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November 19, 2022

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What do you weigh?How (and why) I lost a stone in Huangshan

What do you weigh? Not physically, I mean whatever mental or emotional load you’re lugging through life. Is it heavy? And more to the point, is what you carry worth the weight?

Huangshan Mountain has 60,000 steps, and I’m about to hike a significant chunk of them. This will be my third climb and in short, it’s a living hell (think seven hours on a concrete stair machine). Any challenging journey demands everything we’ve got. Hiking blends the physical with the spiritual, forcing a person out of their head and into the present moment. Halfway up a mountain you couldn’t care less about your cellulite or mortgage: Your sole focus is getting to the top. For me, it’s somewhere between a detox and an exorcism.

Everyone has a favorite journey, mine is walking 500 miles (805 kilometers) across northern Spain. Aside from marrying Shane, it’s the best thing I’ve done. The Camino de Santiago is a network of ancient pilgrim routes leading to one of Christianity’s most sacred sites. The definition of what constitutes as an authentic pilgrimage is up for debate. The modern take — while still a religious exercise for many — is open to anyone in search of spiritual growth or adventure. One of the customs of the Camino de Santiago is carrying a stone from your hometown to an iron cross called the Cruz de Ferro. Pilgrims bear everything they travel with, and a backpack shouldn’t be more than 10 percent of your body weight. Yet hundreds of thousands of people who have walked the Camino saved precious pounds for a stone. Why?

I’ll be away from Shanghai for a few weeks and true to form, I’ve overpacked. I can’t haul this stuff up Huangshan Mountain, so I’ve had to pick and choose things for the climb. Systematically looking at each item and asking how it will serve me has been useful. And with the Camino in mind, I extended the process to include emotional and mental baggage.

Some stuff is essential and no matter the weight, we’ll carry it: career, family, friends, passions and lessons learned from the experiences and people that have hurt us. But we’re all packing something we don’t want or need: unrealistic standards, rehashed quarrels, things we can’t do in moderation or trying to make people love us who won’t. We get anchored by rigid beliefs or moral standards and attached to disappointment, loss or shame. Whatever the thing is, there’s no good or growth. It’s a load on our back and a pressure around our hearts. That’s the motive for taking a stone across the Camino. It symbolizes a burden we carry, and it’s liberating to lay it down. This same ritual brought me to Huangshan: There’s something I want to be free of. I planned on sharing the spiritual weight of this stone with you, but I won’t. Not because it’s embarrassing or deplorable; I just choose not to. But I will share how I found my stone so you can uncover yours.

The German philosopher Nietzsche said you know a person’s character by the truth they can tolerate. Speaking the truth to ourselves is uncomfortable because the truth isn’t what we want to hear. Our sincerest self, the bit that makes us who we are, will know and speak its truth to survive. The trick lies in listening. There’s a chance your stone isn’t easy to let go of, so you’ll do everything you can to ignore it. I tried to make my stone other weights of varying shapes and size, but it didn’t work. My truest self wouldn’t pretend my stone was anything other than what it is. That’s how I knew it was the one. And when you can tolerate the heavy truth of a burden, you’re strong enough to put it down.

Huangshan isn’t the Camino, but any trip is what we make of it. You don’t need to go on a pilgrimage to learn from sacred teachings. We’re all on life’s journey and come across stones every day. If we pause before picking them up and occasionally assess our overall load, we’ll get to where we want to be with everything we need.

So, what do you weigh? Think about it and join me next week in Anji.

Huangshan Mountain 黄山

Otherwise known as “Yellow Mountain,” Huangshan is famous for its granite peaks and beautifully brutal scenery. Poets and painters have drawn inspiration from Huangshan’s misty heights, and today crowds of tourists’ flock to escape the hustle and bustle of contemporary life. The mountain can get busy at choke points, especially during holiday periods and weekends. Most people take the cable car, so if you’re up for a challenge, there’s relative peace in hiking some of Huangshan’s 60,000 steps. Whatever your route, Huangshan rewards visitors with moments of tranquillity and unearthly views that leave you on top of the world.

Getting there
(from Shanghai)

Shanghai Hongqiao Railway Station
— Huangshanbei Railway Station

Approximately three hours

169-620 yuan

Where I stayed

0517 Boutique Hotel

No. 3, Block 8, Tangkou Yinxiang, Yanxi Street, Tangkou Town


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