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Visiting Xianju, Home of the Immortals (or: The Cake is Not a Lie)

Visiting Xianju, Home of the Immortals (or: The Cake is Not a Lie)

The group of us straggles behind the tour leader as we ascend along the cliffside path – we’re variously admiring the view, taking photos, and/or panting from the hike that is turning out to be longer than we expected. “Come on, hurry up please!” calls Julie, our guide.

“How far are we from the end?” asks an older man in his mid-fifties. We’re city folk, most of us ill-fit both physically and sartorially, and it’s nearly noon. It’s been an hour and when we look ahead this is what we see:

The scenic hiking trail at Shenxianju
There’s no other path.

“Just 20 minutes more if you keep up,” Julie chirps. She’s full of energy, having just graduated from university with a tourism degree. “We have cakes and snacks for when you get there! Let’s go!”

We don’t really have a choice, but at least the scenery is worth it.

We’re hiking the Shenxianju Scenic Area, one of many nature spots in Xianju County, Zhejiang. Originally called Yong’an, it was renamed by a Song Dynasty emperor who declared the place so beautiful that it was fit for the gods (“Xianju” literally means “home of the immortals”). However, with its distance from the coast and more popular cities like Hangzhou, Xianju’s mountains and valleys remain largely unexplored.

It’s another 40 minutes before we get to somewhere in the middle of that photo above, and there’s still no end in sight. “Where’s the food? How do we get down from here?” We’ve been tricked, and tired hikers are inclined to push deceitful guides over cliffside railings. Julie looks a little nervous and tries to pacify us. “10 more minutes, really!” Oh well. We’ve come this far. 

Valley at Shenxianju
Looking down into the valley.

Having taken enough photos, we bully young Julie into practicing her English and get her to introduce the place without using Mandarin, helping her when she fumbles for the right words. But after another 30 minutes we’re tired out, trodding silently, hoping not for food or a rest stop but the sign for the cable cars that’ll finally take us back down to ground level.

Suddenly, the smell of something spicy wafts through the trees. “Here we are! I told you we have food!” cries Julie triumphantly. We’re greeted by a small clearing of stalls selling hot noodle soup and biscuits. Julie hands us each a paper bag containing madeleines, banana-cream eclairs, mandarin oranges, and water. Finally!

As we munch on the food and enjoy the perfect, cool weather, Julie cheerfully informs us that there’s “just a little bit more to go”:

Suspension bridge at Shenxianju
A suspension bridge spanning two mountains completes the trail.

This time, though, our gratification isn’t delayed: right across the bridge are the cable cars that take us back to ground level. It’s 2pm and after all that exercise, we’re glad to pile into the bus for the hour-long ride back into town.

The mid-fifties man settles down in his seat with a grunt, a sigh. “So, Julie, when do we get lunch?”

“Just 20 minutes more! You rest, we’ll get there soon!”

I was in Zhejiang on assignment for a magazine. Most (except out-of-pocket) expenses were covered by the Korea Tourism Organization. I was not obliged to write this post.

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