The bus wound its way along the winding, steep mountain road until we suddenly emerged from the fog into a world of blue skies and piercing sunshine. Beneath us was a sea of clouds that stretched to the horizon in all directions and hid smaller mountains in a white, woolen carpet.
Bella and I had arrived at Tiantai Peak, one of the scenic spots in the mystical, cloud-shrouded Mangshan National Forest. The day before we had taken a high-speed train ride to Chenzhou and then a 3-hour bus ride into the heart of Mangshan where we stayed at Mangshan Hot Springs Hotel, a 4-star establishment that enticed visitors with its 60+ hot springs.
We didn’t need much enticing with gray, cloudy skies and brisk, cold nights. There weren’t many restaurants outside the hotel apart from a newly developed area with restaurants that catered largely to tourists. Two women waited for us near the road entrance as we walked near the burbling stream.
We couldn’t refuse their offer, and so we entered their restaurant. Unfortunately, there was no heating inside. Tomato-and-egg soup with a side of chicken sounded perfect to me. Bella agreed. It was a good start to our trip.
Bella and I had traveled together before, but this time was different. I wanted to marry her, and I felt that Mangshan would be the perfect place to propose. She seemed to sense that perhaps something might happen on this trip, but she didn’t know for sure. I had the ring (which had traveled over the ocean from America) but I hadn’t planned much beyond that.
A few months earlier I asked if she wanted to climb the highest mountain in Guangdong Province (which in retrospect, may have been too obvious to her of my intentions), but then I discovered the military had decided to claim that mountain for themselves. And so I couldn’t propose to her on top of the highest mountain in the province unless I wanted to inspect a military cell from the inside.
Fortunately, China had other mountains, which had led to us coming to Mangshan. There was one slight problem. I had never traveled here before. From the pictures online, it looked like it was a beautiful place, but in China it’s difficult to find a quiet place devoid of people. If it was quiet and beautiful, that would be enough for me.
But enough worries for that day. I wanted to enjoy our first day before attempting to find the perfect spot the next day. And the hot springs were the perfect respite.
Behind the hotel were dozens of circular baths that were separated from each other by trees and shrubbery. A winding trail took us along the path to a series of steps that led us up the mountainside to a steaming Infinity pool that seemed to drop off into nothingness. In the background, clouds covered the mountain peaks and brushed against the pine trees with their ghostly fingers.
I could have almost proposed here, but this place was too popular. We walked past the pool and down the steps into a man-made cave with several private baths that featured different styles. One was like a private cinema (except you couldn’t choose the film), another was like an underwater world, and a third was like a Latino village with soft lighting and romantic tunes.
I liked the third one best. Unfortunately, the room began to feel like a sauna as the steam increased. Bella didn’t mind the warmer water, but it began to feel less romantic when I started sweating profusely. We decided to find another place.
Apparently, this hot springs wasn’t all just steamy water. We passed by a pool of cold water where a giant, inflatable yellow ducky floated peacefully. I imagined launching myself onto the ducky’s back and then inevitably rolling off into icy waters. I quickly banished that thought from my mind.
We found another pool of water that was pleasantly peaceful and quiet. I felt like I could have stayed there for hours, but we still hadn’t had dinner. So after our skin began to wrinkle, we went back to the hotel for a simple Chinese dinner. Later, Bella talked with a tea expert about all things tea-related. I tried to listen, but it was getting late. And my language skills were going into hibernation mode.
After the tea talk finished, we headed back to our beds. I almost couldn’t believe it. This might be the last night that Bella would be my girlfriend. Tomorrow I hoped she would become my fiance.