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Review: The Mountains are High by Alec Ash


The quiet backwater of Dali in Yunnan province, China
The quiet backwater of Dali in Yunnan province, China. Image: Shutterstock

Alec Ash recounts finding a peaceful escape from modern life in rural China


By Joanne O’Brien

The conundrum of what we truly need in life to make us happy lies at the heart of Alec Ash’s memoir, detailing his impetuous flight from the clamour of the Chinese capital to the calm of a rural backwater steeped in beauty and history.

Enthralled and excited by the extraordinary changes in a country whose economic and industrial development had suddenly fast-forwarded through four decades, the young, aspiring journalist Ash headed for Beijing (and two years tackling Mandarin), before moving there full-time in 2012.

Seven years later, a relationship break-up and a work lull, coinciding with political changes and the malaise of modern living, suddenly caused him to question his life, future and values. Cities, he says, are ‘hard, unforgiving things, but there has always been something unliveable about Chinese cities in particular.’ Faceless concrete apartment blocks, traffic queues, noise and fumes, smog, expensive living, a goal-seeking treadmill from a young age, surrounded by familial and societal expectations. Capitalist excess, more than Communist control, he reckons.

A friend’s mention of Dali, a small far-flung valley town in Yunnan province, became a tantalising dream, enhanced by WeChat visions of forests, a vast, shimmering lake, mystical marble mountains and their gods, picturesque blossoms and pagodas, and indigo-aproned ‘Grannies’ going about their dependable, timeless business. 

Starting over in a ramshackle, mice-shared dwelling, Ash wrestles with his thoughts and visions of the life he might have had. He is surprised to find a disparate community of not just local Chinese neighbours, but early hippies; later yuppies; fellow transplants from urban life, seeking peace and nature-led home schooling; and Taoists, Buddhists and dissidents. Ash has a real facility for bringing his characters to life, and gently immerses the reader in the rhythm of the everyday, heavily linked to the seasons, Chinese celebrations and nature, where sleeping, tea drinking and watching the clouds help him disconnect from the ‘other world’ in ‘the capital of lying flat’.  


Click here to read an extract of The Mountains are High


Click here to order your copy via Amazon



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