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.”
“But—”
“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.


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1 Comment:

twking said...

I just wanted to let you know - I read every single word you write.

And I miss you dearly. And I am proud of you.

--Thommi

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