Sunday, August 31, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 12

The headache is back with a vengeance. Eleanor, Genevieve and Jeff have already washed and are having breakfast. I feel like a hammer is pounding my head faster and faster as I get up. I shove some cold medicine and several vitamin C pills down my throat and grit my teeth as I get up to join the others. Over the roofs of the small houses, Qomolangma is completely covered by thick mountain fog. The sun is out, but the fog that bounces red and purple all over the surrounding mountains also hides the yellow ball - or maybe I'm just too high in the world for the sun to be out at this time.
After a breakfast of flour pancakes and butter tea, we drive the first kilometer to the base camp. Mud green tents form a large rectangle. In front of each tent are signs identifying the tents -"Happy Hotel," "Everest Hotel," "Yak Hotel," "Qomolangma Tacky Hotel" - along with rings of heavily tanned Tibetans drinking butter tea. The locals stare at us as we pass through. The base camp seems like a tourist trap for people to say that they "slept at the base camp," but I see no actual climber.
After Laba parks the car, we begin our trek to the base camp and the mountain. The clouds begin to clear as the sun rises higher. I walk up ahead with Laba to avoid scowling at everyone - the pressure of the headache is beginning to lighten, but the lack of oxygen makes talking and breathing painful, which Laba seems to do comfortably as I struggle to keep up with him. He lights a cigarette, the fumes thankfully blowing to his right and not over me.
"Laba, you're almost forty, but not only are you kicking my ass on this hike, you're also smoking," I exasperate.
"Haha, your body isn't too bad," Laba replies, blowing out a swirling whirl of smoke. "You have a headache, but you're still walking ahead of everybody else."
"How do you know I have a headache? I didn't tell you."
"You're not the first tourist that I've taken to Qomolangma."
By the fourth kilometer, we reach a small plateau. To our right a river roars, the pure water saturated by the mountain dirt. I stand up straight to breathe more deeply. Laba lights another cigarette. While waiting for Eleanor and Jeff to catch up, I browse through the pictures of Qomolangma that I have taken on my camera. How is it that the mountain looks exactly the same in my pictures no matter where I take the picture?
We reach the final checkpoint to get closer to the mountain. Unfortunately, we need yet another permit to get closer - this one costs about $1000 per person. Instead, we climb the closest prayer flag and rock stupa covered hill to gaze at Everest. The clouds have almost completely cleared save for a few lingering white strips. On a nearby rock, I see a Sanskrit phrase carved into a rock.
"Tsekey, what does this mean?" I ask.
Our tour guide walks over and glances at the script. "In Chinese, that says '六字真言 (Six True Words),' or in Tibetan 'Ah Mane Padme Hong.' It is repeated by pilgrims and all prayers to prevent pain, death and punishment, to live longer and to get rich."
"I've seen this phrase written on mountainsides and all over Lhasa."
"Yes, it is written everywhere, like ceilings, stone utensils, mountains and doors. It's like 'Ahmitofo' in Chinese Buddhism - to say it will bring it will comfort you and others, to repeat it will bring fortune and good luck."
The monastery across the guesthouse runs this business, using the income to pay for more butter to worship Buddha and more food for new guests. The only locals that visit the girls are young teenage soldiers stationed at small checkpoints along the road to Everest. The soldiers gather around the windows that let in sunlight, slapping playing cards onto the table, yelling "Wo Cao (Fuck)" or "Chi ba (Eat some)" every now and then. The guesthouse that is maintained by two teenage girls, who prepare our meals and keep the bedrooms tidy. The girls are by the other window that lets in sunlight, knotting each others' hair into tidy braids. They have worked here for about three years, taking care of travelers that come and go. Their lives remind me of my experiences as a waiter in San Francisco - they cannot travel, but the world comes to their doorsteps seeking food and shelter while it takes in the local scenery.

share on: facebook

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 11

The scenery along the highway to Mount Everest is simple - green fields along the road, gray green mountains in the distance with the occasional snow-covered peak, mixed blue sky with white clouds wafting towards the horizon. The car CD stereo plays amusing Indian songs that combine kindgergarten lessons with mature themes, or compliment women excessively:
"ABCDEFGHI...JKLM...NOPQRSTUVWX....YZ.... I love you."
"Lalala, lalala, you are my sonya, lalala, lalala, you are my sonya."
In the backseat, I hear Jeff softly humming the sonya song. When the ABC song is played again, Genevieve starts to sing: "ABCDEFGHI....JKML....wait a second..."
At the first checkpoint of the Mount Everest National Reserve, everyone displays their passports for the Chinese guards to inspect. Afterwards, we drive on dirt road that snakes up a mountain. Slowly we drive, slowly we climb. At the top, we stop to look out into the distance and see four of the highest mountains in the world on the horizon - Qomolangma (Mt. Everest), Kangchengjunga, Lhotse and Makalu. Qomolangma's peak hides behind clouds. Tsekey says, "That's typical...tourists have to wait usually three days, sometimes up to a week, to see the mountain clearly." Fortunately, ten minutes later, the cloud formation blocking our view of Qomolangma moves east. Tsekey says, "You're lucky." The fast winds almost knock us off the rock wall that we stand on - we all huddle back into the car and drive down the winding road.
Three checkpoints and four hours later, we finally see the peak of Qomolangma without a trace of cloud. A single star shines high above the mountain, stained violet in the evening.
At our guesthouse, I start feeling nauseous and my head starts to pound like a migraine. Is this altitude sickness? I sit closer to the firewood stove in the center of the communal room, but excuse myself to get some medicine from my bag in our bedroom. The air outside hits me like a football that bounces off my chest. I look up at the sky. I've only seen Scorpio, Sagittarius and Capricorn in my constellation books, but the sky is full of the white dots. Stars I don't remember seeing in my books appear along the Big Dipper and Casseiopeia. Star clusters and specks of galaxies are so distinct in the black background. The Milky Way rips through the night, its violet red trench cutting the poisonous tail of the Scorpio. The headache is gone, but my breathing rate is spiking. I madly take pictures, but no manual exposure, no special mode can capture that elusive Milky Way. Damn this weak digital camera.

share on: facebook

Friday, August 29, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 10

In Shigatse, we decide to have have Indian food for a change from yak meat and yogurt rice. A few curries and naan later, we walk towards the central monastery. At the ticket booth, the old monk looks at my shorts and says I must change into pants. I ask for some cloth to cover my legs - fortunately, he finds a nice festive orange skirt with which I can wrap myself. While walking around the temple, my stomach churns uncomfortably, and run around the temple halls seeking restrooms. Damn curry. I clutch my water bottle, emptied early along the walk. Oh yes - traveller's diarrhea is torture. Unfortunately, I forgot the medicine that Yale provided in my apartment back in Beijing. Fortunately, Genevieve buys a 7-Up for me. It's amazing and magical how a bit of sweet carbonated water can calm a stomach.

share on: facebook

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 9

Kamba-la Pass takes us south beyond Lhasa to an elevation of 4794 meters above sea level. Yaks eat grass in the distance, their herdsmen specks in along the horizon.
"From here," says Genevieve, "the yaks look like overgrown ants."
At Yamdrok-tso (Blue Lake), we stop for another rest. Yamdrok, Tibetan for the color blue, is one of the three largest sacred lakes in Tibet. According to mythology, the lake is a transformation of a goddess, so nobody is allowed to set foot in the waters. I guess the yaks that feed along the water do not count. A Tibetan ornament merchant woman hounds me as I hike up a little hill to get a better view of the lake. "Two for sixty" starts the merchant, dangling necklaces and brooches in front of my face, forcing me to walk around her. By the time I make it down back to the car, she yells "two for ten" in my ears.
Nangartse is a small village more than a town. Downtown is made up of two streets interseting in a T-shape, with the highway to Everest cresting the streets' outer edges. After a dinner of cheese-stuffed dumplings and rice with yogurt, we go for a walk, avoiding the skinny starving dogs that lay passed out (or dead) along the street. A few minutes later, light rain mixes with the dust-caked road, evolving into sizeable drops. We hug the building walls, the colorful banners over doors doing little to protect us from the rain.
We proceed down the street and come across a family huddling inside a fabric store. While Genevieve and Jeff take pictures, the teenagers and children inside the store look in wonder at their cameras. Genevieve hands her digital camera to a curious girl, teaching her how to press the capture button. The girl runs around the front of the store, taking pictures of the little kids eating snacks, pictures of the adults smiling in wonder at the strange little device that freezes their faces for a moment in time, pictures of old housewives with their children looking at Jeff and Genevieve, seeking money in exchange for the pictures that they are taking. I have never seen anyone so fascinated by a digital camera.
As we walk back to our hotel (which, albeit providing thick blankets for the night, offers communal concrete bunkers with holes in the ground for toilets), I hear thunder cracking the air. The rain falls harder as the clouds seem to roll and coagulate over the town faster.
"Did you see that?" Jeff asks.
"What?" I ask.
"The rocket."
"I heard thunder."
"That wasn't thunder - that was the sound of cloud-seeding."

share on: facebook

Monday, August 25, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 8

Eleanor and Genevieve are recovering from the flight in their rooms. Jeff and I meet on the roof of our hotel, from which we look down on Beijing Road cross into Bahkgor Square. Potala Palace pierces the clouds like Pride Rock in the The Lion King. The pace of life here is as fast as that of Beijing's, but there are less people. Chinese soldiers guard intersections and march in brigades, toting Russian rifles and heavy armored shields. The monk riots that occurred a few months ago still seem to worry the government, but these soldiers instill no sense of security. I feel wariness, restlessness. Down on the street, I take a picture of a bicycler. While judging the picture on my camera's digital screen, a solider confronts me and asks to see the picture. I ask why. No pictures of the security forces may be taken, he says. I show him the picture of the bicycler, fearing for the life of my memory card. Fortunately, the background shows no rifle, no green camouflage uniform, no trace of Chinese military occupation in Lhasa. He nods his head and walks away. While on the roof of Jakhong Temple (大昭寺), Jeff took a picture of me - I didn't notice the Chinese military sniper looking down at the market behind me.
Potala Palace - the former residence of the Dalai Lama, now converted into a money-making cultural relic by the Chinese government. The steps up to the White Palace, or the Potrang Karpo, are blocked by steel gates. All stairs lead to the Red Palace, or the Potrang Marpo. Red powder dyes the packed mountain wood walls. As I climb the uneven stone stairs, I use the battlements as support, red grains and splinters accumulating on my hand. I find myself breathing heavily, and sit at the next rest bench. The others continue moving up the stairs with the tour guide. I had just come from climbing Emei Mountain - how could a little less oxygen in the air be affecting me so much?
Up the stairs behind me climbs a skinny old man in Lama monk outfit. His royal red outer cloth and orange shirt are lined with black dirt at the creases. His yellow beanie is like that of Tsongkhapa without the sideburn protectors, though worn from lack of wash. He clutches a small bag of butter, humming softly while climbing the steps one by one. He sits down next to me.
"Hello," I greet.
He nods. I wonder if he can speak Mandarin.
"Are you here to worship?" I ask.
He nods.
"I see."
He looks at me and smiles. "I prayed all the way from Qinghai," said the Lama in accented Mandarin, "to kneel in front of the Dalai Lama."
I smile. Finally a break. "But my tour guide says the Dalai Lama isn't here," I say, "In fact, he hasn't been in the palace for almost sixty years."
"Nonsense, he is here. I have butter."
"What's the butter for?"
"Are you a tourist?"
"Where are you from?"
"Ah! amerigha amerigha!" he exclaims. "Ok, I am rested. Let us go."
He clutches my hand, forces me up, and proceeds to almost drag my body up the stairs with a vigor almost supernatural compared to his state before he sat down. As I pass by Jeff, I smile weakly, still trying to breathe. Jeff looks taken aback, his eyes moving from the Lama to our hands to my face.
"I'll see you guys up there," I say, the Lama pulling me up at an even faster pace.
Inside the chamber of the Dalai Lama, the Lama rummages his pockets and takes out two little black peas that could pass for lint. He quickly swallows one and puts the other in my hand.
"Eat," he commands.
I smell the pea. It vaguely smells of ginseng and ginger. A Lama wouldn't try to kill anyone, I think. I place the pea on my tongue and swallow. The Lama walks through the gate preventing tourists from stepping on the royal carpet and prays in front of the empty throne of the Dalai Lama, his old body flat on the ground with palms raised to the ceiling.
"What was the pill I just ate?" I ask to the man who had sat next to the Lama.
"A piece of Sakyamuni Buddha's body."
"I just ate Buddha?"

share on: facebook

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 7

The mountainpeak pierces the clouds - through the small round window of this airplane, these peaks are like icebergs in the Atlantic, hiding their weight and power under the water blanket. I wonder if any of these peaks is Everest. The plane has rows of empty seats. I find a row without any passengers and stretch out, sleeping out the last half hour before arriving in Lhasa.
When I got back to Chengdu before I left for Jiuzhaigou, my guesthouse service attendant, Mary, informed me that the Tibetan travel bureau approved our residence permits as acceptable visas to travel in Tibet. During the Olympics, the Chinese government revised all of the original rules to limit the amount of foreigners entering Tibet. Had the Chinese government not approved my residence permit, I would probably be on a bus right now, heading south to the Tiger Leaping Gorge and Lijiang. I will have to save Yunnan province for later.
The first breath off the plane catches me off guard - the dry cabin conditions and the oxygen-deficient air makes my nose bleed. I roll a tissue and shove it into my nose. The white clouds swirl in the clear blue sky like oil colors on a painter's palette. Brown-tanned guards stand with hands behind their backs, black sunglasses reflecting the sun and my tissue-stuffed nose. I feel my breathing rate increasing. I still don't feel like I'm in a place called Tibet.
Outside, a middle-aged man with a yellow shirt, gray pants and jacket, and a younger looking woman with a red hat and striped-shirt stand holding a sign bearing our names. Enter Laba, our driver, and Tsekey, our travel guide. We toss our all of our luggage into the trunk of Laba's Toyota 4500, and head towards Lhasa. Aside from the basic introductions of "My name is" and "Where did you study your English" and "Your Chinese is nice," the ride is silent. I sit with my mouth half open as we drive through this world of blue skies, green fields and black mountains.

share on: facebook

Friday, August 22, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 6

The raindrops on the huge glass panels of the airport terminal does nothing to suppress my frustration as I wait for the sixth hour in the Chengdu Domestic Airport. Weather in Jiuzhaigou is not favorable for air travel, says the flight attendants. Chinese travelers scatter newspaper leaves on the ground as makeshift seats, sit in rings and play cards, smacking poker hands down in traditional Chinese poker fashion, full of power and anger. The instant ramen noodle cups in the airport stores are sold in bundles by the hungry who expected to have their morning porridge on the plane.

Genevieve and I met up with Eleanor and Jeff the night before. Unfortunately, Jeff is down with a cold. Today he is lying on the airport seats passed out under layers of coats. The flat-screen televisions broadcast the championships of the Olympic ping-pong competition and of the beach volleyball competition. I can't tell what the middle-aged men sitting around me are staring more at, the flat abs of the Brazilian women or the concentrated face of the Chinese ping-pong athlete.
If wonderlands exist, Jiuzhaigou Valley must be one of them. The sceneries evoke images of fairytales in dreamlike eloquence - so natural, so pure. The unnaturally blue and green lakes, waterfalls, verdant forests, snow-covered mountains, and the folk customs of the Tibetan and Qiang peoples are overwhelming. Its name is due to the existence of nine stockaded villages of Tibetan origin, and it is always regarded as a holy mountain and watercourse by the Tibetan people. Oddly enough, in order to preserve the antiquity of the Valley, the Chinese government forced the native Tibetan minorities to move to other villages. The nine gullies in the valley were almost completely deserted, save for the few merchants selling scarves, necklaces and toilet paper.
Blue, sky blue, celadon, kingfisher, green blue, blue green - the colors of the water are created by the minerals that wash away from the local rocks into the lakes and rivers. The water is so saturated in minerals that dead logs fallen in these waters sustain new life.
After two days in Jiuzhaigou, the guesthouse service attendant recommends that we explore Zhongchagou, a village not too far away from the Jiuzhaigou National Park. After a rough taxi ride up rocky dirt paths coiling a mountainside, we find ourselves in a quiet little hillside village. We barely walk two hundred meters and come across three children holding plastic bags filled with colored paper and prayer sticks.
"Would you like a tour of our town? We can take you to all the fun places," says one, smiling.
How could we refuse such innocent looking children? We walk through piles of wheat and walls of firewood. Wheat seems to be a municipal affair - all the townpeople lend hands, including eight-year-old children, who heave eighty pound loads of wheat on their backs. The firewood is necessary for the long winter. In one day, the entire town will burn enough firewood to build a house.
The children take us up the hillside to a grassy opening littered with colored paper. Prayer flags weave together among the trees to form a web of sorts, the center of which is a prayer stupa. At this point, the children look down at my feet as they rub their feet together, both hands clinging to their bags.
"Will you buy some colored paper? You should pray for your happiness. Buy some prayer sticks, prayer for future fortune! How about some prayer flags?" they plead. I cannot say I didn't expect this to happen. We buy several packs of paper and bundles of sticks to burn and place inside the stupa.
"What do I do with the paper?" I ask.
"As you walk around the stupa, throw it up in the air three times while repeating your wishes to yourself. This way, your wish will come true," the children explain.
"When did prayers become wishes," I mumble.

I wonder, as a traveler, if I change these villagers' view of the world as much their lives change my perspectives. I feel guilty for tainting this valley by treading all around it in my worn shoes, guilty for bursting this cultural bubble. I wonder if these children, selling so much prayer paper to so many passersby, see the world differently from the villagers to harvest wheat and collect firewood. Is their world made up of school during the fall and spring, and business during the summer? When they are of age, will they join the ranks of wheat cutters and wheat transporters? Or will they refuse, having seen the luxuries of travelers, seeking the excitement of travel for their own? I fear, as a traveler, that I exchange cultural deconstruction for cutural enrichment.

share on: facebook

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 5

5:30AM again. This time, we rise for the sunrise. Cold mountain air greets me as I struggle to get up from my head. I search half-blind for my beanie, borrow Genevieve’s jacket to wear on top of all of my other clothes and rush outside. The sky is already turning a shade of ultramarine. We rush to the Sea of Clouds, our cameras dangling on our wrists. By the time we get there, we see Chinese tourists in huge thick overcoats flocking towards several feet towards the cliff fence. Nobody seems to want to get within five meters of the edge. Lying Buddha’s face is covered by a thin white blanket. To its right far into the horizon, the sun burns red. The clouds strangely seem to cling to it, encircling it to form a gray halo. The sun gains speed while shedding its red skin, changing quickly into burnt sienna. In minutes it is above me colored in blinding golden yellow. The challenge is too much – the sun needs a kick.

We decide to take a bus down the mountain. After an hour of swirling through curvy paths at the back of the bus among bamboo walking sticks, snoring men, crying babies and crammed hiking bags, we’re back at the main bus station in Emei town.
“You’re having lunch with us,” Xinyue commands.
“What?” I say.
“My aunt (mother’s friend) is treating us. Don’t say no – my grandmother is coming to talk to you as well. She really likes foreigners who like Buddhism.”
“I never I liked Buddhism.”
“Well, baichi, why’d you climb Emei Mountain then?”
“For the scenery?”
“Don’t tell her that.”
“Don’t make me lose face.”
At the bus station’s main office, Xinyue’s aunt, the transportation manager, greets us and takes us to a local restaurant, ordering plate after plate of delicacies I have never seen in my life from potatoes deep-fried to the form of cotton-candy to every possible dish with the slightest hint of spicy red pepper. “Eat as much as you can!” says the aunt, “Eat more from the plates, less from your rice bowl!” I guess that phrase is universal among all Asian people.
Xinyue’s grandmother led us afterwards to Huibao Si, or Reciprocity Temple, the central site where monks pray around the clock for the victims of the recent earthquake. As we walk through the temple grounds, the grandmother explains karma, yinguo in Chinese.
“What a person does in his past will affect his next life in the present. What a person does now will affect his future life. If during the past or the present he commits many sinful actions, like stealing, raping or murdering, it will reflect in his future. Look at this man. In his past life, this man killed this innocent man by pushing him off the cliff. In his future, the case is reversed - the innocent person is the city official, punishing the man who committed murder in his past life. Everything happens for a reason, but the relation between cause and effects transcends one life - it is connected between the past and the present, the present and the future. How you act now influences what you receive later.”
We walk over to the giant Past, Present and Future Buddha statues in the back temple. Xinyue’s grandmother nudges me and asks, “How heavy do you think each of those statues are?”
“Judging from the size, I’d say each is at least five hundred kilograms,” I say.
“Try less than 5 kilograms,” she corrects, smiling.
I look at her as if she’s crazy.
“It’s true. Ask the monks.”

The bus ride back to Chengdu is silent. Liu Chang and I chat about video games, Chinese politics and the differences between Chinese and American girls. Genevieve and Xinyue are deep in discussion about something, but I can’t hear a single character over the noise of the bus engine and passing cars. The roads are badly destroyed everywhere. In the mountains, landslides force the driver to make wide turns around heaps of rocks. In rural villages, piles of wood planks, concrete blocks and red bricks lie next to tents reading “Emergency Use.” In cities close to Wenchuan, red banners hang from five-story office buildings’ roofs covering small cracks – “This building is dangerous. Stay Away.” Along the highway, billboards flash by, every fifth or sixth one shining the same four characters – “Many people, one heart.”

“Where are you all going after you return to Chengdu?” Xinyue asks.
“We’ll go to Jiuzhaigou. A couple of our classmates from Beijing will be flying to Chengdu and meeting us to go together.” I reply.
“And after?”
“Well, hopefully we can get to Tibet using our current residence permits. If not, we’ll break from Jiuzhaigou – a couple of us will be headed south to Yunnan, and a couple of us will head north to Gansu.”
“Wow…you guys are seeing a lot of China’s most beautiful places. You’ll love Jiuzhaigou. My dad and I went there once. In fact, when we get off the bus, I’ll let my dad know you’re going. He can probably help.”
“Oh, by the way, we need to pay you for all the meals and guesthouse fees we accrued along the hike.”
“No!” says Xinyue. “That would be rude. As a guest, this is my duty.”
“And as a friend in deep gratitude,” I retort, “this is the least I can do.
The bus ride concludes after more than twelve hours on the road. The rain outside doesn’t discourage any of the passengers from rushing towards the exit and breathing fresh air, despite the air pollution. In the short walk to her father, Xinyue and I squabble about money. In the end, she finally shoves the money Genevieve and I had given her into her bag. Xinyue leads me and Genevieve to her father. Most fathers ask daughters returning from long trips about their health, their adventures – here, it’s the opposite case. Xinyue bullies her father to tell her everything about her mother, her health, her father’s activities and his health. After a round of shaking hands, Xinyue tells her father of our travel plans and her father immediately brightens.
“Eh, let me make a few calls to Jiuzhaigou to see if I can get you some places to stay inside the park!” he says.
“You really are too kind, but you don’t have to do this. We can finally guesthouse around the park.” I say.
“Nonsense,” Xinyue says, “My dad works for the Forestry Reserve in Sichuan. He knows everybody who works in every park around here – it’d be a disgrace if he didn’t do this for a friend of mine.”
Speechless, we walk silently, guided by Xinyue for the final few minutes to a local restaurant.
“Are you going to miss me?” Xinyue says furtively.
“Well, of course!” I reply, “How can I forget all the kindness and generosity that you’ve given me over the past few days? I can’t imagine how the trip to Emei Shan would have been without you to help us through it all. When I go back to Beijing, I’ll look at my pictures and think of what I’ve left here.”
I don’t think that’s the reply that Xinyue was expecting. She immediately looks another way and slows down while I walk up ahead with her father, recounting her hike briefly with him.
“Whenever you’re back in Sichuan, be sure to give me a call. I’ll make sure that wherever you go you’ll always be in good hands. The parks here all know my name, so you’ll be covered.”
“I don’t know how to you thank you, or your daughter.”
“Nonsense, this is as it should be. We will stay in contact. Xinyue, say goodbye.”
Xinyue has caught up from behind. I can’t tell if that’s rain on her face.
“Zaijian,” I say.

share on: facebook

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 4

I hear drums. A soft rhythm in the distance – no, make that downstairs. The old wooden walls, though, draw the monk’s beating of the drums far away. I glance at my phone – 5:30AM. So early, yet the ceiling, the walls and the floor are already creaking.
Outside, the mountain fog is thick - the statues and prayer fountains I saw the night before are barely distinguishable, visible because of light bouncing in the air. People bustle around - the resident cooks run to the kitchen to make breakfast, monks speed-walk to the temple to beat more drums, fellow hikers hobble to the bathroom to brush teeth. Some temple guards hold sticks prodded with apples as tribute to monkeys who terrorize the temple roofs.

After a quick breakfast of sour and spicy noodles, we are off trekking once more. At some points, we must rely heavily on our walking sticks to hike up because the stairs are destroyed by rockslides. Signs reading “Caution: Wild Monkeys Roaming - Do Not Display Food or Act Dangerously - Use Common Sense” appear every few kilometers. Xinyue slows at each of these signs, glancing warily into the surrounding vegetation as if a monkey might suddenly jump out of nowhere and steal her bag. Unfortunately, we see none of our curious relatives.
Within two hours, we hike up about nine hundred meters to Jieyin Temple. Xinyue talks with the trolley car manager, who turns out to be her mother’s best friend from high school, and tells me and Genevieve that we can take the trolley up to the summit for free. Genevieve and I exchange glances.
“We came up this much on our own,” Genevieve says. “It’d be a shame to say we cheated the last five hundred meters up.”
I agree – I don’t think Emperor Kangxi had an electric trolley at his convenience to ride to the Golden Summit.
“Alright,” Xinyue says, “But it’ll take about two hours – the trolley takes five minutes.”
“It doesn’t matter,” I say.
“Fine. Baichi.”
The final few hundred meters seem more painful than the first 2500 meters. Is the oxygen quantity in the air already different? Why didn’t I just take the trolley? A middle-aged women walking down to the trolley station voices, “Kid, you’ve got more hell up ahead of you.” The stairs are drastically steeper and longer, with flat checkpoints drawn out further. The sun shines brightly through the trees and fog, the wet steps glistening. I see Genevieve about fifteen meters down. Over to the side, viewing platforms look out over the sky, neighboring mountains lost in clouds with the occasional cliff poking out every now and then. The ageless untrimmed trees along the stairs beckon as flies from nearby trashcans start to swarm around me.
After about two hours, I see Xinyue up ahead with the rest of the hiking group.
“About time,” she whines, “We’ve been waiting for you for so long.”
“Where’s the Golden Buddha Pagoda?” I ask, panting.
“We’re two minutes away. But first, you should check in at this guesthouse.”
After Genevieve and I stretch our muscles and crack our backs, we haul our hiking bags into our room at the guesthouse and head back out to meet Xinyue.
“Let’s go!” Xinyue says.
Without the hiking bag on my back, the hike feels feather-light, almost joyful. We come to a flat concrete-paved path lined with hotels and souvenir stands selling long-armed monkeys in yellow and pink shirts. Above the hotels and the trees, a golden statue stands in contrast to the clear blue sky. A few more minutes of walking takes us to the main ceremonial steps to the Golden Summit.
“Wow,” I whisper.
The Multi-Face Buddha Avaloskitesvara sits on a lotus flower supported by four golden elephants with multiple tusks. The statue faces’ expressions are empty, serene, neither smiling nor frowning, all the eyes half-closed looking down to the earth below. Ivory white elephants bearing golden wheels line the steps up to the golden statue, while smaller stone elephants circle around the statue facing clockwise. Behind the statue sits the Golden Summit Temple, the final prayer site for Buddhist pilgrims. Workers use thin metal slabs to force orange red wax off of the candle fountain in front of the temple.
Behind the temple, we face the Sea of Clouds, the name a literal translation of the Chinese name, Yun Hai (云海). White mist forms in my eyes, blending with the sky blue into other shades of white, gray and blue. The only mountain clearly visible poking through the clouds seems to outline Sakyamuni Buddha lying down in the clouds on his back.
Looking out into the distance, I feel a rush of ecstasy mixed with a moment of fear as a bout of wind rushes through me from my back but nearly carries me into the clouds. I look down into the sea of clouds – it’s too thick to notice people walking around. Not that people would be walking around – they’d drown in cloud. It would have been interesting to see people though, to see people walking around the pools of cloud like tadpoles in ponds on Earth.

share on: facebook

Monday, August 18, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 3

“Do you know how to get to Emei Mountain?”
The middle-aged lady stares back puzzled. Was there something wrong with my question? Did I say it wrong? I repeat.
“Do you know how to get to Emei Mountain?”
She smiles, says a jumble of sentences in Sichuan dialect, and points to a younger girl next to her. The two switch seats.
“She’s not very good at standard Mandarin,” the girl says, “But I can help.”
I repeat my question.
“You’re on your way already,” she replied, annoyed. “Is that all you wanted to ask?”
I am taken aback by the directness of the question. I clarify, “After we get off this bus, are there other buses to get to Emei Mountain itself?”
“You can the taxi or take another bus – but they’re all expensive.” She glances at my hiking bag. “You definitely are a foreigner. I’m Xinyue.”
“I’m Jin Jianyou. Wait, you said your name was Xin-what?”
“Ugh, baichi. Xin Yuuuuue,” she exaggerates. “Understand?”
“What’s baichi?”
“Huh? How do I answer that question… wait, what did I learn in school… it means ‘idiot.’”
I don’t think I’ve ever been called an idiot by a stranger during a conversation that lasted less than five minutes. She seemed to joke as she said it though – I think. We introduce ourselves more – she’s the American-equivalent of a senior in high school, hiking up the mountain to see some relatives and friends who work at the summit. I say I’m just studying abroad in China.
“Ugh, so you are a baichi.”
“Everybody who studied abroad in my family was a baichi. I don’t think you’re much different.”
“Great. Thanks for the classification.”
“No need to thank.”

The Lonely Planet: Hot & Spicy
The Chinese have a saying, “China is the place for food but Sichuan is the place for flavour.” Flavour starts with mouth-singeing peppers. With such fiery food the Sichuanese themselves have a reputation for being a little hot-headed and the local women are even referred to as là měizi (spice girls).

Xinyue is curious where I’ve been throughout Chengdu. As I show her pictures from my camera, I describe Wenshu Monastery, the main temple for Manjusr Bodhisattva, and Wuhou Si, a military temple built apparently by the characters of The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. She wasn’t as interested my photos of statues and architecture as much as she liked the photos of the pandas and red pandas at the Panda Reproduction Research Center north of Chengdu. While looking at the picture of me holding a red panda, she asked, “Why didn’t you hold a baby panda?”
“To hold a baby red panda costs 50 yuan,” I explain, “to hold a baby panda costs 1000 yuan.”
“Oh,” she whispers as she scrolls through more shots of red pandas.
“You know, we’re both climbing the mountain to the same destination, so why don’t we climb it together?” she suggests.
“That sounds lovely. I’ll just have to ask Genevieve about it, but I don’t think she will disagree. I also heard that traveling in big groups will help us get by the monkeys.”
“Who said we’re going through the monkey path? That way’s dangerous.”
“But monkeys are cute, not to mention our closest biological relatives.”
“Not the ones on Emei Mountain.”
“How bad can they be?”

After we get off the bus, her uncle greets us. After introducing Genevieve and me, we all cram into his small truck and head for the Qingyin Lake entrance. The Emei city is unimpressive, the gray hue in the sky reminiscent of Beijing and Chengdu. At the entrance, nothing is really visible more than fifty meters away due to the thick fog. I hoist and fasten my bag securely on my back, buy a sturdy looking bamboo walking stick and start the climb.
Plenty of pilgrims make their way up to the summit every year, so the entire path is made of stone stairs for hiking comfort. Though, looking up at an empty staircase that seems to continue at the horizon seems to sap more energy than the act of hiking itself. We cannot take the monkey-free path (“Oh no!” says Xinyue) because the fog has made it too slippery and dangerous. At the first monkey zone, a few mountain guides stand around with skinny bamboo whips and packets of corn kernels. I try to feed the monkeys the red peanuts that I bought in Chengdu, but as soon as I take the package out the attendants yell at me in unison. Apparently, past hikers who have fed food not sold on the mountain were not only fined by the mountain authority, but also followed by monkeys seeking more exotic food for the duration of the climb. I reluctantly buy a couple packets of corn. As soon as I buy one, a young monkey snatches it out of my hand and hobbles away, stuffing corn kernels into his mouth while perched on the wooden fence. Annoyed, I open the other packet and throw a few kernels at it. The monkey catches them mid-air and eats them.

I rush up the steps beyond the other climbers. Soundless echoes of coaches and runners from high school cross-country yell, "Don't look up, just get up, get up, don't look up!" Along the torturous climb, workers fix the fences, slabbing clay onto nailed oak planks. They shout words of motivation as I pant, grasping on my bamboo stick. One worker stares at my bird's-nest-excuse-for-a-hairstyle and says, "Are you from Hong Kong?"
"No, I'm from the States," I reply.
"You certainly don't look like a white man."
"Well, I was born in Korea."
"I knew it!" he yells at the others, "the moment I saw you I knew! You look like those actors in all those Korean dramas my wife watches! You know 'Full House,' right?"
"I think you're confusing me with somebody else then."
"Come now, I'm just joking. It certainly gets boring making fences all day."
"So the red clay on the fence is just to make the wood planks look like real wood?"
"This? Oh yeah, we just use the nails to run them through the wet clay and make it look like peeling bark."
The mountain is already starting to get hazy as the fog thickens. After a couple hours of hiking, I finally arrive at Xianfeng Temple, the rest stop for the night. I barely make out the stone gate in the fog. Near the door into the main prayer hall, I sit on a bench and wait for the others. My shirt, boxers and shorts are completely drenched in sweat, cooling me quickly in the mountain air. Thank goodness I packed three pairs of boxers.
The rest of the group arrives later broken in pairs. Xinyue yells, "Can't you wait for the rest of us? You could have at least helped me carry a bag. Agh, I'm so exhausted..."
After a quick austere vegetarian dinner of monk grub, we take showers and collapse on bed, barely exchanging words. Before sleep, I try to imagine the scenery at the Golden Summit, motivating myself to get over the soreness in my quads.

share on: facebook

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Concerto: Basan Part 2

The plane ride is unusually quiet – I suppose everybody on this flight isn’t used to waking up early for check-in. Genevieve, my travel partner, is also asleep, tired from staying up with a few IUP students. Surprisingly, Li Yun laoshi, the education director of IUP, sat next to me for the trip to Sichuan. After an aerial Chinese breakfast of white rice porridge with ham/cucumber and mayonnaise sandwich, we reflected on the summer session in Beijing. Li laoshi confesses she misses teaching. The administrative side of education means filing paperwork and scrutinizing over teacher salaries and sick day leaves, never really any contact with the students. For this summer, I have definitely attained my goal – to improve my Chinese fluency. I am much more comfortable and confident living in China. I can survive on my own while conversing with others about everyday topics. While traveling, I wonder if I can put everything I’ve studied this summer to test.
For the remaining time on the plane, I forced Li laoshi to teach me some Sichuan dialect. The differences are not very distinct – instead of saying “wo bu zhidao” for “I don’t know,” it is “wo bu xiaode.” However, profanity is on a different aesthetic plane.

share on: facebook

blogger templates 3 columns |