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.

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