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108 braids... the devotional representation of a sacred Tibetan number. Photo by Rebecca Thom, China Semester.

The Conqueror of Mountains

After picking a purple weed I would have never given a second look at, he said “long dan tsao, Dragon’s Bladder Grass – its for inflammatory relief.”

Abuoge, or “Big Brother Abuo,” was the spirited, adventurous spirited guide we were fortunate to have during our four-day expedition. Though he had never had a formal classroom education, the altruistic explorer stood more knowledgeable on many fronts than any of us were; tracking, finding the best paths for navigation over mountainous terrain, and identifying the medicinal properties of different wild plants were nothing new for Yunnan’s Bear Grylls.

Our cohort of seven, with professional mountain boots, walking sticks, and the burdensome weight of hiking gear on our backs, fell awestruck by Abuoge’s contrasting “equipment”: well-worn Vans and black jeans, callous-laden hands for gripping unto the steepest stones, and a hot pink backpack that carried a single, half- liter water bottle – a sixth of what each of us carried. The bravery we felt in carrying an average of 25-lb. seemingly-necessary gear was soon diminished when we overheard Abuo’s offhand comment: “I used to carry tourists up and down this mountain; it must have been a couple hundred times.” Now knowing that our physically-demanding mountain hike was once a source of hard-earned income, we grew humbled, feeling a further surge of motivation to complete our given task. Surely, if Abuoge could climb the colossal demon that many times, we could do so at least once?

On our last day of hiking, the silent road allowed Abuoge a reflection on his past. He then began to tell us his story, which fell nothing short of unforgettable.

Wo de ba ba bu hao. “My dad was not good.” Abuoge’s father, a mysterious figure, had an unknown disability and was unable to work to provide for his family. Frustrated with his physical state, he fell victim to alcoholism, spending what little savings the family had on beer. Young Abuoge – confined to caring for the family livestock at home and deprived of family funds to afford even cheap, local schooling (4¥ a year) – was unable to obtain an education. Eventually, he grew weary of his seemingly unchangeable daily routine, mustered what bravery he could and confronted his father. “I won’t take care of your goats anymore! Do with them as you wish.” He ran from home the next day.

Despite having only basic understanding of Mandarin, Abuoge managed to find employment with a village family and worked there for a few years. Though he collected a sheer 1.5¥ a day to cultivate crops, he began to give all of his earnings to his father, believing he might now use the money more wisely. But alas, a few years of separation were not sufficient to correct bad practices. All of Abuoge’s monthly earnings, ranging between 70-90¥, were spent on the spiritless drinking of a single night.

Abuoge, now penniless, realized he would have to provide for himself, and only himself. Using a third of family land, he began planting and cultivating corn to sell at the local market. Eventually saving enough to purchase basic construction material, Abuoge constructed a small shack for himself, and managed to build a comfortable, self-sufficient lifestyle. He disburdened himself from preceding conflicts and lived with bright anticipation for the future to come.

In the late 2000’s, his father fell ill. Though now a husband and a father himself, Abuoge again took time to assist his father, taking him to the nearest hospital many kilometers away. Seeing his son still willing to provide aid, undeterred by the many struggles forced upon him from a young age, Abuoge’s father began sobbing on the hospital bed, repenting from his previous actions.

“Tears are of no use now. What’s important is that you’ve realized your mistakes,” Abuoge responded.

Despite all previous conflict, Abuoge brought himself to forgive. Though his father passed in 2007, the two said their goodbyes on good terms. The mountains of stone and the hills of life’s greatest challenges, it seems, stood no match against the fearless contender Abuoge turned out to be.

Perseverance? Forgiveness? Self-sufficiency? Love for family? I grew perplexed trying to identify one particular moral that Abuoge’s story taught me, but realized it was a melting pot of many. What fascinated me most, however, was that throughout his many stories and underlying lessons shared, Abuoge maintained not only humility, but energy, exuberance, and high spirit.

Due to a quick run to the nearest restroom after the 5-hour hike, I was unable to bid Abuoge a proper farewell, and I continue to lament my body’s lack of patience in that moment. Though I was unable to tell him in person, Abuoge – the goat caretaker, the conquerer of mountains, and the forgiver – will forever remain one of my greatest role models.