Zhang Erdong arranges flowers that are stationed on his work table where he practices calligraphy and painting in his mountaintop home. He has been living in the Zhongnan Mountain for the past seven years.[Photo provided to China Daily]
Mountaintop dweller lives life on his terms away from the hustle and bustle, Yang Feiyue reports.
A hermit's existence, with just animals and greenery for company. Leaving the rat race and getting to be at one with Mother Nature, Zhang Erdong, in a very real sense, is his own man.
The 33-year-old artist, poet and author from Central China's Henan province has been living his solitary existence on Zhongnan Mountain, Northwest China's Shaanxi province, for seven years. Five years ago, he became an online celebrity, drawing in numerous followers with his account of mountain life. His new book, his third one so far, Seven Years on a Mountain, was released this year, attracting yet more enthusiasts among the younger generation who hanker for life away from the hustle and bustle of the cities.
Zhang resides in a yard he has rented on a mountaintop that is about 900 meters high and practically lives off the land.
He usually wakes up to the barking of dogs and the honking of geese at 6 am and feeds them before breakfast. Then, Zhang waters his plants and vegetables in the yard. He might then take a break lying on a couch, or begin to prepare lunch if he feels hungry.
Zhang spends the rest of his day picking fruit and digging herbs on the mountain, or taking care of his bonsai. He writes poems and prose, creates oil paintings and practices calligraphy.
"It is an ideal world and everything I ever wanted," Zhang comments on his current life, which, he says, suits his personality. "It doesn't matter where people live, as long as they can find themselves in that place."
To him, living on the mountain was his choice.
An apricot tree in full bloom in his yard in spring. [Photo provided to China Daily]
Zhang came across the nearly deserted yard on Zhongnan Mountain when he was visiting a friend in 2009. He was studying oil painting at the Xi'an Academy of Fine Arts in Shaanxi, and the mountain sits in the south of the city.
He found the property owner and rented it for 20 years, for 200 yuan ($28.30) a year.
"I grew up in a rural area, and it was always more interesting to live on a mountain than to rent in the city," he says.
After graduation later that year, Zhang returned to Henan and taught high school students fine art for three years.
"The pay was good, but the job was time-consuming," Zhang says. "I felt time was crushing me."
To blow off steam, he would lock himself in a studio on weekends and enjoy solitude when off work. After several years of teaching, longing for more freedom, his own space and a simple life, Zhang returned to his rented mountain yard in 2013.
"Everything was more ragged," he recalls. He found that the walls and tiles had turned yellow, and weeds crammed the crevices between the bricks after being left unattended during his absence.
Zhang then began the long process of restoration. He pushed down the wretched wall and introduced spring water into a small pool he dug in the yard, where he grew lots of plants.
Because of the condition of the mountain road, Zhang had to carry his belongings up the mountain over the course of several trips.
The best of four seasons
Life tastes different on the mountain, as seasons change. Zhang says he loves winter and spring the most.
"Flowers come into full blossom and apricots taste the best in spring, while winter suits the hermit-style, mysterious characteristics of Zhongnan Mountain," he says, adding that he often invites his friends over after snow to enjoy the views while savoring mutton hotpot.
Autumn brings out the crops of the rural area and shines bright with red leaves, he says, although summer is less fun due to mosquitoes and insects.
Zhang rarely leaves his home, except for buying necessities from village fairs or to watch a movie in downtown Xi'an.
Life on the mountain has been busier than he imagined, and he has to take care of everything on his own, from washing his own clothes to chopping wood for the fire and plowing the field for crops.
As time goes on, he grows familiar with the local villagers and he has even picked up a local Shaanxi accent.
He takes a nap outdoors.[Photo provided to China Daily]
In 2015, Zhang posted his tale of mountain life online and the story drew more than 100,000 readers in a day. The story was later reposted by more than 800 social media accounts, which made him an online celebrity.
Many living in the city expressed admiration for his choice of lifestyle, and some asked him about where they could find a similar place for themselves.
"Places like mine are plentiful across the country," Zhang says. "If you walk two hours into the depths of the Qinling Mountains, you'll find many vacant spaces in rural areas."
Zhang does warn his followers that life is not all sweetness and roses on the mountain. With the self-sufficient lifestyle, very basic amenities and deep solitude are among the many challenges facing someone used to urban life.
His peers have all married and have children, but he is still on his own.
Zhang doesn't consider himself a recluse or a monk. "I have friends over on weekends," he says.
Most of his friends are poets, artists and exhibition planners, who will come up the mountain from time to time to chat and have tea and barbecue with Zhang.
Writing has become a hobby.
"I didn't want to write at the beginning, but found it was an expression, like all the other artistic creations," he says. "When you are depressed and need a friend to talk to, writing is an outlet."
In his book, Seven Years on a Mountain, that was published early this year, he shared his good and bad daily moments, anecdotes of his experiences in the wilderness, as well as happy get-togethers with friends and his artistic inspiration.
The book has sold much better than its publishing editor Li Jiaojiao expected. She believes its popularity represents a social mentality that many urban residents hanker for life away from the city and suburbia.
At the beginning of his mountain life, some skeptics said that he would leave after the novelty wore off.
"It's my home and my daily life," Zhang says.
When asked about his plan after the 20-year lease is up, Zhang says he just wants to live every moment to the fullest.
His mind is busy, on what kind of beans he'd like to grow this year or how to rid his dogs of their fleas. He also felt that his yard may be a bit bigger than needed and has begun looking to see if he can move deeper to the wilder area of the mountain.