Nine months after I moved to Dali, in the autumn of 2020, I finally set off to climb Cangshan, the high mountain which towers over this valley in southwest China. Each morning, I had looked up at the top of its imposing ridge line, 2,000m above the village of Silver Bridge, north of Dali’s historic old town, that for a while I called home. Eighteen glacial gorges separated the 19 peaks, each carved by a running stream. Ever since moving there, I had fantasised about standing on top of that mountain. Reaching its summit had become an objective I fixated on. Scaling it would be healing, I had convinced myself.
I wasn’t alone in that outlook. It’s the quest for personal change that draws so many escapees from China’s cities to this rural valley. Cangshan (the “verdant mountain”) is a spectacular, 44km-long massif, carpeted by lush, evergreen forest, hugging the western shore of a crystalline lake and looming over a valley in the foothills of the eastern Himalaya, near the border with Myanmar. Each evening, I’d sit and watch the sun setting over them from my farmhouse, casting rays of pink, yellow and ochre through the clouds that rolled off the ridge line.
There’s a saying in Chinese: “The mountains are high, the emperor far away.” It speaks of escape from the urban nexus of power, of self-exile in rural climes. The valley of Dali in Yunnan province, far away from Beijing, where I had lived for the past seven years, has a storied history as just such a refuge. The progenitors of Dali’s native ethnicity, the Bai people, supposedly came here fleeing warring dynasties in the north. In the modern age, it’s become an increasingly trendy destination for those looking to leave the city and get back to nature. Its ancient old town and surrounding villages are dotted with urban-dwellers renting cottages and farmhouses, looking to get away from it all. And I was one of them.
Around the time I made the move to Dali, a new Chinese buzzword was starting to appear online: “involution”. The Chinese, neijuan, literally means to be “rolled up inside”. If you worked 12 hours a day, you were rolled up by over-work culture. If you were a student whose parents jam-packed your weekends with back-to-back classes, you were rolled up by the education system. If you were commuting for two hours to pay off a shoebox apartment and buy a car so you could attract a partner, you were rolled up by social conventions.
One blog post likened neijuan to the prisoner’s dilemma, using an image of a concert where those in the front rows stood up to get a better view. If everyone sat, the view would be the same – but because some were standing, everyone behind them had to as well. Not social evolution, but involution. A solution was proposed: instead of standing or sitting, lie down. The word used for this, tangping, literally meant to lie flat, but signalled a deeper opting out of the system. If the game was rigged and social mobility impossible, why even bother? Quit the rat race; break the cycle. The most extreme form was to escape the city altogether. If material goals weren’t fulfilling, maybe there was a different mountain to climb.
Dali was already jokingly dubbed the “capital of lying flat”. Others called it “Dalifornia”, for its good weather and chilled vibes. The back-to-the-land trend was a direct reversal of everything upwardly mobile Chinese used to hold dear. For decades, those born in the countryside had wanted only to escape its poverty. Yet for the generations born in China’s megacities, some wanted to return to the soil where their forefathers had come from. After 40 years of urbanisation, the flow was reversing.
Obviously, I’m not Chinese. I was a privileged, white Brit descending on the village. Still, I found myself just as burnt out by life in Beijing as my fellow urbanites. Born and raised in Oxford, after graduating from university in 2007, I travelled to teach in China for a summer, caught the China bug and stayed for the next 15 years. Back then, Beijing was one of the world’s most exciting cities. Yet after 2017, something shifted. As the state veered towards authoritarianism, China was tightening rather than opening. The city no longer felt like the hub of a dynamic nation, but the heart of a police state.
Or perhaps what was deteriorating was me. I was becoming the cliché of the bitter expat. Old friends left Beijing; I was having relationship difficulties with my long-term partner, which I chose to ignore. Without a new project after my first book was published, I was feeling listless about work. I was in a rut. Then came the knock on my door: the building I lived in was an illegal structure and had to be demolished. If you had asked me if I wanted to go, I would have said no. I needed the push to realise something had to change. We called off our engagement on the second day of 2020 and within a fortnight I was on the train to Dali.
Here, I met other urban transplants, each seeking their own Shangri-la in which to reinvent themselves in. The hippies and yuppies, bohemians and bourgeois, environmentalists and survivalists, homeschoolers and retirees, Taoists and Buddhists, psychonauts and oneironauts, dissidents and digital nomads. Refugees of modernity, opting out of China’s honking high-rises to live far from the centre of state power, trying to be free in an unfree country. In the process, as coffee shops and yoga studios popped up around the valley to cater for us, we were changing the very rural escape we sought.
Above it all loomed the mountain. In October, I packed my tent and set off at first light, to scale the crisscross of donkey paths that snake their way up. It took a full day to reach the summit, at a steep and gruelling incline. The final stretch was tough going, through a bamboo forest that grew dense around the narrow path, more of a scramble than a hike. My legs were starting to give out, and I worried about fading light. Then, out of nowhere, the path levelled off and a large pool of water stretched before me, lined by silver fir trees. I had reached my destination. The mountain ridge was still 200m higher, but I was camping overnight at a series of lakes just below it. Next morning, I made the final climb before sunrise.
Certainly, I felt a sense of satisfaction at the top. A physical task was completed. But emotionally, it was a let down. I had dreamed of the symbolism of this climb. Yet as I watched the sun rise over the valley, as beautiful as I expected it to be, I felt no revelation.
I had projected much significance on to Dali. It was on this mountain that I was convinced I would be restored, remedied. The appeal had been in its isolation. To remove myself from society and city, out of a romantic, wounded self-image. Yet isolation is internal. I realised the answers I had searched for weren’t up here in these forested hills.
Dusk was falling on the second night when I climbed down and reached home. Now, back in my courtyard and looking up at the mountains, I saw them in a new light. It was their mystery that had first drawn me to Dali; the prospect of their power to transform. But I knew the work of finding mental calm, true serenity, was here to be done on the ground.
I started cooking, fixed up my rented farmhouse, grew vegetables and spent time outdoors. Hobbies, too: music, running, archery and tai chi. But my new interests and the idyllic locale alone didn’t make me happy. I had changed location, but physical change was not enough: I needed to change my mind. I started talk therapy, over Zoom, and learned tools and tricks to regulate my emotions. Nature, spirituality and meditation replaced screens, scrolling and constant comparison in my daily routine. In fact, when I failed to quit my digital addiction on my own; I swallowed my pride and joined a 12-step programme.
I knew I would not stay in Dali for ever – it was a false utopia. My goal was to be in the middle of chaotic traffic or a major crisis and still be able to access inner calm. After three years in the valley, I left China. I live in New York now, setting up a new life all over again. But I’m trying to keep some of the spirit of Dali alive, and its lessons: from finding inner refuge where I can, to remembering I’m not the centre of the universe. Sometimes, maybe, lying flat for a while.
As told to Michael Segalov
The Mountains Are High: A Year of Escape and Discovery in Rural China, by Alec Ash, is out on 8 February (Scribe, £16.99). Buy it for £14.78 at guardianbookshop.com