The border area, Huo Zhou.
Huo Zhou used to have another name with ethnic characteristics, which meant "the land of prosperity and opulence". Yet since the area was in a basin surrounded by tall mountains on all sides, with long hours of sunshine and sweltering heat throughout the year which reminded one of fire falling like raindrops, the original name was gradually forgotten as time passed, leaving behind the nickname " Huo Zhou 1 " only.
It was October at the moment, and the rest of the country was welcoming the autumn coolness already. However, with a summer as long as 153 days, the temperature here remained as high as ever. What was more, despite the scorching heat in daytime, the nights were cold. The diurnal temperature difference was huge.
Gu Yu arrived at Huo Zhou in the afternoon and it was late at night already. Right now, he was lying in bed in a hotel, studying a map in his hands.
This region had been the communication hub between the Central Plains and Western Regions since the ancient times. Various religious group coexisted here with a diversified culture. Gu Yu circled out Flaming Mountain on the map first, then drew a line linking the Ancient City of Gaochang, Thousand Buddha Caves, and the Astana Cemetery.
Theses four locations were rather close together and could be joined by one route.
Gu Yu's original plan was to visit Flaming Mountain only. However, with his girlfriend's curiosity (more like an heart for gossip), he thought he would take the trip in passing. The Ancient City of Gaochang used to be a vital center in the Western Regions with a massive Buddhist population. It was said that "of the thirty thousand city dwellers, three thousand were monks".
The city was a complete ruin by the time of Yuan Dynasty, with nothing left but ruins and remains. Thousand Buddha Caves nearby used to be the royal temple of the imperial kinsmen of Gaochang.
After the itinerary was determined, he paused there and made some reconsideration, crossing out natural landscapes such as Grape Valley and Ayding Lake, then drew a circle around Jiaohe Ruins.
Similar to Gaochang, Jiaohe was also a strategic transportation point once and now a deserted town. Jiaohe was to the east of Huo Zhou, while Gaochang was to the west. Covering both places in one day seemed infeasible.
With the brief plan settled, he tossed the map aside. Roaming the room with his eyes, he was suddenly struck by loneliness. After going everywhere with Xiaozhai these days, being on his own felt rather strange.
Xiaozhai wanted to visit Mount Song first while he was to come to the western border. Since neither of them was giving in, they decided to tend to each one's own business. Mount Song was the closer destination and Xiaozhai should have arrived by now, but she had not sent a single word so far.
Gu Yu heaved a sigh, picked up his phone, and took the initiative to call first. A couple of seconds later, Xiaozhai's voice came out of the speaker. "Hello? Have you arrived?"
"Yup. What are you doing over there?"
"Saving my energy and strength for the trip up the mountain tomorrow."
"Got any plan?"
"Nope. I'll just go, that's all."
"Restrain yourself a little, ok? A lot of people are going to be there, so don't make too big a scene." Gu Yu was already feeling speechless.
"Haha, don't worry. My nickname is Miss Congeniality…" Xiaozhai laughed on the other side of the line. She then asked, "Oh, by the way, anybody following you over there?"
"Sure. Half a dozen at least."
"Yeah, about the same here. You know what? We should just put everything on the table and fit everyone into a tourist group, sharing the food and living expenses. I almost pity them for their tedious job…"
That was unavoidable. As the saying went, "Pull one hair and the whole body is affected." Once Phoenix Mountain made its move, all forces started bustling.
Gu Yu and Xiaozhai were not naive. They knew that the government could not be ignorant about what was going on. The fact that Bai Bo brought the stone to them was proof enough for the consent of his family, which in turn indicated the approval of the boss behind them.
It was safe to conclude that any civilian activities were determined by the attitude of those above.
They chatted for quite a while before Gu Yu hung up. He took off his clothes and was ready to go take a shower when there came a muffled crackling sound from outside.
Someone seemed to have walked past his room on the corridor and a card was slid in from underneath the door.
Why, did the hotel here also provide special room service ?
He went up to the door and picked it up. On it was not the telephone number of some pretty girl, but a single line: We'd like to have a talk. Please come to the restaurant next door.
He snorted. 'Like I actually want to talk to you!' Exactly where did these people's confidence come from? The sneaky fellows could not even gather enough courage to face him in person!
Tossing the card aside, Gu Yu happily returned to his shower.
"Anyone going to Flaming Mountain? 20 yuan per person! 20 yuan per person!"
"One more passenger and we hit the road!"
The following day, in the central square of the city, several unlicensed cabs parked brazenly next to the Flaming Mountain shuttle buses. A bunch of drivers were promoting their "service" loudly on the side.
Individual tourists travelling alone, in pairs, or small groups were attracted by the calling from time to time, and would bargain for a better price with the driver before getting in the car and set off.
During a brief period when the square quieted down a little, a tall and lean young man walked near. The only driver left asked immediately, "Going to Flaming Mountain?"
"What's the price of having the car all by myself for a day?"
"400 yuan. You can stay there for as long as you want and I'll wait on you."
'Oh my!' The driver instantly rejoiced. Tourists like this one were the best to have—generous and no bullsh*tting.
Flaming Mountain was dozens of kilometers away right on the roadside. As the car drove out, Gu Yu watched the bleak scenery passing outside and silently sensed the change in the spiritual essence.
The density in Huo Zhuo was a 1. Twenty kilometers out of the city and he felt nothing out of place. After that, however, despite the unchanged number, the mildness was declining rapidly. A detectable heat appeared in the spiritual essence now, which felt disordered, drifting, and very unstable. It reminded him of the burning sensation when one put their face to a candle.
"My man, please pull over. I need to take a picture."
Gu Yu sensed the spiritual essence for a while and blurted out a request.
"Don't take too long. This is a no-parking zone!"
The driver did not think much of it and the car slowly came to a stop by the side of the road. He had seen plenty of odd "artsy" young fellows like this.
As soon as Gu Yu was out of the car, he ran to a clump of bushes, felt the shrivelled leaves first, and stuck his fingers right into the soil where the roots were. A small lump of soil was dug out.
Usually, the soil around the roots of a plant should be cool and moist. This lump, however, was little granules of dirt put together without any stickiness or humidity.
He frowned at this, for the situation was worse than he had expected. This was not the normal case of lacking water. The essence in both the plant and the soil had evaporated completely by the overpowering heat.
Gu Yu rose to his feet and looked around. Wizened trees and undergrowth were scattered around the wildland in a well-arranged manner, as if they were exerting their last bit of effort for survival.
For some reason, the scene made one sigh and feel resigned.
At that moment, the driver shouted from behind, "Hey man, finished yet? Got to go!"
He put the soil into a bag, which he kept on his person, then returned to the car.
About half an hour later, they arrived at the Flaming Mountain area. He could already make out a russet low mountain, which stood by the road, bare of any plantation.
The car took a turn and they were inside the scenic area.
Gu Yu bought a ticket, stood in the square under the mountain , and looked up.
The mountain had a rough and rugged appearance, the slopes scarred with numerous gullies. Not a single blade of grass grew on the mountain and birds were nowhere to be found. Bare bedrock was exposed to the sunlight in large patches, with a layer of weathering sand on top.
The sun was blazing overhead, sandstone glinting brilliantly under the blinding sunlight. The scorching airstream rolled up towards the sky, taking with it clouds of deep-red smoke, which rose and coiled, reminding one of raging flames licking the sky.
"No wonder they call it Flaming Mountain. It's so goddamn hot!"
"The North is as cool as below 20 degrees. It must be well over 30 here."
"Gosh, I can't stand it. I've got to take off my jacket. My shirt is soaking wet."
There was a hubbub of excited conversation from all the tourists nearby, who were amazed by the wonder of nature. Needless to say, they had no idea a fellow among them suddenly activated his internal energy, stirring the airflow around him.
The spiritual essence of the place was chaotic to begin with and at the sudden stimulation, blasts of invisible fluctuation were stirred up, which soon reached the mountain top. The clouds of red smoke up on the top took an abrupt nosedive and wrapped around our fellow like a dancing, frantic red snake, as if trying to swallow him whole.
Despite being void of consciousness and life, the red snake was filled with a natural aggressiveness. It had been making ceaseless efforts to try to break into Gu Yu's body, but was scattered right away by the surging energy surrounding him.
Gu Yu realized that his spiritual essence was running out at a frightening speed—in less than twenty seconds, more than half of it was gone. Only then did he cease the exercise and all was in smooth water again. Having lost its target, the red snake also retreated slowly to the mountain top.TL/N: literally means "the land of fire"