October 13, 2006 - Wutai Shan, China
The Hills' Secret Held
October 05, 2006
Riding the high of having crested a Wutai peak yesterday - and as the soreness had not yet set in - we decided to go for a repeat. Why not?
The map was unfolded and we began picking our next climb. Our best bet seemed to be a taxi ride to one of the higher temples and then continue up the mountain behind it. We traced fingers over valleys and up ridges, planning attack.
This sign is universal.
Pull out a map and huddle around it in China or Chelsea and you put the “Look at me, I’m a tourist - gouge me!” sign in the window. There’s something to be said for making directional decisions in the privacy of a hotel room.
Across the road taxi and minibus drivers circled like sharks, smelling blood - and kuai - in the water. Trying to divide and conquer we called one over away from the pack. A 10 or 15 minute ride?
We laughed. 300 kuai? That’s what we spent on the rooms.
Another driver, another 300 kuai quote. Hmmm.
It was soon apparent the price was fixed to all five major temples. Time for another direction.
25 minutes later we stood in front of a smallish temple - a bit farther from a peak, but within striking distance - and only 40 kuai lighter.
The complex was notably silent, not a nun to be found. In the courtyard a small boy in clothes 3 sizes too big for him begged for a photograph of himself - I obliged. He grinned toothily when he saw himself - proportioned on my camera as a giant. Inside the main hall, prayer cushions spread across the floor in vibrant pink geometry and along each side bronze statues silently glared with faces distorted by pain and fear and anger.
A nun appeared - and after a short conversation invited the 5 of us to lunch. Something felt wrong about lunch with a nun, let alone many nuns - images of eating the nuns’ last potato, wiping my face with a 500 year old sacred napkin that happened to be a Buddhist relic or being generally oafish danced through my head.
The dining-hall was lined with rows of tables and narrow benches. On one side, the gray clad nuns, heads shaved and silent. Ushered to the opposite side facing the nuns, a steaming bowl of dumplings was placed in front of each of us. Every few minutes a young nun came by and placed a new liangcai - salted greens, mushrooms and squash - or more dumplings in our bowl. The meals silence was broken only by the slurping of dumplings, the ringing of a small bell at an altar and a guttural chant when the nuns finished and filed out of the room. A few nuns broke rank with sideways glances at the ridiculous foreigners and cracked slight grins. A new experience for everybody involved.
The meal finished with a tray of baked potatoes - yellow and smooth inside, golden and crisp outside. Feeling an unspoken guilt about wasting any food we cleaned our bowls and packed in the potatoes.
Bowing like drinking birds and thanking profusely we rolled ourselves outside.
Five full bellies at a nunnery. China surprise.
Following directions from a nun we set out, warm with nun food, up a small path towards Beitai Shan. We passed a herder and his cows - encountered slight resistance from the matriarch - and wound up through the fall foliage.
The trail quickly dwindled into a dirt track and then into trampled grass as a light rain started to fall. The ravine grew dense with brush.
Scrambling up the hills on all fours, we were stopped by a terrific clap of thunder that reverberated off the hill-face opposite and the rain that followed. Sensing defeat, we turned tail and slid. The five of us plowed down the hill - swinging from tree to tree - and some, by the end, sliding down on the rain-slicked leaves.
No mountain peak today. Cutting loses we grabbed an early taxi to Datong.
On the way we stopped at the Hanging Monastery - supported by tall stilts, hanging onto the face of a cliff overlooking a lake - but daylight was waning and the park was closed.
Our feet had barely hit pavement in Datong when a knight in shining armor rode up - in the guise of a local English teacher on a bike - and walked us to a cheap hotel and a noodle joint. She handed out hand-made mooncakes for the next days’ Mid Autumn Day Festival and promised she would be in touch the next day.
Saved from China by China.
Tumbleweeds... and no comments. How 'bout livening things up?