We traveled to Guilin, Yangshuo, and Chongqing two weeks ago…
But a few days before I traveled to Guilin I was in a taxi talking with the driver about music. On my way to my business English class the topic of what kind of music I liked somehow came up.
Taxi drivers are a strange breed; you can have very annoying experiences with them or pretty entertaining ones. You just never know.
After I told him where I wanted to go he made a comment about my Chinese. That turned into a conversation about me not liking Lady Gaga. I really am not sure how that happened.
When I asked about his music tastes he said he liked Eminem. He asked if I liked “Mei Guo Hip Hop.” I told him I liked some, but not a lot. My brother used to listen to it a lot. I prefer 80s rock, I said. He smiled and said, “Hotel California!” I humored him and agreed, that yes, The Eagles were great.
This carried on for a few more moments until he asked about Chinese music I liked. In truth, I don’t like much (any). I mentioned that I had recently begun learning some of the lyrics to an old Chinese song—“Wo Xiang Qu Guilin” (I want to go to Guilin)—since I was going to be visiting the place at the end of the week. He perked up and laughed when I quoted a few lines from the song.
After a few laughs, and him coaching me on the melody, he and I did a duet. Seriously. We sang the song’s chorus and a few lines after…
Of course he asked me what other songs I knew. I mentioned the, “Yin Wei Ai Qing,” (Because of Love) song and the other one, “Wo zui qinaide,” (My greatest love). These two songs are EVERYWHERE here. Along with Adele, Michael Jackson, and a strange Western boy band called West Life, these are two Chinese songs I hear constantly. I was at a bar one night and the Chinese business men who were hanging out there requested the two Chinese songs to be played—on loop. Really. Anyway…
As soon as I said the Greatest Love song the taxi driver busted out with several lines from the song. “Qin ai de, ni guo de zen me yang?” And he kept going. He serenaded me until we came to a stop at my destination. And what’s really funny—he had a great voice.
As I climbed out of the cab he shook my hand and said, “Zai Jian, Pengyou.” Goodbye, friend.
A few days later, I boarded another plane; this time to beautiful Guilin. I’ll tell you about it soon.
Wo Zui Qin Ai De (My Dearest Love. By Zhuang Hui Mei (Ah-Mei) (This version is not sung by A-Mei. For some reason I CANNOT find a video of her singing it on American internet. Go figure. Usually I use the VPN to access stuff I can’t get on Chinese net. Never thought it’d go the other way.) The original is more beautiful, but this is a good cover….
Rain lazily poured down the sides of the bus as Xiao Ming and I settled in to our uncomfortable seats and prepared for the few hours ride to Song Mountain.
I could barely keep my eyes open, and my head wasn’t all that clear thanks to the cold I picked up in either Luoyang or Zhengzhou, however, as the bus took to the road the small TVs descended and a classic began to play—Shaolin Temple. (Shao lin Si)
The world-famous temple known for the almost supernatural Shaolin Monks is located on Song Mountain and it was definitely on our agenda. Having never seen the old film, my eyes were glued to the screen despite my fatigue. A few early surprises—finding a young Jet Li in the lead role, and watching as his character kills a pretty innocent dog by smothering it on accident only to then cook it and share the meat with his fellow monks (who aren’t supposed to eat meat in the first place) in an effort to hide his misstep from the cute shepherd girl—kept me awake enough to follow the whole thing despite there being no English subtitles.
The movie’s credits rolled up the screen just as the bus came to a stop in Deng Feng, at the foot of Song Shan. We disembarked and hailed a cab, ignoring the ubiquitous “Black Taxis” that are everywhere in China. Those are people who are, as you can probably guess, not legal Cab drivers. They all appear to have black Volvos or BMWs or Volkswagens, and are really good at cheating folks. They like to target foreigners, but also snare their compatriots just as easily. Stay away. I’ll tell you more about Taxi Mishaps I’ve been privy to another time, just to elucidate the full range of my disdain for them, but right now we’re in Song Shan.
We outran the rain sometime a few miles back, so we could appreciate the small town without needing to duck for cover. The presence of the Shaolin Temple very obviously is the heart from which the community draws its lifeblood. Everywhere around the town frescos and murals of monks training or captured in some crazy aerial maneuver can be seen. Shops sell porcelain monks with styles ranging from traditional to down right gaudy.
The narrow streets and small shops don’t really scream tourist destination, but what really made the place feel like a quiet village mostly forgotten was the lack of people—Chinese and foreign. We had chosen to travel during this week because it was a normal work week for most and not a national holiday, but it still seemed like Deng Feng was more vacant than it should be.
Even the hostel we checked into had an empty feel to it. Don’t get me wrong, the little restaurant/hostel combo was very comfortable—especially the restaurant/café part. The interior had a decidedly international theme going. Flags strung up around the ceiling, pictures from different countries, and even the ever-present American country music rounded out the ambiance (I’ve asked before, but, seriously, what is with American Country Music in Chinese Hostel?). But we were two of what I later realized was probably less than ten guests. The people were nice, and in the evenings they show movies for free, so it’s a place I recommend.
It wasn’t too late in the day, still around lunchtime, so we decided to make plans. We bought tickets to the Shaolin Zen Performance for later that night, and then headed out to the famous Song Yang Academy and hike along Song Shan’s trails.
The ancient academy turned out to be pretty docile, but still worth a look. Truly ancient, the structure had first been used as a temple way back around 484 AD, but then became an establishment of higher learning for Confucian scholars hundreds of years later. Song Shan is a symbolic area not just because of Shaolin fame, but because it is on the mountain and its surrounding areas that three belief systems more or less peacefully coexisted—Buddhism, Taoism, and the art of Zen.
We walked through the open courtyard design and I couldn’t help but think of the Great Mosque in Xi’an, the one with similar open courtyards. Ancient tablets with faded inscriptions and tombstones with faded names were everywhere. Two gianormous Cyprus trees also hung out in the courtyards. These suckers were huge, and old, apparently.
I took some snapshots with Confucius and some bamboo graffiti, and then we found a little room where a man sold charcoal prints he claimed were taken from tombstones and frescos at the Shaolin Temple. I wasn’t supposed to take a picture…but I did anyways. He even sold five together in a pack, and after some serious bartering, I managed to get him to sell us one set for 100 RMB. Xiao Ming and I split them three and two. One of the prints I eventually had set into a scroll and gave to a friend as a gift. It was an old Chinese poem, but the characters were created from the leaves dangling from a bamboo tree. Pretty cool image. The other two I kept were also very interesting. One, a face made up of three people’s face was symbolic of the three beliefs on the mountain, and the other one, a representation of the five sacred mountains of China written in ancient characters. But what made them all even more interesting was knowing that the designs had actually all come from the Shaolin Temple, which we’d be seeing the next day.
This is the one that represents the three beliefs in one figure. The figure is comprised of three people, the big cheeses of Buddhism, Taoism, and Zen.
Thirty minutes into the hike, I realized two things: All of the people visiting the area had apparently congregated on the trails, and there was no way I was going to make it off the mountain alive if I didn’t turn back. The climb is really easy. Song Shan is a very old mountain, and it’s kinda got a globular shape more than a mountainous one. They even frequently refer to the mountain as an Old Man or Grandpa. It’s not steep at all, is what I’m saying. NO, it was my cold that had suddenly decided to kick my ass.
So in a move so out of character it was basically against my morals, I went back to the hostel and took a nap.
Later that night, though, I felt better.
We were driven about fifteen minutes away, to this outdoor theater of sorts, where the Zen Performance is held. The air held a chill that we hadn’t felt all vacation. Luckily, we packed anticipating a night or two of colder weather so we just enjoyed the brisk breeze and watched the show.
The “stage” is really an elaborately designed set that is modeled after a village. Not just any village, either, but the one from the film, Shaolin Temple. And the show itself seems to model every act on scenes from the movie. First thing the audience is treated to is the sight of five elderly men in dark orange/yellow robes sitting in rigid positions about thirty feet in front of the area the audience is sitting. The men, we are led to believe, are traditional followers of the Zen practice. For the entire duration of the show they DO NOT MOVE. It’s cold, windy, and they are in robes, but they do not flinch, not even to pick their nose or scratch an itch. At different points in the show Xiao Ming and I questioned their very humanity, finding it hard to believe that modern geriatrics could pull off what we were witnessing.
The rest of the actual show progressed just as the movie had. We watch as a beautiful shepherd girl takes her flock to some fresh grass (they use real sheep and goats and seriously lead them to patches of grass on the stage). Then a bunch of young monks-in-training toting buckets held out to their sides come racing along the “village,” chanting all the way. Lights and music swirl around in the open air, and what’s probably the most impressive sight of all is the natural face of the mountain in the background, above and behind a temple. In the night the temple and mountain would normally be impossible to see, but they have incorporated both into the show as part of the set by having landscaping lights cast ethereal glows of greens, blues, reds, and purples all along both at different times. I found it difficult to constantly follow the show instead of just marvel at the scene and let the music fill me.
From young monks carrying water the show moves to slightly older monks going through fighting stances. The group seems to be in their early teens and much more focused. They through punches and kicks, and grunt and holler like true warriors, mostly. More dramatic music and dazzling lights. Then another group, older, going through more techniques, this time with weapons. The show continues on like this for a while, with small groups of monks performing various skills with an array of weapons. They pop up at all places, fully making use of every inch of the set, and making it easy for every audience member to see them. They never stay in one part too long.
At one point a portion of the stage actually lifts into the air and three electrified monks give an exhibition that looks like Christmas trees seeking revenge for being chopped down. Simulation battles, traditional Chinese songs, crazy light work, and five or six old monks who probably didn’t even blink the whole darn time—that about sums up the show.
This image really just utterly fails to do any form of mild justice to the beauty of the actual scene…I’m sorry.
When the lights dimmed and the woman on the speaker politely kicked us all out, then, under the cover of near-pitch black conditions, I saw the monk statue closest to us turn and look at the audience. They’re alive!
That night, back at the hostel, we hung out in the café/restaurant part and watched the movie, The Way. I had seen the flick before, but watching while you’re traveling gives it a different perspective. It’s about a father who goes to retrieve his deceased son’s possessions at the beginning of the Camino de Santiago. If you don’t know what that particular road is I recommend you do a little Googling. In the film the father, Martin Sheen, doesn’t just collect his son’s (Emilio Estevez) stuff, but travels along the old pilgrim’s road in an attempt to…just finish his son’s last goal. It’s a great movie that asks you to just take a look at what you’re doing and decide if that’s what you really want to be doing. Of course, the lead is a doctor who has the financial freedom to take more vacations than most of us, but the main thoughts are pretty accessible to all socio-economic levels.
In fact, when I began telling people that I was moving to China for a while a huge majority of them sighed and expressed a desire to do something similar, only to amend the wish with the words, “But I can’t.” I’ve not got much to my name, I’ve made scores of mistakes, and I’m still too young to be qualified to give advice, but when I think about all the people who have desires to change their lives, that want to do something else, only to crap on their own dreams with sentiments like, “someday,” “I can’t,” or “I don’t have the time,” I just want to make a blanket statement, the same answer to all of them: “Yes, you can.” That’s not a political reference but a basic building block of a simple belief. You can change yourself and your world.
Okay. That’s it. Pulpit is being burned down and used to cook come good Korean barbecue.
The next day we took a bus to the Shaolin Temple bright and early. The temple area is more like a very big campus. You are greeted by a giant statue of a muscular monk, and then must walk a gauntlet of souvenir shops before you get to the actual grounds of the temple and its surrounding structures.
We took a cable car ride up the mountain to check out the scenery. I picked up a medallion as a souvenir for my step-dad and had the merchant carve his name into it. After having negotiated rather expertly for the prints earlier, I was disappointed when I only got the guy to take five RMB off the original price. Then we came back down and wandered around the Pagoda Forest for a while.
We nearly missed the Shaolin Monk performance, but we raced down the narrow paths to the building and squeezed through the crowd in the dark theater and made our own seats at the base of the stairs. Creating our front row seats was surprisingly simple and a small kid thought it was a good idea, too, so he sat right next to me and periodically chatted with me in Chinese throughout the show.
The show itself turned out to be fun, but less genuine than an American kung-fu flick. Sure, the young monks had great skill and twirled their swords, staffs, and chains with precision, but the whole feel of it seemed a bit affected, a little too commercialized. A funny part of the half-hour performance included three young monks teaching three audience members a few steps and tumbles in the Monkey, Snake, and Tiger styles. The three audience members, young Chinese guys about my age, took to the tasks with about as much grace as a Hippo on a pogo stick.
A few demonstrations of qi were also part of the whole thing. One monk threw a needle through glass to pop a balloon. Another bent some metal bars with his neck. A third one did push-ups with one finger. All to rounds of applause.
After the show Xiao Ming bought a cheap DVD with more demonstrations and then we left the building. On the way out visitors were given the opportunity to pose for photos with young and old monks in fighting stances, or even allowed to hold blunted weapons and pantomime gestures for the camera.
Finally, we headed to the actual Shaolin Temple.
It looked just like the movie! Only…smaller, in some way.
We entered into the temple, another open courtyard design (What is it the Chinese have against roofs?), and wandered around taking it all in. There were tons of other foreigners and Chinese tourists, some in small groups and others in larger ones led by tour guides. One group of French travelers had a Chinese guide with great French, so Xiao Ming (who got her PhD in France) kinda stalked them to get as much info as she could.
One of the famous monks from history Da Mo, is said to have been the one who gave Chan Zong or Zen to the Shaolin Temple. Legend says Da Mo traveled to India and back to learn the secrets of Buddha and that when he got back in town the current leader of the temple, otherwise known by his title as the Fang Zhang, wanted to become his disciple. Da Mo didn’t like the guy’s face or his arrogance or something, and said, “nope.” Instead, Da Mo found a cave and spent the next 8-9 years staring at a wall. The Fang Zhang, however, spent the better part of the next decade bringing food to the crazy guy in the cave so that he didn’t just rot away before he could pass on his teachings. Da Mo apparently psychically teleported the food from the bowls to his bowels because the legend says he just sat there, without moving. The Fang Zhang eventually got around to asking Da Mo what the hell, and the crazy man’s reply came out as something like, “Until the snows that fall become red, I will not train you.”
Having no regard whatsoever for himself or a rather inflamed sense of trust in men who spend every waking moment staring at walls, the Fang Zhang took the words to heart and chopped off his arm. He sprinkled his blood on a snow bank and then promptly tried to spell his name before giving a shout to Da Mo. When Da Mo got there he realized that the Fang Zhang’s crazy was that special little something that had been missing from his cave-staring days, and decided to take him on as a disciple.
The Fang Zhang’s masochistic nature is why Zen monks still walk around with their right hands in front of their chest. That, or it represents devotion and discipline. Either one.
Another story, about kung-fu, says that it was the fighting prowess of the Shaolin monks that helped soon-to-be emperor Li Shi Min defend China against an evil opposing army. Of course, this is the story that’s depicted in the film Shaolin Temple. In the end, after the bad guys are vanquished, the emperor grants the fighting monks of the Shaolin temple the right to eat meat and drink alcohol. So basically, he gave China’s bodyguards the right to get plastered. Nice guy. Also, throughout history the monks show up to help emperors—always on the side of justice, of course.
Unfortunately, a lot of the structures of the temple are not that old. Fame didn’t really do the temple any favors over the centuries. At different times, various walls and courtyards of the temple have been destroyed and burned down. The most recent was sometime in the 1930s. Just like the Longmen Grottoes, the place has fallen victim to the crashing, volatile waves of political unrest, and iconoclast tyrants.
Back at the hostel we grabbed some grub and chatted with some of the locals. We turned in early in order to wake refreshed the next day. My cold still clung to me with a vengeance, but it had been a great trip regardless.
The next morning we caught a bus back to lovely Zhengzhou and then a cab to the airport. The taxi driver turned out to be a huge conman, but we made it to the airport in time to board the plane despite his over-the-top disregard for human decency.
On the flight back to Dalian Xiao Ming and I talked about Chinese history, and I outlined a story idea I’d been nursing for the last few days inspired by the places we visited. I reviewed some of the new words I’d learned and tried to sleep a bit.
That’s all well and good, Wikipedia, but what you fail to mention is that walking around outside in the city is like sucking on the end of a car’s tailpipe. Yes, the place served as the capitol for 13 ancient dynasties, but today its dusty streets, polluted air, and unending industrialization makes Luoyang a far-cry from the picturesque town that captured the fancy of the famous writer Bai Juyi during the Tang Period.
We got to the city by taking the High Speed Train from Xi’an. Getting the sword through security proved a bit easier since we had wrapped that baby up tightly. They still insisted that I not take it out and swing it around while on the train, though.
We took a bus to the youth hostel and got situated before heading out to the one redeeming quality the city has: Longman Grottoes.
Now I’m sure I’m not giving the city it’s due credit, and since I was only there a day, I’m even willing to bet there’s more to the place than what I saw….but I just don’t care. Really, as I walked around outside in the heart of the city I could barely breathe. I got sick there after just eight hours. Anyway—the Grottoes.
There are as many as 100,000 statues within the 1,400 caves, ranging from an 1 inch to 57 feet in height. The area also contains over sixty Buddhist pagodas. Situated in what is probably the most scenic area in the whole darn city, the grottoes were carved from a stretch of cliff running along both banks of the river. 30% date from the Northern Wei Dynasty and 60% from the Tang, caves from other periods accounting for less than 10% of the total.Starting with the Northern Wei Dynasty in 493 AD, patrons and donors from the highest echelons of society endorsed artists to add to the site, even the first female emperor, Wu Zetian got involved.
This place basically became a spot of great spiritual significance, and a place to one-up who ever had carved or paid to have carved the previous grotto. All along the side of this mountain there are different size and styles of Buddha. There is no concept of planning things out or even the tried and true, “My side, your side.” The whole site seems like a bunch of very talented graffiti artists just decided to bum rush the mountain over a period of several hundred years.
The mastery is simply amazing, no doubt, but by about the halfway point you start to glaze over a lot of what you’re seeing. There are just SO MANY small caves with carvings. Too much detail all jammed together.
But along with the artwork you can also see the glaring evidence that humans have always just liked breaking crap. Throughout the centuries the Grottoes have been ransacked, vandalized, and even forgotten. During different wars the Japanese defaced and stole many relics, western collectors and soldiers looted, and even the Chinese defaced the murals during the Cultural Revolution. It wasn’t until after 1949 and the establishment of the P.R. of China that the place even got officially “protected.”
While at the BIG Grottoes a group of foreigners—all with shaved heads—were attracting a lot of attention because of their shirts. They were a part of some Kung Fu school. They all looked athletic and like actual practitioners, but Xiao Ming said their shirts didn’t make a lot of sense since the designs were from two belief systems and the Chinese characters didn’t have significant meaning. I’d heard of schools that people could visit, even monasteries and temples that let people pay to stay and train at their facilities. I wondered if this group was like that…Either way, they were the stars of the stage. High schoolers and middle schoolers on fieldtrips flocked them and snapped pictures like manic little paparazzi.
But when the baldies left, I was the only white face around. We tried to be discreet, but that just doesn’t work most of the time here. The focus of about fifty school-age teens turned to me, and I was coaxed into posing for a handful of pictures before we got away.
The whole site also includes the Xiangshan Temple, Bai Garden, and the tomb of the famous Chinese poet and writer, Bai Juyi. The writer lived in Luoyang during his later years.
We meandered around the whole place, taking in the sights, history, and enjoying the lack of floating dust particles the size of ping-pong balls. Afterward, as we were walking out, I tried to find some good postcards, but all of them looked like they were from the seventies, and the merchants wanted too much. I shrugged it off and decided to just find some at our next big destination when we got there: The Shaolin Temple.
In the evening I wasn’t feeling well (told you I got sick), so I checked some things out online, chatted with a few other guests in Chinese, and then turned in early. We left after breakfast the next day and boarded another train to the city of Zhengzhou.
In retrospect, I have no idea why we didn’t just travel directly to Song Shan, the Sacred Mountain on which the famed Shaolin Temple is located. I think it was something about a museum or whatever, something we could do or see in the city for one day before heading over to the second sacred mountain of the trip. We were wrong. It was raining when we got there, but the place was a typical Chinese city: cramped, polluted, and full of scents you’re not entirely sure aren’t aromatic poisons.
The weather did nothing good for the cold that had begun to ravage my head, and having the hostel we booked before coming tell us—when we got there and were standing in the damn lobby—that they couldn’t accept foreigners didn’t help much. Yeah, we were tired, wet, and I was sick and the three girls behind the counter just looked at me like they’d never seen a white face. When they went about trying to explain how the city doesn’t allow most hostels or even smaller hotels to house foreigners I wanted to pull my hair out. They flitted and fluttered like crazy hens, moving and shifting papers, looking around with confused expressions. They reminded me of a female set of the three stooges. Seriously, I was waiting for one of them to slap the other or poke ‘em in the eyes.
Xiao Ming managed to track down a hostel and after a long conversation where she repeatedly made sure they could accept me, we made left. She told me that even the guy she spoke to on the phone sounded like an idiot. He mumbled, and spoke in fragments. This was the beginning of what we would come to later refer to as the “Zhengzhou Water” syndrome. Most idioms in Chinese are comprised of four characters and have a story or history to give them their meaning. We came up with our own idiom: He Zhengzhou Shui (drink zhengzhou water). We still use it to explain any stupid behavior. “Ta men he zhengzhou shui,” they drink zhengzhou water, we say when something exceptionally stupid happens within sight.
Once we tracked down the “hostel” I groaned. The building was obviously not a hostel, and by the looks of it, not even a legal place for human habitation. The proprietor of the joint had acquired a beaten up apartment building and taken to calling it a hotel. Walking through the darkened halls with paint peeling from the walls and vague, muffled sounds coming from behind some of the doors we passed, it was hard not to think of every slasher movie ever. The room was cold and damp, but the sheets looked dry and clean.
Needless to say, not even getting to bed early helped my cold that night. I woke up the next day with a headache, sniffling, and probably running a fever, but I packed my bag up and we said so long to Slasher Inn. We kicked ourselves for even stepping foot in the city, but didn’t let the bad night keep us down long. We boarded a bus in the rain, and tried to relax as we headed to the last destination of the trip: Song Shan.
There are stories—in China there are always stories—about Hua Shan’s connection to Chinese martial arts. Famous novels depict the sacred mountain as a ritual meeting place for Kung-fu tournaments and a sword competition where the winner is given a sword and proclaimed the champion. The “Hua Shan Lun Jian,” or Mount Hua’s Discussion of the Sword is a well-known cultural detail that just about anyone that visits the place can tell you about thanks to the “kung-fu” author, Jin Yong. Though we didn’t have to defend our honor in a bloody duel, I did descend the mountain with a sword. Here, I’ll tell you about it…
From the hostel we took the subway to the train station, and then the train to the town Hua Shan is located. We missed our original train because of a confusion with the time…Not my fault! Anyway, because of that we did not have tickets with seats on the one we finally got on. For about twenty minutes we managed to pretend like we belonged in two seats while others filed in and stood around in the cramped compartment. Eventually our luck ran out, though. Someone with a ticket number matching (my stolen) seat booted me out and I had to stand. Xiao Ming managed to hang on to her seat and the two of us ended up sharing it for the rest of the journey. The whole ride took about an hour and a half or two. It was my first time on a train.
At the base of the mountain chain, and the entrance to the site, the jagged, sword-tipped peaks were too far away to be intimidating, but the place sure was pretty. Xiao Ming and I ambled about in the welcome/info center, a state-of-the-art, artistically designed building that would be at home on the Enterprise. We paid the absurdly expensive tickets to get into the mountain and then grabbed some lunch at one of the restaurants on the bottom floor. We had just missed a group departing for the mountain, so the center was mostly empty. As I’ve mentioned in different ways before: that doesn’t happen much in China. It’s one of those things I just can’t get around—I don’t like big crowds. I don’t even go to the stores here unless I absolutely have to. I will wait until all my resources at home are completely tapped before braving the throngs and overly heated supermarkets…I digress…
A shuttle bus took us up to the cable cars. The ride up through the base of the mountain was not what I expected. The shuttle driver reminded me of the van driver I had on the way back to Chiang Mai from Pai, a few months ago in Thailand. Both of them took the curves at ridiculous speeds and seemed to have forgotten what the brake was used for. Homicidal driving was not what captured my attention, though. It was the mountain. Rising up on all sides of the shuttle, the mountain seemed to just explode from the ground and shoot up into the clouds. Peering out of the windows while being jerked left and right as we rounded curves, I felt like I was looking straight up at skyscrapers. The peaks touched the sky like sword points being raised in celebration. I tried to take some pictures, but none could really do the scene any justice.
We walked up to the cable car place and weaved through the empty metal guide things that people have to walk around when they’re in lines…what are those damn things called? As we entered the actual building part I caught the screen of one of the TVs hanging from the ceiling. Avril, from at least eight years ago, belting one out. No worries. No one paid her any mind.
The cable car ride up through the mountains brought us even closer to those sharp peaks. We boarded the car along with three others. As we ascended one of the others, a middle-aged woman, buried her face in her husband’s shoulder. He joked with her, saying we were going to fall and that if the wind picked up we’d all drop. Most of us laughed, but it was easy to see that the woman had a genuine fear of heights. I loved being up that high. I kept leaning over close to the glass to get different views, but once I looked straight down at the cars that trailed behind us I got a bit dizzy. The angle, movement, and small space of the cable car kinda had that affect.
I know, I know…why didn’t we just climb up the mountain? That option was available to us, but we just didn’t have the time. We needed to catch a bus back by six, and even at the top, it takes hours to hike along the ridges and peaks. Taking the cable car saved us time and got us to the wonderful scenery faster.
As one of China’s Five Sacred Mountains, Hua Shan is pretty famous. But it’s also considered dangerous. Xiao Ming’s father told her about how tourists die every year along the hike up the mountain. The narrow walkways, sharp angles and paths, they claim lives all the time apparently. That may be true, but our experience up and around the sacred mountain proved relatively uneventful.
The views were great, though. Up and down the peaks we hiked, snapping shots and resting to enjoy the scenery a lot. My thoughts drifted in and out of focus, tossed about, no doubt, by the wind and the simple beauty and history that surrounded me.
We bumped into two familiar faces, two of the girls who’d gone on the Terra Cotta tour with us. We chatted and they told us we still had several more peaks to see before we had to turn back around.
Along the way up you can see thousands of little locks with Chinese messages carved into them hanging from the guard chains. These messages contain names, hopes, desires, and even lovers’ names. People buy them, carve their special message, and then lock them where they want. They are given a key and a little note that describes the location of their lock. The hope is that one day you can come back and claim it if you want. Xiao Ming bought one and put her parents’ names on it. She said that she hopes one day they can make it back and unlock it together.
Then, at one of the peaks, Xiao Ming bought me a sword. A bit paradoxically, the swords are cheaper at the top than they are at the base. It’s illegal to own guns in China, and in the Liaoning Province in the NE of China even knives aren’t that common, but in the Shaanxi province and around Xi’an, they are everywhere. For the last few days I had been seeing booths and stores with swords of all description. I have loved swords ever since I saw the first Highlander years and years ago, and even have a small collection in America. Seriously, I even tracked down the dragon katana that Connor McCloud uses. So when Xiao Ming asked me which one I liked I checked them out and told her. I never thought she’d say, “Okay, let’s wrap ‘er up.” When she began negotiating with the guy sellin’ them I butted in and tried to stop her, but she carried on until the two had come to an agreeable price. After that I still tried to tell her it wasn’t worth it, that I didn’t need it, that it was too much, blah, blah, blah….To no avail. A few minutes later we were trekking back along the path we’d come, sword in tow.
On the way down we took some pictures, and since I was one of the few white guys on the mountain, AND I happened to be carrying a sword, people wanted to get in on the picture taking. I took about three or four pictures with different people, even letting one of them hold the sword, and then we got a few of our own.
Ever since my hiking trip with my dad along the Great Smokey Mountains I’ve noticed a difference in the endurance of my knees. Up is no problem. Down is where the knees wanna just give out. It takes a while before any discomfort flares up, but it eventually does, reminding me that my old neighbor was right: jumping off roofs and doing flips out of trees as a teen has finally caught up to me.
We made it to the cable car place and descended, taking in the change of angle. Rising through the peaks was still more dramatic, but coming down through them also had its appeal.
On our way down the walkway we sat down on one of the benches lining the path, and I finished off the rest of the sandwich from our earlier lunch. As the other people filed out down the path we caught a few of them glancing at us. Stares are just something you have to get used to as an Expat, but these stares and conversations were even more specific. I understood some of it, phrases like, “Foreigner with sword,” and “look.” I asked Xiao Ming to clarify.
“They’re saying, ‘Why does the foreigner think he deserves the sword?’ They’re referencing the old stories.”
Of course I was annoyed and wanted to use my limited Chinese to ask them, “What are you looking at?” but Xiao Ming gave me a better phrase: Jiao Liang Yi Xia (roughly: let’s compare). It’s a phrase that kungfu fighters used to begin a fight or contest of ability.
Once off the mountain and back at the train station we encountered the first of what would become many “sword transporting” issues. First off, before stepping into the place I handed the sword to Xiao Ming. It was in a box and a red string was tied to either end of it so you could sling it over your shoulder, but I’m white. And in China. Carrying a sword is just too much attention. Giving her the box just bypassed some of the superficial issues that could come our way.
I set my bag on the security belt and it passed through just fine. I walked ahead of Xiao Ming and tried to seem nondescript to the point of just plain old ignorable…By the way, never, ever works here. As soon as the sword passed through the woman behind the scanner sat bolt upright. She motioned to the box and then to the other security guard. I didn’t make eye contact with either one. Instead, I grabbed it and set it against the railing like I didn’t have the faintest clue what they were on about. Then the male guard came over to it and asked in Chinese what was inside it. I shrugged my shoulders and told him in English that I didn’t understand. I made a gesture to Xiao Ming and grabbed the sword and headed off in her direction. I gave her a heads up when I got to her just before the guard came over.
Xiao Ming told them it was a fake sword for her father, a gift for an old sick man. It was tied up tight and was not dangerous, at all. They relented and let us through under the condition that we didn’t open it or swing it around on the train. I kind of just stared at him when he said that. I wanted to ask what the hell fun could I have with it on a train if I couldn’t lop it around and do some permanent damage to body parts, but I didn’t…
Anyway, once we got back to Xi’an we took another bus to get us on the same block as the hostel. Before heading back we picked up some newspaper and tape. At the hostel we taped the sword up, using about five newspapers and an entire roll of packaging tape. Hopefully having it sealed up would limit the amount of bullcrap we’d have to deal with on the rest of our trip (barely any help, is the answer to that one).
We grabbed some more food at the hostel, but the atmosphere had changed. As soon as you walked in, the place felt more like a club. On the second floor a live band played and a Chinese girl who sounded like Sarah Mclachlin sang songs in Mandarin that I had no hope of understanding. Customers who were definitely not staying at the hostel came and went, ordering food, beer, smoking, and chatting loudly. The Han Tang Hostel is a strange and interesting place. They play American country music in the mornings, alternative international ballads in the evenings, and on our last night there they had a Chinese girl with a voice combo of Mclachlin and Pink. And the staff stayed friendly and helpful the whole time, even the over-worked girl from that first day maintained a scary amount energy and patience at all times. She even laughed at my jokes in Chinese. I spoke Chinese, she didn’t laugh in Chinese…
But we were leaving in the morning. Off to Luoyang in the morning, to see the famous Longman Grottoes. We packed our bags, and turned in for an early night. I dreamed of cutting things with my new sword.
The next morning, on our walk out of the hostel, we ran into Lady Jia Jia. She smiled at us broadly and wished us happy travels.