robust tourist location. But up here, everything is being left the way it is.” He responded (if my memory is serving up the correct information???). According to Mark, the local governments have a handle on the potential for this area by the central government has no idea what they are doing.

My second question I already knew the answer to, but I wondered why his famous (or perhaps infamous) article was entitled as it was; “You’ll Never be Chinese”. So I asked: “Did you really want to be Chinese?” “No. I didn’t choose that title, the editors did.” He then went on to explain what most have already figured out, that he just wanted to be accepted, more or less, as “human” in China. In modernized countries, people can move there and become naturalized citizens entitled to the rights and freedoms of the indigenous population. Not so in China. As a foreigner, you are always a foreigner. Faced with the prospect of growing old and retiring in a nation that refuses to provide any rights, let alone a social safety net, to foreigners like us, it might be prudent to think about moving home. Also, Mark has two young children that are being exposed to China’s ‘education’ (brainwashing) system, which would cause any reasonable foreigner to reassess their commitment to this country. I know I wouldn’t want my kids getting their programming from the CCP controlled school system. There’s no way they would survive un-warped.  And then there is Mark’s business; “Right now they will only give me 3 year leases on my lodge and villas. I don’t know, every time a lease runs out, if I’ll get it renewed or not.” Which of course, makes it impossible to plan for the future, financially anyway?

For my third question I asked: “Do you think China, the CCP I mean, will last another 10 years? I doubt we’ll see another congress”. To this, Mark had lots to say. The beers drained away as the topic turned to Tiananmen Square, peasant revolts, land confiscations, the rich poor gap, government corruption, and a host of other “sensitive” topics. What consensus we reached was that it would end, likely sooner than later, which gave Mark another reason to seek greener pastures further afield. And with that, the beer was finished and the night was over. Mark grabbed a half bottle of vodka from behind the bar and disappeared into the night. We disappeared to our now toasty warm (we left the heater on full throttle while we were gone) hotel room across the street.

Farewell Moganshan

The next morning feeling far less the effects of the previous nights drinking than I expected, we got up early and headed over to the lodge for a hearty breakfast. We were not disappointed. Eggs, toast and a heap of bacon greeted my eager pallet. Another pot of hot coffee and we were ready for the road. Mark didn’t make an appearance that morning (the half bottle of Vodka may have had something to do with that, or perhaps, he simply likes his breakfast at 11?), but it was a perfect way to end the trip anyway. Leaving with fond farewells and promises to return in the spring, we discovered just before leaving that this was the last day of the Lodge’s operation for the year and it would be closed until spring. The hotel staff waiting for us to vacate the premises informed us that they were closing for the winter that day too. That’s when I realized how lucky we were that we hadn’t waited for CNY to go to this wonderful mountain, if we had, as Mark had done on his first adventure here, we would have missed everything we had enjoyed so much (the Lodge, Mark, the food, and mulled wine… oh yeah, the fireplace too!)

Coffee, Tea, and Mulled Wine by the fire.

We walked down the mountain through the noiselessly falling snow, past all the buildings trees, and scenic areas we had passed on the way up, including the toll booth where we spent 80rmb in which no one was working… Two taxis, a highway traffic jam, an overcrowded Hangzhou train station, and a harrowing ride through a snowy night in Shanghai traffic later (about 6 hours total), we were home.. and wishing we could go right back!

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