So many Buddhas, so little enlightenment

Thursday, March 18, 2010

(Note: It's a long-ish post today. Normally I might have broken this up into two, but my chances to post before getting on the boat are limited, so today you're getting a bit of an epic.)

(Other note: The internet is sucking today, and I have no time to deal with it - my boat leaves shortly. So this is an email post. I have no idea if the pictures will comes through, and no time to mess with it. Will fix it later.)

It's been a weird few days. The tendency to grumpiness that I mentioned earlier hasn't gone away. In fact, I think it's getting worse. I feel like I'm swinging between contentment, frustration and total despair minute by minute. And the smallest things can set me off. Here's an example: At the local internet café/hostel/restaurant I ordered a beer and a plate of noodles – number 14 and number 62. But it turns out beer is number B14, not number 14. Number 14 is Sechuan pork and vegetables. So I got a big bowl of very oily, very spicy pork and veg AND a plate of noodles. And this just about brought me to tears. The feeling passed, and quickly, but it's alarming how such small things can bring me to the brink of breakdown.

I think I'm annoying the rest of the group too. I'd certainly be annoyed with me – moody, grumpy about the slightest thing, increasingly quiet and sometimes uncommunicative. I don't really fit in with most of them, so I think I'm becoming a bit of a loner. I'm a lot older than the rest of the group, and almost all of them arrived in pairs – three sets of Danes, two couples, and one lone Aussie guy. I think I mentioned it before, but this means I have my own room all the time, which only adds to the loner effect (not that I'm complaining about having my own room, but it does let me retreat more and more into myself). Here's another example of the creepy mood swings – we're about to get on a big riverboat to cruise the Yangzi for three nights and two days. Because the boats are totally booked up, it's likely I'll be paired up in a twin share cabin with a complete stranger – possibly another tourist or possibly a local person. Contemplating this possibility fills me with dread, even though I spent months in hostel dorm rooms sharing with up to 20 strangers. I just feel like I can't face the idea of not having somewhere private to retreat from the world.

Anyways, enough of my psycho drama. Back to China! After leaving the bright lights and big city of Chengdu (pop. 4.1 million), we took a bus to much smaller city of Leshan (pop. 156,000), home of the world's largest Buddha. Built at the junction of the Ming, Dadu and Qingyi rivers, the giant Buddha is carved into a cliffside along the water. The idea was conceived by a Buddhist monk in 713 AD during the Tang Dynasty, and took a mere 19 years to complete. The hope was that the presence of the Buddha would calm the river waters and protect the local boatmen. During construction the surplus rock was used to fill hollows in the riverbed, so in the end the waters did calm down, though it's a matter for debate whether one should thank the Buddha, or the engineers.

See? I told you it was big.

It really is massive – 233' high, with shoulders 78' wide… even his eyeballs are 11' across, and his fingernails are bigger than the average person. We approached from a tourist boat on the river, which is definitely the best angle. (Aside: I think the coolest thing about that Buddha is something hidden from view. Even though it's 1,200 years old, it's suffered relatively little erosion because there's a hidden drainage system! Clever monk!) After the Buddha we had a really nice lunch with the local Intrepid operator, Mr. Yang. He's been an English teacher, local tour guide and restaurateur in the area for ages, and he and his wife laid out a huge and excellent banquet for us up in his dining room. I say huge because there was more food than we could eat, but this is actually the norm here. Just like that first meal I had with the hashers at the Great Wall, every time we sit down to eat there seem to be more dishes than it would be possible to finish. I think this is part of the etiquette here – to completely finish every dish would imply to the host that he hadn't provided enough food, so the host eliminates the chance of that happening by serving up more than could possibly be eaten. Regardless, lunch with Mr. Yang was some of the best food we've had since arriving in China, and fortified us for the next leg of the journey.

Mr. Yang, our gracious host.

I was well-fed by Mr. Yang, but no more enlightened by the giant Buddha than when I started. So it was on to more Buddhas, this time at Emei Shan (pronounced "OH-may San"). Emei Shan is one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China. (I would list the others, but do you really care?) We stayed in a small town at the base of the mountain called Bauguo, in the Bauguo Monastery. Staying in the monastery was ok, though as you might imagine, the facilities were fairly basic. Our first night was also pretty chilly, though I managed with my long underwear, Hash hoodie and spare blanket.

Worshippers lighting giant sticks of incense that get left burning outside of the Baoguo temple as an offering to the Buddha. Strangely, you often see cans of Coke or Pepsi piled up pyramid-like in front of the statue of Buddha inside the temples. There are offerings too, but the effects is bizarre.

It rained overnight, and the morning we were to ascend the mountain was clear and cold. Huang said we were exceptionally lucky, since it's normal for the mountain to be shrouded in clouds and fog most of the time. It didn't feel particularly lucky, though, when we got out of the bus at the upper parking lot to be greeted by this sight:

Picturesque, yes. But also a bit sloppy and slippy for a trudge up a mountainside.

Our ascent actually turned out to be quite easy. Some tourists spend two days hiking up the mountain, and we even saw a monk prostrating his way up the mountain – three large steps, then down on the knees with forehead pressed to the ground, then three more steps. Lacking the devotion for that kind of ascent, we got a bus as far as the upper parking lot, then walked for about half an hour to a cable car and caught that right to the summit. The heavy, wet snow packed down quickly into that sort of slippery pseudo-ice, so walking up the steps might have been a bit treacherous if we each hadn't been equipped with a pair of special grippy devices for the bottom of our shoes. They were like Chinese Yaktraks, and worked remarkably well. Vendors along the path were selling them, but ours were provided by our local Intrepid operator. The vendors were also selling long toe-less socks that were meant to go on the outside of your shoes to provide grip, and a sort of raffia/wicker sandal to tie underneath your shoe for the same purpose.

Another in the increasingly large series of Pictures of Pam's Feet, showing just a glimpse of the metal grippy things.

It was actually a pleasant walk, except for the big globs of snow melting off the branches of trees that occasionally landed on my head. At least the sun was shining, which helped my mood. It seemed like ages since we'd had a sunny day, and I was beginning to feel like the citizens of Chengdu must feel with their 300 overcast days per year. At the top – called The Golden Summit, is the Jinding Temple, topped with another big Buddha, this one golden, and complete with elephants. We got to go inside the temple underneath the big statue, and George, our local guide, explained some things about it.

The Jinding Temple. If you look closely, you can see that the elephants have six tusks each. These represent the six restrictions of Buddhist monks and nuns, like their six commandments: no killing, no stealing, no cheating, no eating meat, no drinking alcohol and no sex.

We had some time to wander around at the summit, and because the day was so clear the views were quite amazing. They claim there are four "wonders of the natural world" at the Golden Summit. We missed three of them – the sunrise (thank God), the Buddhist Divine and the Saints Lights, but we certainly saw the Sea of Clouds.

At 3,077 metres, the view was impressive.

We walked back down the way we came, though by this time the sun had melted a lot of the snow and the temperature was very pleasant. And because things had warmed up, we got to see the other natural phenomenon of the area – the monkeys! Apparently some people come to Emei Shan just to see them. They are quite brazen, and frequently steal food and water bottles from people who are careless enough to leave such items accessible. We saw a few incidents where stupid people with open shopping bags of food had the bags ripped right out of their hands so the monkey could sit in the middle of the path ransacking whatever was inside. This was normally accompanied by wailing on the part of the victim, much photo-taking on the part of everyone else, and the eventual waving off of the monkey by someone with a stout stick. In fact, along with our metal grippy-things, our local Intrepid man provided each of us with a monkey whacking stick, though none of us was called on to use it in that capacity.

This monkey was given the bottle by a passerby. He bit right into the side of it to try and get the water out, but quickly figured out how to open the lid.

After another trip on the cable car and another bus ride we ended up back at the parking lot where we'd started that morning. By this time it was close to 3:00 pm so we were all ready for lunch, which turned out to be another gut-splitting event. This was not a bad thing, though, because we still had the bulk of the day's activity to come. We were going to hike back up the mountain to our destination for the night – the Hongchun Ping Monastery. It was about a three hour walk. By this time we'd descended far enough and the day had warmed enough that there was no snow in sight.

The walk itself turned out to be different than I expected. I suppose since I'm used to the wild and undeveloped nature of the Canadian woods, I was surprised at how built up the path was. Every step of the way was paved with large stones, and there were railings and stairways, and impossibly picturesque little pagodas and stopping points all the way. It was fantastic, and seemed somehow very Chinese. It was like those typical Chinese watercolour paintings you see on scrolls – a deep river valley covered in trees, a waterfall, an inviting path and a small house perched on the side of the hill. I took many pictures to try and capture the look, but for now here's just one glimpse. Check out Flickr for more.

Here's me in front of one of the impossibly perfect spots along the way – a pagoda in the middle of the river, reached by two perfect arched bridges.

Well, I say it was great, but that's really only true up to a point, and that point was a lovely covered bridge that marked the last stage of our trip up to the Hongchun Ping Monastery. By the time we got to the bridge we were already quite warm. I'd shed as many layers as possible and I had then stuffed into and strapped onto my daypack in whatever way I could. Still, there was no getting around it, there were over one thousand steps to climb to make it to our home for the night. It was at this point I started to understand the point of view of the people who'd hired a sedan chair to ferry them, Cleopatra-like, up and down the mountainside. Earlier in the day I'd been filled with contempt for these apparently able-bodied people who were literally carried on the back of others – especially since the architecture of the chairs forces you into a sort of lounging postion that just emphasizes the incredibly lazy nature of the thing. But part way up the thousand steps I would have gladly handed over my credit card.

Not such a bad idea, in retrospect. Especially considering it probably would only have cost about ¥100 ($15.00)

Those damned stairs just kept going. Every time you reached a landing or a turn, you'd be greeted by the sight of another flight of stairs and another turn in what seemed like an endless climb. By the time I made it to the top I was in a perfect state: dripping with sweat, and completely fed up with stairs, monasteries, China, traveling and life in general. It was a grumpy moment writ large. I actually had to stop just before the entrance to the monastery and stand there to try to compose myself. I didn't think the monk should have to deal with me in either of the states I was close to: screaming or weeping. Eventually I regained my composure, and it turned out the monastery was a pretty nice place. The rooms were pleasant, and the beds were equipped with electric blankets and they had hot showers. It's remarkable what a couple of amenities like that can do for one's mood. Soon enough I was clean and happy, tucked into my toasty bed and quietly reading while I waited for supper time.

We didn't eat in the monastery, but went back down a few flights of stairs to a tiny restaurant we'd passed on the way up. The Hard Wok Café (Ha!) was a bit ramshackle, clinging as it was to the side of the mountain, but the food was predictably plentiful and tasty and they had cold beer. The next morning we even had breakfast there, and though the service wasn't fast (by any stretch of the imagination) the banana apple chocolate honey pancakes were worth the wait. Then next time you're nine tenths of the way up the stairs to the Hongchun Ping monastery, I'd recommend a pitstop with Betty at the Hard Wok.

The kitchen at the Hard Wok Café, an open-air affair.

We had a fairly leisurely start that morning – late enough that I woke before the alarm and had another hot shower and the time to wander the monastery a bit, soaking in a bit of much-needed calm, and taking a lot of pictures. It was a short time, but it did wonders for my mood.

Here's a look at the balcony outside my room. More shots of the Hungchun Ping are over at Flickr

The walk back down the mountain was easy and pleasant – nothing like the misery of the day before. We retraced our steps to another picturesque pagoda and there divided into two groups – those who would take the easy one hour stroll back to the parking lot, and those hardy souls who would take the scenic and more taxing three hour walk right back to the Baoguo Monastery at the bottom of the mountain. Considering the fragility of my mood these days, I think I was wise to choose the short and easy route. It was a quick walk, and the bus back to the monastery was quick too. This left us with time to explore the local hot springs! They turned out to be a bit of a disappointment – more a warm swimming pool than the steaming, rocky, open-air business we'd been expecting. Still, the locker rooms were nice and there were more hot showers (two in one day!) so you really couldn't complain too much.

That night I decided to forgo the group dinner and went straight to the local internet café where I had the momentarily disastrous ordering experience. I was mostly there for the free wifi, and was immensely relieved when it turned out that China, Flickr, and my computer were all playing well together for a brief, shining moment. I managed to get all my photos uploaded, and stayed long enough to have another B14.

By the time I trudged back up to the monastery my mood was reasonable. I passed through the darkened main courtyard, and stopped for a while in front of the open entrance to the temple. The statue of Buddha was lit up, and the pyramids of Coke were standing on the altar (if they call it an altar), and there were colorful round pillows on the floor for worshippers to kneel on. I stood there for a long time staring at that Buddha, and inside I thought that I might finally be gaining a tiny bit of peace from rubbing up against so many Buddhas in the last few days. Whatever the cause, I went to bed feeling content, and am determined to try and stay that way. At least until some other disaster befalls me, like a cold cup of tea or a hangnail.

Special Bonus Photo: I've started taking pictures of the crazy English translations that appear on signs and menus, and I just have to share. Some of the are funny, but some are almost poetic. This is my favourite in the latter category, seen outside a temple on the Golden Summit. It's practically haiku.

More Italics crap: Late breaking news? I was able to secure a private cabin on the boat, and though it cost an extra $180, I think it was worth it. Contentment reigns!


Lisa said...

Ok when you asked if we really cared about the other mountains I had to go and look them up...

(Way cool names BTW:)
The Buddhist Four Sacred Mountains in China:

Wǔtái Shān" --> "Five-Terrace Mountain"
Éméi Shān --> "Delicate-Eyebrow Mountain"
Jiǔhuá Shān --> "Nine-Glories Mountain"
Pǔtuó Shān --> "Potalaka Mountain"

You got the coolest though: Delicate Eyebrow Mountain!

I totally get the tired/cranky/moody feeling..I got it when travelling for only 5 I can only imagine...

OK..Off to check out the pics on Flickr

Laura C said...

I feel the need to say "hang in there!". You're allowed some grumpy, and I'm sure it will pass soon. Electric blankets make the world a better place, if Mitch let me I'd have it year round! Hopefully you can find small things to help you get back the happy traveller.

Unknown said...

Since you do not seem to be enjoying the winter weather, why are you not travelling in the Southern Hemisphere at this time of year?

You seem to have outgrown group tours. Being the savvy traveller you now are, why don't you forge your own way, at your own pace?


Anonymous said...

@Robert What a fantastic idea!! Spent the last few days in Brisbane and Gold Coast, and returned to Sydney tonight. These parts of Australia are all looking pretty spectacular at the moment - the drought has broken, it's still quite warm... so yes, come visit!!!!

ClearlyEnlight, said...

Well I have followed many one-year travelers and it seems like all get burnt out after the ninth month. Plus tours are tiring. I mean more power to you, I could never do tours, I am into my third year and the Active 18 months of travel I did one day tour and that was it.

The energy of just the group can be draining.

I think that type of Phase is normal, I went through it, but I was not around a tour.

Great pictures you have posted.

It is the main reason I did some house-sitting, it allows an excellent break.

Kelodie said...

Health-wise, are you feeling OK? I got the grumpy feeling a week before discovering I had parasites. Just a thought..

Unknown said...

Some good comments from folks who care about you...

I just read that the current tour you are on has 4 overnight trains? I did 3 months in Europe with only 1 and decided that was too much.

Wise up to what you already know.

You cannot maintain the 1 month holiday pace on a 12 month trip - physically, or most especially, mentally.

Your instinctive tendenancey to seek solitude in response to being grumpy is the opposite of what you need to do to cure the problem. If you have a sore knee, you need to take it for a gentle walk, not keep it immobile on the sofa!

Please tell me you are not going on any more group tours.

Please tell me you will be making and effort to meet people and come out of this trip with a few friends.

Please tell me that you are smart enough to learn from your now vast store-house of traveller wisdom and do what you need to do to make the last 3 months of this adventure what you want it to be.

Hand your camera to someone more often - the photos of you are the best ones.


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