“你知道纪念碑在哪儿吗？” Alex’s question was met with a look of enthusiasm from the elderly storekeeper’s previously blank face. Nodding vigorously, he stands up from his stool and waves us over, beckoning us to follow him into a remote alley. I stare nervously as Alex, Fadzi, Ms. Nef, Rosa and Maddie start heading in his direction, unsure if we should be following a stranger into such an isolated path. However, in the name of cultural immersion and exciting travel experiences, I strengthened my resolve and tightened my backpack straps, following in their footsteps.
This is not sketchy at all. My courage quickly crumbles as we continue onto a narrow pathway. There are very few people sparsely dotting the cobbled steps, standing idly outside the dark empty houses that flanked each side. Every bone in my body tells me to stop and turn back as I force myself up the steps. I look uneasily at Fadzi and Alex, unsure if we should follow this man any further. Meanwhile, he decides to engage me in conversation.
“你们从哪儿？” He asks whilst looking back, about ten steps ahead of us. I answer his question half-heartedly, searching anxiously for any sign of the monument. We have been walking for a while, and it is nowhere in sight.
This isn’t safe. We should turn back. Now.
Just as I am about to call our little adventure off, something catches my eye in the distance. It was the edge of a pagoda roof, glinting grey in the sunlight. I gasp in excitement and sheer relief as I sprint up the path and under the vibrant red and blue patterns carved into its wooden interior. We make our way up to the monument, which stood on an elevated fort-like structure. A bronze figure of a soldier looming over a beggar, the monument seems to rise above 石鼓 (Shi Gu), overlooking the town.
All of my previous worries wash away as I lean on the cool stone railing, taking in the baby blue sky, the crisp white clouds floating above lush green mountains. The traditional houses that seemed so eerie now simply look calm and comforting, their exquisite roofs and white weathered walls sprawling across the town as a peaceful atmosphere envelopes the rustic scene.
Behind me, I hear Alex’s camera softly clicking, trying to capture the picturesque view. Ms. Nef holds a bright pink iPhone steady as Rosa and Maddie move to pose, eyes wrinkled and cheeks glowing.
“啊，很好。你们照一下。再见！” The elderly man smiles, looking genuinely pleased by our enthusiasm. We sang a chorus of 谢谢s as he waves and walks away, leaving us to enjoy the scenery. I close my eyes for a moment, breathing in the fresh air.
“Worth it?” A voice asks. I open my eyes to find Fadzi right next to me, donning a bright smile on her face. I grin back, nodding.