The Witch Nichang– Chapter 71
Tie Feilong went out early the next morning. Living up to his name as a local and seasoned jianghu traveler, he had everything arranged in no time, and a carriage and horses were waiting outside the Tie Manor.
When I saw the arrangement of a carriage and two horses, I understood who the carriage was for, even though both of them didn’t say anything. I found it amusing. Although I wouldn’t get angry from being underestimated, I still wanted to prove myself. I didn’t get on the carriage but asked for the old man’s horse instead. The old man was nice. It was Lian’er who tried to talk me out of it. In the end, I persuaded her by saying that it was the perfect weather to ride a horse and only then did she reluctantly nod her consent.
We hit the road after a quick preparation. The ease and efficiency of our movement made it feel as if we were going for a leisurely ride in spring rather than going on a long journey.
Actually, if we only considered riding experience, I might be better than Lian’er, to be honest. Of course, the combined effect of two lifetimes had to be taken into account. After all, I hadn’t stayed in the Roof of the World for nothing in my previous life. On the contrary, I had spent a long time in the depths of the mountain in this life. The opportunities to ride horses are much less. Now that I had a good horse, I would have loved to ride across the Loess Plateau with abandon, if it hadn’t been for my arm injury.
In contrast to my excitement, Lian’er wasn’t all that enthusiastic about it.
Given her personality, she would probably have preferred to travel light on foot, but not wanting to rudely refuse his kindness, she could only accept his arrangement. She felt a little uncomfortable on horseback at first, but as she got used to it and relaxed after going for a while, she rode alongside me, gazing at the scenery around. Suddenly, she pointed with her horse whip and said, “Interesting. There’s a group of Taoists, old and young, wearing white headbands there. Are they having a funeral?”
They both looked in the direction she was pointing without thinking. I didn’t say anything, but Tie Feilong, who was leaning on the carriage and driving it with his whip, strained his eyes and looked. He said, his brows furrowed, “Sharp eyes, Jadey. You even saw the white headbands. I can’t see them clearly. Anyway, those people look like they’re from Wudang. Why are they traveling in a group to the Shaanxi border? Is there something going on in Wudang? After a moment’s thought, he shook his head and said, “Forget it, these ox’s noses are not friendly people. I only respect their leader, Ziyang. It’s best not to get involved with them. Let’s just focus on the road. Hah!” With a loud crack of the whip, the carriage picked up speed.
Since the old man had said so, Lian’er seemed to have no objections. She urged her horse on with the whip and followed behind the carriage. They rode off, leaving me behind. As I watched the carriage and the horse leave, I looked back at the group of Taoists on the hill. As my horse slowed down, I heard Lian’er urging me from a distance. I felt an inexplicable joy. Then I responded with a call, spurred my horse, and caught up with them.
The sky was high, the earth was vast. Could I really go far away, away from this world?
We continued westwards, with a long journey ahead of us. The journey was rough, but thankfully, with an experienced jianghu traveler, old man Tie, it wasn’t too arduous, especially when it came to choosing the route to go. Each day, we traveled by day and rested by night, taking detours and crossing mountains and streams. When we were tired, we got into the carriage, and when we were bored, we rode on horseback. Sometimes, we traveled with qinggong for a while, and so we would travel.
As we traveled, I gradually realized that the old man had taken the route through the Longshan Mountains to Lanzhou, the Golden City, and then to the Hexi Corridor. Although it was a detour, it was certainly the easiest route. After that, my trust in the old man had grown stronger.
Occasionally, as we passed through some towns, we would stop for a day or half a day. We rested while the old man Tie went to visit his old friends to gather information. But this person, surnamed Jin, seemed to have disappeared without a trace. Each time the old man returned empty-handed. Both the godfather and goddaughter discussed it and came to the conclusion that the person must have gone into hiding to practice his cultivation. That strengthened their resolve to go straight to his old lair.
After several months of traveling, through the Golden City, across the Yellow River and over the mountains, we arrived in Liangzhou, Wuwei. As the vast grasslands and barren deserts opened up before us, I realized that this journey to the West was real and that there was no going back.
Contrary to my emotional rollercoaster, the other two were calm. Old Tie had traveled all over the north and south, and had even been to the west once, so he was used to it. As for Lian’er, she didn’t show much emotion. She was just a little curious about things she hadn’t seen before. She especially liked the Qilian Mountains, which stretched for miles in the distance. Although she had grown up on the top of Mount Hua and had seen many mountains before, she had never seen an alpine that snowed all year round. She was skeptical at first when she heard about it, but when the old man confirmed it, she was sure that I wasn’t kidding her.
The journey ahead was much duller than in the Central Plains and much more difficult. Because of Lian’er’s aversion to unknown creatures, we continued to travel on horseback instead of switching to camels, but the carriage was pulled by two horses instead of one, leaving only one horse to ride. Our carriage was well-stocked with food and water, and we followed the ancient trail that had been carved out over thousands of years. The route was surrounded by desert with no end in sight, with sparse patches of green. There were checkpoints scattering along the way where we could stop and rest. Despite everything, it was a smooth ride.
Occasionally, when the old man was in the mood during the journey, he would tell stories of the local area, of the Silk Road, of Han generals and western horsemen. Lian’er always found them interesting. I had to nod along. No matter how tempted I was to share the stories I knew, I had to hold it in and not show it off. That felt worse than the dull journey.
But even when we were careful, we still made mistakes sometimes.
Hexi was made up of four regions. After passing through Zhangye in Liangzhou and traveling along the Gobi Desert pass, we arrived at Suzhou Jiuquan City. As we entered the city, we saw that many of the walls were made of rammed earth, and the buildings around were low, with only a few tall buildings. Although it wasn’t a busy city, it was still lively and bustling. I thought we were just stopping to rest, but the old man found an inn in the town center near the drum tower and said we would stay there for a few days to prepare for the journey after the pass.
I thought it was strange at the time and asked, ‘Shouldn’t we go past Dunhuang City in Shazhou to be considered out of the pass?’ The old man burst out laughing and said that Guazhou and Shazhou had been abandoned for over a hundred years. The people there had all moved inside the pass. Jiuquan was now the first major city in the border area, and the Jiayu Pass, thirty miles away, was the first pass in the western regions, and beyond that was the desert. He was surprised that I didn’t know about it and said that I had read too much.
I couldn’t just say that I hadn’t heard of this part of the story when I visited Dunhuang back then, so I scratched my face, giggled embarrassedly, and glossed over it by letting the old man misunderstand.
So we settled down. Over the next few days, trivial tasks like gathering information, stocking up, preparing the documents, and hiring a guide were left to Old Tie. I felt a little bad, but the old man waved it off with his big hand and said, “What are you two girls worrying about? If you’re bored, go have fun. The scenery here is unique. You won’t find scenery like this in the Central Plains. You and Jadey go explore and make this trip worth your while.”
Lian’er, on the other hand, immediately accepted his suggestion and dragged me along to look around. Though there weren’t many pavilions and towers here, the Silk Road being the first major trade route where a lot of goods passed through, you could see rare items and strange-looking people—for Lian’er, of course.
“Look, there’s someone with red hair and blue eyes in one of the merchant groups. So strange. I wonder if their meridians are the same as ours? I really want to give them a strike and see. Is their blood red too?” Words like that were the most I had heard from her lately. Fortunately, she only talked about it but didn’t take any action. Otherwise, she would be the first one to ruin the friendly relations between East and West.
On one hand, I was worried, but on the other hand, I quite enjoyed it when she pulled me along through the crowd. To protect ourselves from the dust and sun, we dressed like the locals when we entered the Gobi Desert. At the moment, she was wearing a white shirt and a fox-fur coat, her hair tied up with a gold ring and a thin veil, adding an exotic touch to her usual attire. I couldn’t take my eyes off her.
The only annoying thing was neither can others take their eyes off her. Even though the thin veil covered part of the girl’s face, there were still occasional awestruck glances in her direction, wishing that they could see through the veil. It was an eyesore. I thought to myself, if we didn’t both have a sword at our waists, there would probably have been trouble.
We went out for a while today, and as expected, it was the same situation again. “Lian’er, I think we should go back?” I didn’t consider myself a petty or jealous person, but every time this happened, I really wished I could take her back to the inn and close the door. “You’ve already explored most of the places in this area over the past few days. We still have a long way to go and the desert was dangerous. It’s better for us to save our energy for what lies ahead.”
“What are you afraid of?” She didn’t care and said with a wave, “Look, these people have traveled a long way to get here. We can’t be worse than them, can we? It’s all right.”
“I just feel like this place is a bit unsafe.” In desperation, I tried to find an opening and said frankly, “You’re good-looking. Don’t you feel that people are always ogling you? It’s going to be a problem if we attract the wrong kind of attention and can’t get out of the pass.”
“Hmph, who’s afraid?” She lifted her chin and said, “Jiayu Pass? The First and Greatest Pass? It’s a dead thing. Do you think it can stop me if I want to leave?” After bragging, she looked around the crowd with a furrowed brow and grumbled, “And what you said is not entirely true. Are they only looking at me? I think half of them are looking at you, hmph.”
“Ah?” It was completely unexpected. Who would have thought she would even want to compare this? Suddenly, I was at a loss, not knowing how to react.
But fortunately, Lian’er seemed to lose interest in exploring after that and wanted to take me back to the inn after walking halfway down the street unenthusiastically. I felt bad instead seeing her lose her spirit, so I bought some fruits that weren’t common in the Central Plains at that time and thought I could cheer her up after returning to the inn.
Who knew as we stepped into the inn’s lobby, we saw the old man sitting alone in a corner, frowning and drinking cup after cup of wine as if it were tea. When he looked up and saw us, he raised his hand and called out, “Haha, girls, just in time. Come over here. Try some of this special wine from this region. They say it’s made from grapes. This is the only one of its kind!”
“I don’t like alcohol. You can drink by yourself, Godfather. We just got back from outside, and I need to go take a bath and change.” Without trying to be polite, Lian’er replied with a smile and was about to go inside, but I stopped her gently and gave her a look. Although the old man sounded jovial, a furrowed brow usually meant nothing good. It was better to ask him what was wrong.
As we approached the table, hands held, I saw the liquid in the cup was a translucent amber color. I smiled slightly, poured some into a cup for myself, and took a sip. I complimented, “What a fine wine.” Then I tilted my head and looked at the old man, saying with a smile, “Fine wine in a glass, luminous in the moonlight; As we yearn for more, pipas sound the battle’s march. Old man, we’ve tasted the wine. When will we mount our horses and march into the great desert?”
At first, the old man was happily pouring wine, but when he heard the question, his smile froze, and he waved his arm and said, “Don’t go there. We finally made it here, but I hadn’t expected things would be this bad. It’s so frustrating!”
“What’s wrong?” Lian’er realized what was going on at that moment. She didn’t like to beat around the bush, so she went straight to the point and asked, “Speak up if there’s something. Whether it’s good or bad, three heads are better than one, in case you can’t figure it out. Look at you drinking alone, tsk tsk…” She said as she grinned and flicked the wine jug.
The old man’s eyes widened at her words. He slammed down his glass and protested, “Who told you that I drink alone because I don’t know what to do? I know what to do! It’s whether you have the guts to do it!’”
“So, tell us, what exactly happened?” These two had a tendency to get sidetracked once they started arguing. I quickly steered the conversation back on track to avoid having to take a detour to get it back on track later.
Then we listened to the old man talk. We learned that he had taken care of everything during the two days we had been here, but he was having trouble with the most important thing – the travel route. The Turpan region in the west was our original destination, but unfortunately, the King of Turpan had become powerful and often led his army to invade other regions. Although the Silk Road wasn’t affected by it, it was often blocked due to war, and that was the situation now.
“Hami’s northern route is no longer an option. They say it could be disrupted for three to five months, and we can’t afford to wait…” The old man shook his head and continued, “Our only option is to take the Hanbei Road. It’s an old road full of dangers. I don’t mind, but you two girls are the new kids on the block. You should think it over carefully.”
In the end, the old man told us this with great solemnity.
“What’s the big deal?” The young girl listened in silence, then smiled and replied calmly, “There aren’t many people who are stronger than us, are there? Since those who are weaker than us can get through, and people have been using them since ancient times, what’s there to be afraid of? Am I, Lian Nichang, not braver than a merchant?”
As she finished with a flourish, she tilted her head and looked at me, her lips pursed. Her meaning couldn’t have been clearer. I smiled and nodded. The old man said we were the new kids on the block, but truth be told, I wasn’t. At least, I had some idea of the dangers and difficulties we would face on the journey ahead.
As long as Lian’er wasn’t afraid, I would never hold her back.
“Good!” The old man exclaimed as he heard that, slamming his hand down on the table. “Since we’re all not afraid to die, it’s settled! I’ll find us a good guide and we’ll head out tomorrow!”
Having shouted that, he got up and strode out. He took two steps before he remembered something and turned back to say, “Oh, one more thing, I almost forgot. I bought a set of Hufu and put it in the room. It’s Zhu’s size. We’ll be in foreign territory once we leave the pass. It’s not safe out there, so it’s better to dress like a man. Remember to change into that.”
I froze, but then came to my senses. Just as I was about to nod, Lian’er suddenly looked indignant.
“Wait a minute, Godfather!” She took my arm and pointed, saying, “Why should she be the one in disguise? If anyone should do it, it should be me, right? Look at her, she looks like she could be blown away by the wind, and she’s weak and not as strong as me, and…” She gave me a once-over and continued indignantly, “She’s not even taller than me!”
This was the second time today that she fussed over something like this, and it made me wonder. Lian’er should be very confident in her looks, and she wouldn’t have compared herself to me. Even if she had come to have the mind to compare, this attitude…was not like her.
“Jadey, why are you making such a fuss over this little thing?” The old man saved me from the situation with one sentence. He stood there and glared at her, saying, “Zhu is a bit delicate, but at least she can pull off the disguise. Those barbarians are not used to seeing men from the Central Plains, so they might think men in Central Plains look like this. But you? Don’t make me laugh! Where in the world can you find such a beautiful man? Not even the red-bearded devils from the West will fall for it!”
 Ox’s nose is a nickname for Taoists. There are two common explanations as to why they’re called ox noses. One is that the Taoist’s hairdo resembles the nose of an ox. The second is that the founder of Taoism, Laozi, was said to ride an ox wherever he went. Ox was later used to refer to Laozi, so Taoists are called ox’s nose.
 It’s the first half of a poem written by Wang Han during the Tang dynasty. If anyone is interested in the whole poem, you can look up “Liangzhou verse by Wang Han.”