A Journey to Emeishan
Part One: Wilma, where’s Fred?
Fred wasn’t ruffled in the least. Not at all.
But, maybe I should digress.
I was on what my travel agent tends to call the “rich American” tour; that is, after my three or four weeks of what I usually refer to as “pleasantries” training at the Shaolin temple, I sometimes like to do a little exploring in various areas of China, usually areas that my travel agent, and dear friend, suggest to me. Emeishan was the suggestion for this trip, so Emeishan it was. But, since my knowledge of Chinese back in 1997 was as limited as it is now in 2000, I had decided that it would just be easier to spend the extra money to have a tour guide take care of the whole process.
It really was the wimpy way out, but it was convenient. It cost extra money, but, I had felt it was worth it. It most probably will make me less of a man in your eyes, but I really don’t care. Fred certainly didn’t. Nothing seemed to bother him. But, more on him later. First, the wimpy way of travel. I have to digress a little further.
I left Shaolin in November of 1997, after training there with my master for about a month. After we had made our adieu’s, I was off to Zengzhou (pronounced “Jung Joe” for the literati in the crowd, “zeng zoo” for the rest us), to meet tour guide number one, who’s main job was to, well, first find me, and then, second, put me on the right train to my next destination, which was going to be Xian (pronounced “Shee an”. I couldn’t find a way to screw that one up if I tried). My travel agent had thought, that a trip to Xian, on the way to Emei, would be nice, as it was “on the way”. Besides, she had said, “It will give you an opportunity to experience Chinese trains”.
“No problem”, I had thought, just as Shi De Cheng had said almost constantly as I had tried to blunder my way through one gong fu form or another. I had taken one of those death-defying car rides from Shaolin to Zengzhou, found the offices of tour guide number one, deposited a hundred and sixty pounds of my North Face duffle bags filled with all kinds of assorted crap in her office (which, no doubt, she had appreciated very much. “No problem” she had said. They all tell me that…) And with that, I threw my back pack, which contained my laptop and the “expensive” things on my back, and searched out the nearby Holiday Inn, for something which resembled real food. “Don’t get lost”, tour guide number one admonished me as I left. “No problem”, I responded, as I had just wanted to get a feel for how that would come out. It kind of came out nice.
The mass of presumed protein on my plate which was supposed to be ‘fried chicken’ wasn’t all that bad, and yes, I had gotten lost, but not so bad that it had taken me more than two hours to find my way back to tour guide number one’s office again. I picked up my hundred and sixty pounds of North Face duffle bags, and with my backpack on my back, we left to find what the Chinese call a taxicab. Tiny things they are, especially when you’ve got a lot of things to carry. I had told tour guide number one about my first experience in these tiny minivans, the last time I was in China, two years previous, when I had gotten out of one, grabbed it by the top with both hands, and had pushed it up onto two wheels, much to the consternation of the female driver inside. I had been greatly amused by these tiny vehicles, my tour guide (tour guide number zero?) at that time had been greatly amused at my amusement, tour guide number one got quite the kick out of the story, and Fred really hadn’t cared. Fred just kept sipping his tea as I had told him this story. We had gotten to the train station in Zengzhou later that night, but, for some strange reason, our cab driver had left us off way on the other side of the transportation center. No doubt she had been listening to my “tilt the taxi” story. These taxi drivers, they all stick together. I should have known; I used to be one.
It was quite the walk, with tour guide number one constantly complaining about the cab driver leaving us off so far away, and with so far to walk, and with me, carrying a hundred and sixty pounds of bright red very American looking duffle bags. Four weeks of gong fu just doesn’t prepare one for carrying all of that through what appeared to be thousands of people. Not when you’ve got one big duffle bag on your right shoulder, and tour guide number one hanging off of your left. It was then, as I stumbled and tumbled through the ever increasing and surging crowd that I really had trouble visualizing, that I had realized that the Chinese walk the same way that they drive. I lost count of how many I had bounced into that night, and I’m not really sure how many got knocked over; I really couldn’t turn my head with the hundred and twenty pound duffle on my shoulder. Quite frankly, I really didn’t want to look back. At that time, I had just wanted to get onto the pure and simple comfort of the first class accommodations on the train, and get going. That was when tour guide number one gave me my ticket, and said “Have a nice trip”.
Let’s see. Thousands of people, lots of trains, different trains, all going to very different places, all on lots of different tracks, and not a word of English. Anywhere. I looked at tour guide number one with one of those “You’ve got to be kidding” looks that only a very tired and annoyed New Yorker can summon on command. It didn’t work. The tough guy approach just wasn’t going to work. I considered getting on my knees and begging her to show me what train I was supposed to get on, but further analysis, as that hundred and twenty pounds on my right shoulder started to feel like a hundred and forty pounds, revealed that any maneuvering to my knees would probably result in my permanently residing there. So, I took the “rich American” tour approach, as my travel agent back in the US puts it, and did the wimpy approach. I offered her money to put me on the right train.
Works every time.
Fred hadn’t even trembled with the mention of money. Or a tip. Not a move. He had just sat there, sucking in some of that tea, that he had made on his own, from a variety of different herbs and tea leaves, all floating around in this large plastic container, which he picked up and swirled around from time to time. A sip here, a swallow there, a mouthful every now and then, followed by a swish, and a spit, as the entire contents of his mouth would be returned to the remaining tea in the container. “How long has that tea been in there Fred?” “Days. Want some?”
First class booths on a train are nothing like “hard seat” or “soft seat”. In “hard seat”, from what I’m told, there is a long wooden bench on most trains that the fortunate ones get to sit upon; the rest of the passengers fight for floor space. Soft seat has some sort of cushions, supposedly. Second class consists of a train car that has booths, like one would see on those fancy European trains, without the “fancy”. Supposedly, they sleep six people to a booth, three hard bunk beds on each side. First class, sleeps four people to a booth, two hard bunk beds to a side, albeit, with an inch and a half thick mattress pad upon them. Very comfy indeed. I, my backpack, and my two bright red very American (though made in China?) North Face duffle bags, all four hundred pounds of us, wiggled into this first class booth, much to the dismay of the very well-dressed passengers within. I stuffed my stuff under the bunk to the right, without much success, threw my backpack onto what was called a “bed” to use as a pillow, and wiggled my large frame onto this much too small mattress, in an attempt to stay out of the well-dressed compatriots way. All three of them.
They weren’t happy puppies. My first clue was the feeling that I had gotten when I had entered the booth, kind of the feeling one gets when one goes to a “Black tie” affair wearing sneakers, jeans, and a tie. My second clue was the look that one of the little, almost bald headed, apparently senior Chinese official types was giving me, the big, very bald headed, and not very official, American type. It was a look that a nickel whore might get in a convent. But, I had really gotten the impression when the little, almost bald headed senior official type barked some sort of order to the even littler, even more balder, and apparently less senior, other official type. He had looked at me, scowled in disgust, got up, and left the booth.
I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly the most perceptive male on the planet. Not that most males are. Actually, I tend to be oblivious, even more so than the common male. I tried to explain the word “oblivious” to Fred, and he just kind of looked at me with that blank, dull stare, as he sucked in yet another mouthful of tea and dribble.
“Fred, you are oblivious”.
“No problem, very nice”, and with that he offered me some more tea.
Well, Mr. Perception was definitely not my moniker, but Mr. Trouble was starting to be. And I was definitely getting a feeling that things were not going to be going my way. I started to have visions of government agents, or, Chinese assassins, coming into my first class booth, and whisking me away, so that these self-important little Chinese officials could have their self-imposed privacy back again. Visions of carrying my possibly Chinese made American duffle bags on my shoulders as I trudged in the night along mile after mile of never ending train track haunted me. Thoughts of not ever seeing my dogs again entered into my exhausted and hungry mind. Horrors. Who would tell Max that dad was lost somewhere on a train track in the middle of China?
That’s when the little bald headed assistant returned to the booth, with an official looking man, in uniform.
The senior almost balding man took out some sort of wallet, and showed some sort of badge or identification, which made the tired and impassive conductor demonstrate a sudden surge of energy. A government official. Tour guide number one had put me in a booth with high-ranking government officials.
The conductor started trembling as the senior official raised his voice higher and higher, and with each octave on the scale, he had pointed yet another finger at me. I told Fred, that I wasn’t really sure what this party official was telling the conductor, but I had gotten the impression it was something along the lines of “Remove this man. He smells.” Regardless of what it was, I had had to go. And me, Mr. Oblivious, was starting to understand it. All four hundred pounds of us was going to have to be moved. I started to take a little pleasure in the thought of this hundred and twenty pound conductor carrying my hundred and twenty pound duffle bag, so I just leaned back in this thing that they call a bed, put my arms behind my head, and smiled at all of them.
To this day, I’m not sure what it was; the duffle bag, the smile, or the odor. But I stayed, and they all left. Ten minutes later, some scruffy looking individuals were hastily placed into my booth. I had gotten the impression that they had just gotten out of prison; no doubt, they had the impression I was heading for one. It was a great arrangement; they didn’t bother me, I didn’t bother them, and none of us slept on that damn uncomfortable train.
Fred slurped some more tea and spittle out of his container, and didn’t seem to be at all amused at the story of my conquest over the party officials. He hadn’t said a word, yet I told him “No thanks, I’m not thirsty”. Not even a smile.
The trip to Xian was fairly uneventful, despite the fact that I was only there for essentially one day. But then again, how long do you need to see clay statues? The terra cotta warriors are a truly remarkable thing, but, after the first five minutes, I had seen enough. I was more impressed with the wall that surrounded part of the city of Xian than I was with the tourist attractions within. But, it was a worthwhile journey, one that I would most definitely recommend, if one is going to be “in the neighborhood”.
Tour guide number two got me at the hotel early the next morning in time to get me to the airport, so that I would not miss my flight to Chengdu, in southwestern China. I can’t remember his name either, but he had done something which tour guide number one had done, which, at the time, I had felt to be so ridiculous and self-serving, that I had almost found great humor in it. You see, both tour guides had given me their business cards. As if I was going to be “in the neighborhood” again. I had thought it totally ludicrous, as I had always done these trips the “wimpy” way; that is, my US travel agent had had the entire thing arranged before I left. I had taken the cards so as to not hurt anybody’s feelings, an act in itself which proved ultimately to be a very wise decision, and I proceeded with the whole process of trying to get onto the plane. Which, if you’re American, and you’ve got baggage which is “over the weight limit”, is not easy.
I tend to think of “over the weight limit” as being “over the weight of the guy who is supposed to load it onto the plane”. Forty kilograms (about ninety pounds) seems to be the limit, and the girls at the ticket counter seem to take great pleasure at weighing a hundred and sixty pounds of bags. They always seem to scowl at you, and one even looked at me with one of those puzzled looks, which basically inquired, in a non-verbal sort of way, “What do you have in there?”
“My mother”, I told her, knowing damn well that she wouldn’t understand me. The look in her eyes suggested that she might have paid attention to those few years of English classes in school, and I was hastily sent off to some other, out of the way section, to pay some huge fine, which ended up being a little more than the price of my original ticket. It was a baggage overweight payment, or something like that. They keep all of your tickets while you pay this fine, which made me wonder what would have happened had I not had enough cash at the time. The girl at the ticket counter smiled at me when I returned with evidence of the payment, issued me my boarding pass, and sent my luggage, and mom, merrily on its way, to the x-ray machine and its subsequent loading onto the plane.
I didn’t get very far. Not far at all, Fred still wasn’t curious. Still sipped that damn disgusting tea. So, I continued.
Apparently, my bags had made quite the impression in the x-ray machine. Some official had run through the terminal towards the boarding area, had gotten me, and had brought me back to the boarding pass area. There had been a group of them there, all taking turns irradiating my pour North Face duffle bag. They showed me the images on the screen and started jabbering to me, first, pointing to the screen, and then, pointing to me. The three-dollar locks I had placed upon the zippers had foiled all attempts at their investigating these mystical yet apparently deadly things inside my bag, so, they needed me to open it up so they could explore it. I looked at the x ray and immediately deduced what their concern was. Swords. Chain whips. Benign little martial arts weapons. In Xian. The big bald American had weapons. There was no way he was going to be allowed on the plane with weapons. Even though he had paid a huge fine because of the extra weight. A group of them watched nervously as I slowly and deliberately opened my duffle. I started to wonder if they had actually thought my mother was hidden inside this bag….
The swords were lying on the bottom. I took the Chinese broadsword from the very bottom of the bag, grabbed it by the handle, and swiftly, took it out, and thrust it towards the largest, and nearest, and most inquisitive, Chinese official. I hit him squarely in the chest with it, with form and precision and a stance that Shi De Cheng would have been proud of. The group of officials were aghast; the crowd of people behind the counter were aghast; the official with the sword to his chest looked like he was going to die. I damn near wet my pants with laughter. Fred hadn’t flinched.
Of course, the sword was one of those flimsy demonstration things, which the crowd, and the x-ray group soon realized, once they saw that the blade had bent completely in half, was completely harmless, worse than a toy. The crowd had roared with laughter, as did some members of the x-ray group. One point for the big bald guy. Fred wasn’t impressed. “Want some tea?”
But the guy with the sword to his chest just wasn’t going to back down. He wanted to know about the other ones. Problem was, Shi De Cheng had given me a real one, after my discipleship ceremony, one which was engraved with something that I couldn’t read. Thrusting that one into this guy’s chest would not have been a good move, and most definitely, would not have brought on the same effect. I was going to have some trouble with that one.
But the group was curious, and they read the inscription on the sword. And they were impressed. With the sword, and with the inscription. And, with the chain whips. All four of them. And then they started to talk about “Shao Lin Tse”. And “gong fu”. A few patted me on the back, the guy who had suffered the fake sword to the chest had smiled, and eventually, I was on my way. Finally off to Emeishan.
My troubles were just about to begin.
Click to open:
Emeishan, Part II
Part Deux: Doc, That’s French
The flight to Chengdu, which is in Sichuan province, the southwestern sector of China, only took about two hours, and it was pretty uneventful. It was a fairly empty flight, which is fairly uncommon for flights in China. Most of the Chinese sat towards the front of the plane, and I sat in the back. I was starting to get the distinct impression that some of these people had never seen a westerner before. That point really was of no matter to me, as I was on the “rich American” tour, so, all I had to do was get off the plane, get my distinctly bright red American made in China duffle bags, and wait for some very Chinese tour guide who spoke broken English to grab me and whisk me away in some imitation of an automobile for our trip to Emeishan. It was going to be an experience. I was right about everything.
The airport at Chengdu gives one the impression that the 1950’s came and went, without the 1960’s every showing up. Small, dirty, kind of out of the way, all of which gives it a character all of it’s own. But, as opposed to airports in Beijing or Hong Kong, or even Zengzhou, one thing that you notice at the Chengdu airport is the lack of foreigners. My early morning arrival into the mist encrusted Chengdu airport revealed three things: no foreigners, no English, and no Fred.
Well, Fred really isn’t his name, and, well, to this day, I still don’t know what it is. We had been sitting in this mini van thingy, on our way to Emeishan, talking about one thing or another; me, with my broken New York English, he, with his broken Chinese English, both of us barely understanding each other, and the subject of our names eventually came up. I told him that my name was Rich, which was a near impossibility for him to pronounce, so I told him to just call me doc, which most of the Chinese tend to call me anyway, because of it’s phonetic simplicity. He told me what his name was, and after my third attempt to try to repeat it, I essentially gave up. It was then that visions of Barney Rubble and Fred Flintstone started rumbling through my tired and exhausted mind; Barney Rubble because of his terribly laid back and almost ignorant attitude, Fred Flintstone, because he looked like a skinny cachectic version of one. So, I tried something.
He turned around. And smiled.
And that’s how Fred became Fred.
Ah, but I didn’t get into the whole story of where Fred was. It was late morning as I walked out onto the greeting ramp exit area of the Chengdu airport. Talk about being the sole American. Talk about being the sole foreigner. Talk about trying to act inconspicuous, talk about trying to melt into one’s surroundings, when you’re wearing nice bright red American North Face technical wear, with equally bright and red duffle bags. Try melting two hundred and twenty pounds of American beef, all built on a six foot three frame, into a society that appears to be half that size. Try doing it when not a word of English is spoken. Try doing it without any hair.
Try doing it for over five hours.
Where was Fred, or, anybody, for that matter? As it happened, somebody had completely forgotten about me. And the problem was, well, the problems were: 1. It was a Sunday, so nobody was working, which probably didn’t matter because, 2. I didn’t have the slightest idea who was supposed to pick me up, so I didn’t know who to call, which also probably didn’t really matter because, 3. Nobody spoke English at or near the airport, so there was no one to go to for assistance, which also didn’t matter because, 4. I had no idea where in Emeishan I was going. Wherever this Emeishan was. If that’s how you spelled it.
Tour guide number three, whoever he was going to be, had all the arrangements. So much for the “rich American” way of traveling.
And so I stood, a bright red sore in a sea of very darkly and very conservatively dressed, and much smaller, and hairier, non-English speaking people, for hours upon hours, waiting for the gods, if they worked on Sunday, to send some sort of a sign.
And the gods were good; a sign came. In the form of a Holiday Inn shuttle bus. There was English writing on the side of it, so that’s all I needed to prompt me. It wasn’t going to be a tough decision. I figured that there had to be some English-speaking people at this hotel, and somehow, we would find a way to get me to where I was going. And if we didn’t, I would at least get a meal out of it.
It was a wondrous hotel, full of granite and marble and huge entranceways, much like one would see in any large city in the US. And, fortunately, one of the assistant managers spoke English. After explaining my predicament, and giving him all the business cards of tour guides one and two, I left him to do the detective work on his own, and retreated to the comfort of the buffet upstairs. I hadn’t had a decent meal in well over a month, and I felt that I had deserved this one.
The food was good, damn good in fact. Actually, cardboard basted in cooking grease with Spam would have tasted good by then. Between the lamb chops and an English news magazine, I was in virtual heaven. Two hours of nibbling on this, and chewing on that, while reading and perusing here and there. And it all came to a terrifying end.
“She think you very handsome.”
I was stunned. Stunned not only because out of the clear blue, English, though not very good English, was spoken to me. Stunned because, I couldn’t, for the life of me, remember the last time a woman had suggested that I had been very handsome. Well, maybe it wasn’t in this lifetime. But I was even more stunned when I looked up to see the mouth that those words emanated from, and that mouth was attached to the body of a Chinese female the likes I had never seen before. Yes, I had been surrounded by a bunch of monks for quite some time, but damn, this girl was gorgeous. Thoughts of taking my mother out of the duffle bag and putting her into it started running through my shiny baldhead.
“She think you very handsome,” she repeated, now this time, appearing to be a little razzled at my puzzled yet quiet look.
I wasn’t sure what to say, so, I didn’t say anything. I just looked up at her with a puzzled, quizzical type of look, as that was all that I was capable of doing at the time, and just tried to look, well, cute. All two hundred and twenty hairless pounds of me, trying desperately, to look, cute. Picture that if you will.
She was getting frustrated, as it was getting obvious, that she was just the messenger. Didn’t she realize that in ancient Rome, they used to kill the messenger if the message was bad? Guess not, because she was going through with it. She smiled at me, and turned her head to look at a far away part of the restaurant, close to the buffet line. And there she was. The originator of the message. A smiling beacon of friendly warmth, way over yonder, who generated a meager, tiny wave of her left hand. She had now caught my eye, and she had wanted now to consummate this little encounter.
The smiling beacon’s hand waved ever so slightly, only to disappear behind a food plate, which was piled high with all sorts of assorted non-descript unidentifiable things. It was then that I had realized that this smiling beacon was more like a buoy, more on the order of the size of two of the messengers who was standing so gracefully in front of me, and quite possibly, even three. Over four weeks surrounded by monks, and I had been chosen by the Buffet Queen of Chengdu. The gods for some reason were not happy with me.
I had to think fast.
‘Je suis Canadien, parlez-vous Francais? Non ? Je ne parle pas le Chinois’
I wasn’t exactly sure what the hell I had said to her, as my five years of high school French was long gone, but it had had an interesting effect on my little beautiful Chinese messenger who had stood before me. She left. I prayed that the buffet queen didn’t speak French.
And for another two hours, I picked and nibbled, and picked and nibbled, and tried ever so secretly, to steal a glance at the Buffet Queen of Chengdu, to watch her gnaw and chew, rip and shred, all the while hoping that she would not notice my secret admiration for her mastication abilities, and especially hoping, that our little messenger would return. A companion to Emeishan would be just what the doctor ordered. But it was not to be. The buffet queen kept masticating, the messenger kept disappearing, and finally, Fred showed up.
No apology, no “I’m here”, no explanation as to who he was, why he was late, or where we were going. No feelings of sympathy, remorse, or pity. “I’ll show him the meaning of remorse” as I had started to get thoughts of throwing him to the Buffet Queen. It was getting dark, I had been waiting now for over nine hours, and all I got was a simple “Let’s go”. “I can respect that”, I thought to myself, and off we went.
Eventually, it came out that nobody had told Fred that he was supposed to pick me up. I essentially, did not exist. It really was no matter anymore. It had been an experience, and it was time to move on. Emeishan was waiting.
Emeishan, Part III, IV
Part Three: Three little piggies go to the market.
The city of Chengdu is not much to see, especially if you try to see it towards dusk. One thing I noticed as I got bounced around in the back of this Chinese made minivan was, that there were a lot of bicycles on the street. Lots of them. But our driver, who didn’t seem to speak a word of English, didn’t seem to bother with them. I think he went to the same cab driving school that I went to. If it has more wheels, it has the right of way. Minivans have four, bicycles have two. That settles that. There wasn’t a bicyclist who got into our way. And as for the almost near and constant potential carnage, Fred just didn’t seem to get alarmed. Nothing seemed to bother him. All that concerned Fred was his plastic container filled with tea. A container which just didn’t seem to get less and less as time went on; actually, the more he drank out of it, the more the fermenting liquid seemed to procreate and expand. And those things that seemed to be swimming inside. Whatever they were, they must have tasted good. Fred would just swirl them around in his mouth for what seemed to be minutes on end, and then, in a violent act of expulsion, propel them viciously back into the container.
“Want some tea?”
I tried to be as much of a man as I could, but this was really turning my stomach. I wonder if Fred knew the Buffet Queen? I was going to have to introduce them one day. But, as always, when things seem their darkest, salvation is always around the corner. And my salvation was just behind us. On two wheels. It was the absolute wildest thing I have ever seen on a tiny motorbike in my life.
Now, in Shaolin village, back in 1997, and before, it was not uncommon to see entire families ride on one tiny motor scooter. The husband would drive this one or two cylinder engine device, the wife would sit side saddle behind holding an infant, and one, possibly two, depending upon how illegal the man was with his nocturnal activities, small children would stand upon the running boards, between the father’s knees, holding onto the handlebars or each other. Quite the sight, five people on a tiny motor scooter. It was a fairly common occurrence, and has since become even more common, now that the Chinese economy has improved to what it is. But, as we inched forward in heavy traffic, a mass of tissue on wheels slowly but surely approached our minivan on the right side. I frantically burrowed through all hundred and sixty pounds of crap in my bags to find my 35mm camera. I just had to have a picture of this. Fred continued to suck and spit on his tea, in a rhythmic and cyclical pattern, completely ignorant of the karate pants, underwear and socks that flew throughout the minivans interior.
I had found it, but it was out of film. Again, more clothing was desperately flung around as I searched for a roll, any roll, of film. My target was slowly but surely approaching the right side of the minivan, and because the traffic was so tied up, I was only going to get one chance at this shot. And how many times do you get to see three very huge, very tied up, and very alive, pigs, lying crosswise on top of a motor scooter, with only the drivers head visible over the top of the uppermost pig? Talk about balance. Shi De Cheng would have been proud.
I finally found the film, loaded it into the camera, and slid open the door of the minivan, as there was no way my head and shoulders were going to fit out of that window. The tiny driver of the motor scooter had passed us already, but was still visible in the fading light. I was going to get this shot, if not because a lack thereof would lead to a terminal disbelief in anything that I ever say in the future, but because it just had to be the absolute funniest thing I had ever seen. Not even the Buffet Queen of Chengdu with her plate piled high could compare to this. This was one of those ‘once in a lifetime’ shots, and I was going to get it.
But, he was slowly pulling away from us, and I found myself leaning further and further outside of the minivan to get the picture composed properly in the viewfinder of my camera. And then, I had to make a decision; I had gone past the limit of balance, and it was now necessary for me to put one foot outside the minivan to stabilize my large frame, just as I was about to shoot the almost perfectly composed picture.
I had completely forgotten that we were still moving.
Fred hadn’t even put his tea down, even after he realized that I was sprawled all over the road. I quickly picked myself up, tried to look as inconspicuous as possible, and scrambled back into the minivan all the while hoping that some madman on a scooter with three pigs wasn’t driving at some high rate of speed in my direction. I shut the door and just didn’t say a word, as I repacked my bags.
“Want some tea?”
Nothing razzled Fred. It was then that I decided I had a new mission. Thoughts of seeing and experiencing Emeishan turned to thoughts of making Fred lose his composure. Or, at least, his tea.
Part Four: Fred loses it, and four seasons in one day
By the time we had finished our four-hour journey to the base of Emeishan, it was almost midnight. It was tough to tell, but it appeared that we were in an area that was surrounded by beautiful pine trees and dotted with the occasional lake, something that I was not accustomed to seeing in China. It reminded me more of some of the areas I had seen in the pacific northwest of the US, or some areas of Upstate New York. It certainly was beautiful, and, it certainly was dark. Much too dark to go out and enjoy it. Besides, I had to get up early the next morning. My travel agent told me that I should start early and climb Emeishan from the bottom to derive the full effect of the place. I told Fred to make sure the hotel awoke me at an early hour so that I could get a good start. He was quite puzzled as to why I had wanted to get up earlier than the rest of the crew.
“Well, I want to walk to the top.”
And with that, he turned and went to his room.
But I could tell that the comment really disturbed him. He had stopped sipping at that dreadful tea. I drifted off to sleep that night, well aware of the fact that I had accomplished a great feat. Fred had finally lost it.
The next morning was a beautiful one, with crisp clear air that one tends not to find near any of the larger cities of China. We piled into the minivan and started our ascent of Emeishan. It was during the almost hour and a half drive up the mountain that I started to realize why I wasn’t walking up from the bottom. Emeishan was essentially, huge. If you consider Emeishan to be a thumb, geologically speaking of course, millennia ago, that, before it’s creation was just lying flat on a table, so to speak, and then, as it was being created, the thumb angles up off the table but still remains attached to the hand at the joint; that, would be a decent, non-geological description of the mountain. And we were starting at the joint. The trails start at the joint. One would have to start walking from the base of this joint, up this incredibly long slope, to get to the fingernail, at which point, one would reach cliffs. Essentially, we were driving to the bottom of the cliffs. Had I walked, it probably would have taken me about three days, at a good stride. From the bottom of the cliffs a cable car takes you to the top, at which point, a short climb and a walk will place you on the top. To about 3075 meters altitude.
But it would have been an interesting walk, all fifty or so kilometers of it, as there are many, many temples along these few trails that traverse up this very long slope. But three days is three days, and I certainly didn’t have the time this trip. The goal was to get to the top.
Emeishan is considered to be one of China’s holy mountains. At one time, there were more than seventy temples that dotted the trails on the way to the top, some of them were Taoist temples, the majority were Buddhist. They have been dated back to the Eastern Han Dynasty. At this time, I am told that there only remain about ten or twenty temples on the slope of Emeishan that are still functioning. It is possible to obtain food and rest at these temples, from the monks that inhabit them, for those who desire to do the climb from the bottom. And apparently, there are quite a few people that do that climb, pilgrims in fact, who visit Emeishan for purely religious reasons. As for foreign tourists, they are pretty rare in this part of the world.
We drove to Jie Yin Dian, which, at around 2600 meters, was going to be the last stop for our minivan. It was also my first taste of the first season change that I was going to experience. Fred hadn’t said much all morning, but he did say one thing of significance, and that was, “On Emeishan, every day has four seasons”. I hadn’t the slightest idea as to what he was talking about. I did when we got to Jie Yin Dian. We were enveloped in clouds, and frost, and terrible cold. The Chinese that were selling their wares there, mostly medicinal stuff that I couldn’t recognize, were all wearing these very heavy green military winter coats. Some of these coats were available for rent. As we had left the large majority of my luggage in the hotel where I had stayed the night before, I just started layering my high tech fancy clothing, threw my backpack on my back, which contained my laptop, and a few other necessities for the night, and started hiking with Fred, up this narrow trail through the mist and the cold fog.
It was on this trail that I first encountered three things that I had never encountered before. First, the famous Emeishan monkeys. Terribly cute little things they are, and lots of them. But Fred warned me of their thieving habits. Apparently, it is not uncommon for them to “attack” people and take their belongings out of their purses or what not. I looked at these fairly large monkeys, as I was getting closer and closer to them, in order to compose just the right picture, when Fred said “Don’t get too close, they’ll take your camera”. I told Fred not to get his panties all twisted up into knots, as I knew gong fu, and that I could defend myself, even though this primate, probably knew gong fu also, and could most definitely kick my ass in an embarrassing sort of way. I had read that Shaolin gong fu had reached even this remote part of China at some time in the past, and that some of the temples on the slopes of Emeishan had at one time or another, fallen under the control and aegis of the Henan Shaolin temple. Also, I had heard that the Shaolin martial arts were still practiced to some degree at some of these temples. The monkey and I eyed each other suspiciously. We both decided to back off at the same time.
“You see Fred, I would have kicked its ass”.
“You nuts. Want some tea?”
It was a hell of a walk, especially when you consider the altitude, the trail, and the cold. That’s when I saw the second of the three things I hadn’t really seen before. They call it a huagan.
It’s made out of bamboo, and you sit in it. And then, two scrawny little guys pick it up at either end, and carry you either up or down the trail. Very comfortable looking device. The huagan carriers sit by the side of the trail and hawk their services to the pilgrims and other tourists who come to Emeishan. They didn’t bother hawking anything to me. No matter, I wasn’t going to be seen dead sitting in one of those things.
But there was one thing that I hadn’t experienced before, that was really beyond words. And that was the environment. Fog, mist, ever changing, ever flowing, with craggy cliffs and beautiful pine trees, it was truly the land of the gods. I could understand why so many people over the centuries had attributed so much religious significance to this place.
And oh, it was winter. It was damn cold. Not a hint of sunlight. Eventually, we made it up to the cable car station, and took this archaic tram up the side of a cliff, through the impervious clouds, to the brightly sun lit top of Emeishan. It was bright. It was warm. It was absolutely gorgeous. And it was summer.
How does one explain the view from the top of Emeishan? Well, understand that when you get off of the cable car, you’re not really at the very top. You’re at the, well, kind of top. The Chinese call it the Jind Ding, or the Golden Summit. At this point on Emeishan, the mountain is no longer a huge slope; now, at the top, it is a craggy cliff, all the way around. A precipitous drop awaits you if you venture too close to the not so secure fencing. Below you, as you look down, you see nothing but clouds, what the Chinese call the Sea of Clouds. In the distance, off to the southwest, you can see the start of the Himalayas rising majestically out of this Sea of Clouds. And further up, to the east, lies the very top, the summit of Emeishan, on which there is one last temple, its various roofs shining in the terribly bright and warm sun. I was overwhelmed with it all. Truly, I felt, there must be a god.
Fred broke the whole mystique of it all. “Let’s go. We check in.”
It wasn’t much of a walk, but when you’re at 3075 meters altitude, any walk becomes a bit of a walk. The hotel in which we were to spend the night was not exactly the Holiday Inn of Chengdu, but at least, there was a bed. And, a little heat. No matter, I had no desire to spend any time indoors anyway. I dumped my stuff, grabbed my laptop and camera, and headed for the summit. Funny, I noticed, it was starting to get a bit chilly….
Part Five: A spy comes in from out in the cold
The temple of Jind Ding is just like most of the other temples one sees around China, with one exception: location, location, location. This one is spectacular. The temple itself is multi-level; the uppermost part resides on the tip of a precipice that faces away from the Himalayas, the rest of the temple cascades down a short portion of the mountainside towards the Himalayas. It’s all built quite nicely into its surroundings. A quick tour of the temple, and I eventually found myself outside again. The highest point of Emeishan, at 3099 meters, is not accessible to the public, and seems to be inhabited by some sort of government radio station. I tried to make my picture taking of the facility not too noticeable by the occasional government guard that came my way.
It really doesn’t take all that long to tour the temple and the surrounding grounds once you’re on top of Emeishan; actually, one could do it all in about two or three hours. So, with summer fading into fall, I decided to sit on one of the steps in an out of the way place, and go through some email on my laptop. It was a big mistake. Bad enough I was American, in an area in which foreigners were very uncommon. I had advertised technology.
Within a matter of less than, oh, a half hour, I found myself surrounded by young Chinese people, apparently students, all staring at me. No one had said a word. Just stares. I wasn’t quite sure what to say, so I just smiled, and continued on with my work. That’s when one of them made a move.
“You James Bond?”
It was a girl, an average looking girl, in her early twenties, who spoke, from what I could tell, little English, and, who spoke the only English in the group. Where she had come up with that comment was beyond me. It was then that I started thinking about the Buffet Queen of Chengdu, and I started to get suspicious. Terribly suspicious. Stuck on a mountaintop. For the night. And it was getting cold. I started to look around me, to look around and under and in-between the masses of legs that surrounded me. I just knew that there had to be a fat chick out there somewhere. I wasn’t going to be caught like that again.
I slid my sunglasses up onto my forehead, and squinted at this new messenger, with cautious suspicion and restricted power. “Who sent you?”
“You are James Bond! You are American spy!”
And then she started yammering away to all the people in her group, who, all started yammering away at each other. And I started to wonder how I got involved in these little fiascoes with these people.
And that was when I noticed the cause for the whole interest thing. True, they probably had never seen an American before, at least, in person, and from what I’m told, in these remote places in China, when they do, they tend to think it’s some sort of American movie star. To them, who else but a movie star would bother coming all this way? But the real cause of their fascination really had nothing to do with me; it all had to do with this funny looking thing in my lap. This was October 1997, and they had never, ever seen a computer laptop before. Overwhelmed just didn’t describe it.
I stopped the whole group yammering bit, and, basically, to be blunt, just asked her who she was with, to which she answered by pointing to all the people that had surrounded me. And with that, I decided to start a conversation with her. They had not really met a foreigner before, as they were going to school in some part of western China, and were just visiting Emeishan for the day. I didn’t even bother trying to explain the concept of James Bond and spying to her, but I assured her that I had nothing to do with either. However, to keep the wow factor going, I did show them all Doom and Quake on my laptop, which just sent absolute shivers of joy up their collective spines.
That was when it started to snow. It was three o’clock, and time for winter.
Part Six: Buddha’s Rainbow and suicide
It didn’t last long, winter; it was a short one. Spring time came shortly thereafter, just in time to get a little more of the suns warm rays, and, more importantly, to get a glimpse of the phenomena that they call Buddha’s Rainbow.
The moisture in the air that surrounds the craggy cliffs of Emeishan reflects the suns rays occasionally, giving you a prism effect, much like the rainbow that one would see after a rainstorm. But the rainbow that one can see, and that I unfortunately, did not have the opportunity to completely witness, is called Buddha’s Areola. It is a circular rainbow, without beginning or end, and for that reason, believers who come here for pilgrimage, sometimes are driven to think that this as a sign of nirvana, from the Buddha. It has caused a few of them to leap for the rainbow, off of the precipice that the temple is built upon, and for that reason, the cliff is called Sheshan Yan, or the Cliff of Self Sacrifice. As the precipice is pretty steep, below you, as you look down, all one can really see is that very cushiony appearing sea of clouds. It all does give one quite the illusion. I have no idea how many people have taken a dive off of Emeishan, and considering the height involved, and the nature of the terrain below, I wonder if the authorities themselves even know.
Part Seven: Epilogue.
It was basically an uneventful night, as winter again descended upon us, towards five o’clock or so. Walking around outside in the dark, and the snow, was pointless, so we all went to sleep, in an effort to get up for the ritual sunrise. And what a sunrise it was. An absolutely magnificent phenomena, made even more so by the cheers of the fifty or so people who had made it a point to get up early, bundle up in their rented heavy green military winter jackets, and brave the bitter early morning darkness.
But it had all come to an end far too soon. We packed, and headed down for the tram that was going to take us down to the minivan for the three to four hour ride back to the airport, depending upon traffic. Fred really hadn’t said much on the way back, as he quietly sipped his two day old concoction of spit and tea.
He was bound to get the better of me; I was convinced of that. But, I was just not going to let it happen. We got to the airport with literally hours to spare, actually, five, to be exact. There was no suggestion of having me waste time in downtown Chengdu at the Holiday Inn, or some other place like that. It was another day of waiting at the airport. Just another day. I made sure that I got Fred’s business card before I left, gave him a hearty goodbye, and watched him and the driver disappear into the busy traffic that headed off towards Chengdu.
I wrote two letters when I got back home in the US, and I addressed both of them to the Holiday Inn, in Chengdu China. One had a nice thank you note to the assistant manager, who had helped me in my hour of need. I made sure that I carbon copied that letter to the main office of the Holiday Inn corporate headquarters. The other letter went to the manager of the buffet at the Holiday Inn in Chengdu. It wasn’t addressed to the Buffet Queen per se, but the letter briefly described the event as it occurred, and it requested that all attempts possible be made to find my dear love, and get my message to her, in the hopes that she would eventually search me out.
In the letter I put Fred’s card.
I hope they enjoy swapping tea together.