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.

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