Saturday, June 26, 2010

Back from the Mountains

I'm now in Hangzhou, which is an hour or two outside of Shanghai.

I arrived this morning on a night train. One of the good things about the night trains is that you give the attendant your ticket, and then she comes and wakes you up when your stop is next. The last time this was necessary I got about 10 minutes and had to rush. That meant that when I was woken up this morning, I rushed like a fiend to get my stuff together and get to the door. I was on the uppermost of three bunks, and had to scurry down, stepping on other people's beds, and pull my backpack down without it falling and smacking anybody else.

Then to stand by the door. The doors are where people go to smoke, so I was standing with the smokers. More than tolerable for a few minutes, I told myself. Less tolerable when it turned out that she had actually woke me up and hour and a half early, and I was standing soaking in smoke with two backpacks on. Mine wasn't even the first stop. I stumbled out of the train, riding a secondary nicotine high, and had enough time to think "wow, what a crappy station, I can't believe this is my stop," and wander towards the gate before the attendant pulled me back into the train. She yelled something at me, gestured to the ticket, and held up four fingers. "Whoops, four more minutes, I guess."

Back on the train. Still standing with the smokers, I realized after 30 minutes that they wouldn't build two stations four minutes apart. That meant it was either four stops, forty minutes, or that holding up four fingers means "idiot" in China. I had been wearing my two backpacks this whole time. The smokers were spitting all over the floor, but I had been standing long enough that a dry spot had time to develop around me. After a fierce internal debate about whether or not it was worth putting my things on a horribly germ-y floor, especially with no clue how close my station actually was, I gave in and plopped them down on the metal. Naturally, thirty seconds later that train began to break for my station.

I've been finding myself in a lot of train stations over the past couple weeks, and I swear I've navigated most of them much more efficiently. On one I met a girl from Hong Kong who translated some routine questions that the locals had for me. Where are you from, etc etc. Then they fell into talking amongst themselves. The girl told me "they are talking about your nose. They say it is very beautiful." Later in the train station I was thinking back to this, and looked around. I smiled and thought to myself "I probably have the biggest nose in here!" The smile was replaced with a frown about five seconds later when it occurred to me that I can probably say that just as often in the US as I can in China.

When I last left you in the blogosphere, I was on my way to Xi'an.

Xi'an was a nice city, but exceptionally smoggy. At night I couldn't even take pictures with the flash because it reflected off of particles in the air. The terracotta army is the biggest draw in Xi'an I wasn't floored, but it was certainly worth seeing. The best part about the city was riding a bike along the top of the city walls. It was dusk, and the guard towers along the top were swarmed with circling swallows. Three old men were sitting next to one of the gates with a bull-whip that they were cracking to spin a huge top on the ground.

The city also has a famous Muslim quarter that hosts a night market. An interesting market, but the most interesting thing to me was the fact that a horde of tuk-tuks [the devil's chariots discussed in an earlier entry] had been modified by attaching humongous telescopes to the back. You could pay to look through them, but on top of the fact that you were in the middle of a bright city, the smog was so thick that you could barely see the moon with the naked eye. Of all the places you could have telescopes, why Xi'an?

Toilet stall graffiti provided a likely explanation. According to a vandal, a year or two ago Xi'an experienced a complete solar eclipse. So maybe the drivers invested in the telescopes then? But really, they were honking big, and couldn't be cheap. They must have been charging astronomical (hohoho) prices for the things during the eclipse. Now, a year or two after bouncing along behind a motorcycle in smoggy Xi'an, they're probably so far out of alignment and full of grime that you'd be lucky to see a streetlight.

From Xi'an I went to Huashan, or Mount Hua. According to this website, it is the most dangerous hiking trail in the world:

(Yet again, the hyperlink refuses to work for me so you will have to copy/paste.) The way my computer renders it it is a competitor for worst formatted website ever. Hopefully you have more luck.

The supposed danger was the main draw for me, as it was for a guy from New York I met on the bus ride there. However, while it is an exceptionally beautiful hike, it isn't any more dangerous than hard trails on mountains in Washington. They have paved paths everywhere, for starters. There are narrow staircases with tiny steps carved into the rock face that COULD be dangerous, but they have chains you can haul yourself up on. The website talks about a path on planks along the side of a cliff. This could be dangerous, but now it is a paid tourist activity that they give you harnesses for. The same is true of the rock ladder to the Playing Chess Pavilion, where at some point an emperor played a chess game on the mountaintop. I sat and played a game on my iPod.

We stayed overnight in a dormitory on the mountain and got up at 3:45 the next morning to walk to the next peak and see the sunrise. When we got there we didn't watch the sun "rise," as much as we watched it wheeze its way upwards through the smog for 30 minutes.

Then we hiked down and parted ways. I went on to Luoyang. One of its attractions is the White Horse Temple, which is where Buddhism arrived in China. For someone that didn't speak Chinese, the most exciting thing for at the temple was the "magical weapons depository." Sadly, it was locked. The city is also famous for the Longmen Buddhist Grottoes, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Caves and nooks were carved into riverside cliffs, and now you can wander past them. One of the statues was giant and you would recognize it if you saw it. Thousands and thousands of caves were carved, but many of the Buddha statues were cut free and stolen by western collectors. Many more were defaced in the Cultural Revolution. Even still, it is an impressive place.

Buying my ticket out of Luoyang was a mess. I got the girl at the hostel to write out the number of the train I wanted and the origin/destination in Chinese, and even had an alternate in case the first was full. I walked there and waited for 15 minutes. When I got to the window, I gave the woman the sheet. After checking the computer she wrote something on the first option, and motioned "no." I tried the second one, she looked at it, looked at the computer again, wrote something else, and again "no." She was through with me. She motioned to the person behind me and I was pushed away.

Back at the hostel, the girl told me that she'd written the first train had no seats, and the second had no direct trains between the two cities. She offered to come with me to help. An hour later we were back at the window. I had prepared four separate trains I wanted, in order of preference, including the two the woman had told me earlier were no good. She asked the woman something. The woman replied, and the girl said to me "there are no trains today because of the flooding." We walked towards the door to leave. "No trains at all? Anywhere?" "No, because of the flooding." I had no idea that there was any flooding at all. "What about tomorrow?" The girl stopped, thought, and we walked back to the window. She talked to the woman for a minute, and we left with the very ticket for that very day that the woman had told me didn't exist because there were no direct trains.

Why she said there were no direct trains when I had the train number AND the destination written in Chinese, I have no idea. And I have no clue whatsoever what happened with the flooding, which wasn't mentioned again. It had been a real enough phenomenon that no trains were leaving Luoyang that day and none of my itineraries were possible, and two minutes later we were buying a ticket for that evening. She didn't bring it up, and I didn't bring it up, but I was 100% confused.

And I understand that there are breakdowns in communication and translation, but just what the dickens could have happened there? There was flooding, and she was leaving. A question about the next day and we're back at the window buying a ticket for the same day, and the whole episode with the flooding may as well never have happened.

The ticket that I ended up getting was a two-parter: overnight to Jiujiang and then 45 minutes to Huangmei. A google search earlier this month turned up the blog of Cynthia and David Trowbridge, who did a Zen-themed trip in China that took them to a lot of places that I wanted to see. I introduced myself via email, and they have been extraordinarily helpful. One of the things they provided me was directions to the Fourth and Fifth Zen Patriarch's temples, which are located in Huangmei. Neither Jiujiang or Huangmei seem to have much tourist infrastructure, and according to Lonely Planet might as well not exist. Their input was therefore all the more helpful.

When I got into Huangmei it was starting to get dark. I showed him the Chinese name of the temple provided by the Trowbridges, and we agreed on a price. He tried to get more out of me at the temple, but I was met right away by a female monk (nun?) who verbally smacked him for me and I got my change.

The Fourth Ancestor's Temple is a working Zen temple in the hills outside Huangmei. The draw for me was to experience some of the life at the temple, even though I am running out of time and could only allow for one night. The dorms and bathroom were the nicest I've had in China, and I had them all to myself.

The girl who met me then took me to the kitchen, where another young male monk made me some noodles. Both appeared to be in their early 20s. They took me to the dining hall and we talked while I ate. She knew more English than he did, but neither knew much, and I know no Chinese, so there was a lot of miscommunication. They were both very good-spirited, though, and there was a lot of laughing.

When I was finished we walked around the temple grounds and they showed me the halls. There were no exterior lights, so all the light came from candles at the shrines and the odd light coming from the living quarters. In front of the statue of the Fourth Ancestor they taught me the correct way to bow to a Buddhist statue. Then we walked out a side door where we met their teacher and his friend, who was singing Beijing Opera. They were standing under an archway, and in the dark light of moon everyone was a silhouette. The two newcomers spoke no English. I counted to ten in Chinese and got laughs at my accent; the teacher counted to ten in English and said "howww do you do-oo." They were all all extremely funny and good-humored.

The five of us stood outside the temple and did our best to talk. It was very dark. Fireflies were blinking between us and in the trees in the nearby woods. Monks were walking home from somewhere and were lighting their way with their cellphones. In the dark beyond the shapes of our bodies was the golden light of the moon, the aleatoric yellow winks of the fireflies, and the blue light of cell phones against a line of orange robes winding their way up the road.

When the night drum and bell ceremony started we went back into the temple and stood between the respective towers to listen. The monks showed me a 1400 year old tree planted by the 4th Ancestor and we stood next to it as the monk in the bell tower tolled the bell and chanted.

Afterwards Ning, the male monk, took me back to my dorm and I showed him some pictures. He gave me a USB drive to give him some American music and some of the pictures I've taken. Ning was a very funny guy. He always has a yo-yo, and is quite good at it. He also collects stamps. I got his address, and he very politely asked if I would send him some American stamps. Certainly.

The next morning I got up at 4:30 to take part in the morning Buddhist ceremony in the Great Hall. There was a lot of chanting and reading from a chant book. Since I don't read a word of Chinese, that meant a lot of standing and a lot of trying not to look like a fool. Everyone was again extremely helpful, however, and even the abbot was helping me know when to bow, when to move, and when to stay put.

After an hour or so of that, we went to the dining hall. They had laid out two bowls for me and a set of chopsticks. We ate in silence, with servers coming around with a variety of delicious food. They are vegetarian, and had boiled tofu in a broth with sugar added to taste, a sort of cold churro-like baked good without any sugar, a noodle-y porridge, a sesame pancake, and a pastry stuffed with something brown, sticky, and delicious. The servers bring hot water to rinse your bowl with when you are finished so that you don't waste anything.

After everyone was done, the monks filed out. It wasn't obvious to me that it was just the monks filing out, however, and at first glance it appeared that everyone was leaving. The kitchen staff stopped me halfway to the door.

You then wash your own dishes and the morning ceremonies are complete. I walked up the hill to the grave of the 4th Ancestor and appreciated the scenery. Back at the temple I was met by a monk who led me to a group of Swedes that had apparently been sleeping in the dorm next to mine. They were dressed like Buddhist monks, and were about to meet the Venerable Master Jing Hui. A Chinese monk I hadn't met invited me to come with them.

We filed into a room. A door opened and out came an elderly monk that seemed to own the adjective "venerable." The Swedish teacher threw himself to the ground to begin the three bows necessary to show respect to a master, but Master Jing Hui stopped him at one. We were led into another room and served green tea that was grown and manufactured by the monks. Master Jing Hui spoke to us through an interpreter. [The interpreter would begin every phrase with "the Master says..." so I am trying to recreate that here.]

After poking around online, I think that this was extraordinarily good luck for me. Master Jing Hui was the Zen heir to Master Empty Cloud, who was the most famous Zen teacher of the 19th and 20th centuries. That makes me wonder if he is like the pope of Zen. I am continuing to investigate. He, too, seemed very good-natured and made many jokes, but I still felt slightly awkward. The Swedes were dressed like monks, and I was wearing wrinkled pants, an un-tucked plaid shirt, and Chacos. Master Jing Hui asked the interpreter where I was from, but did so with a smile.

After the meeting, I went back to the dining hall for the lunch ceremony. The same procedure, but this time with fennel wantons and Chinese gyoza in a vinegar broth, soy beans, red beans, green beans, red peppers, and probably something else that I am forgetting. Again the food was delicious. This time I didn't follow the monks out, but I did walk behind a shrine on my way to the sink that I think I should have backtracked and gone outside to avoid.

I asked the monks how to get to the 5th Ancestor's Temple and then if it was better to take a train or a bus to Hangzhou. They talked amongst themselves and told me to wait a few minutes. I went and packed. They met me in my room and said that Ning would drive me to the 5th Ancestor's Temple and then to Jiujiang and I would take a train from there. It was a 45 minute train ride to Huangmei from Jiujiang, so the car ride we be at least an hour. I politely refused and said that that was too much trouble. They were insistent. I was more insistent. Eventually they told me that Ning would be going into Jiujiang anyways because they need supplies. This gave me pause. I looked at the monk skeptically and he laughed. They promised me that even if I wasn't there, Ning would still be driving to Jiujiang, so it was really no trouble.

Finally they convinced me and we went to the car. It was a minivan, and it was me, Ning, three other monks and a woman. First they drove me to the temple and gave me a tour. Then we drove into Huangmei and stopped at a post office where Ning picked up a small package. It was full of stamps. Then he helped me buy my train ticket and we drove to Jiujiang.

First we stopped at an alley of fruit wholesalers. We spent maybe five minutes there, and didn't buy anything. Then the van full of monks drove me to a McDonald's-WalMart combo where Ning got some deli food and we got ice cream. Then they dropped me off at the train station. Ning said they were going back to the temple. If that was true, then they did no shopping aside from possibly ordering some fruit to be delivered. So it may have all been a ruse for my benefit. But then why did they bring so many monks, and why the woman? Whatever the reason, they were all nice enough to wait as I saw the temple and nice enough to drive me to Jiujiang.

To top it all off, they wouldn't let me pay for the room or for the food. They even gave me two bags of the monk-made green tea and a prayer bracelet as parting gifts before I left the temple. All they asked was that I tell people about them. Ning also asked for me to send him an American souvenir with his stamps, which I will certainly do.

So now I have three nights in Hangzhou. A contact the Trowbridges gave me put me in touch with Bill Porter, the given name of the well-known translator Red Pine. He gave me information on how to get to the poet Cold Mountain's cave, as well as to the poet Stonehouse's hut. Both are somewhat daunting on my own with zero Chinese, but will be extremely rewarding if successful. The next two days will be day trips, then a day or two in Shanghai, and then a few days in Beijing, and then back to the good old US of A.

Speaking of which, on China time I have to get up at 2:30 to watch the game tonight. I hope they win.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Great Firewall of China


The Chinese government has an iron grip on information control in the country. For some reason they deem both Facebook and my blog as potential security risks. Not a football blog called "freedomblogging," however, which kind of makes you hate their system all the more for its illogicality.

Thankfully, I have found a program called "Freegate," which gets you around government blocking. And guess who developed it--the US government! God bless America. Seriously, that is so awesome.

Government censorship aside, China is an awesome country. I've been here for about a week, I think, and am currently in Chengdu. It is the capital of Sichuan Province, and I've had some delicious spicy food.

So, a week-ish (or whatever it's been) ago, I crossed into China from Hanoi. Catching the bus in Vietnam was a classic Vietnam experience, with a rigged-meter-taxi disguised to look like a reliable taxi picking me up for the bus station. The joke was on him, however, because I was only going two minutes away and he barely got anything extra.

The bus "station" was a line of parked buses next to the freeway. Only one had any people in it. I walked up to it and tried to see if there was any way to tell where it was going. There wasn't. The driver and the passengers were staring at me as I walked around the bus looking for signs. When I gave it up as hopeless and approached them to ask, they took my backpack and shoved it under the bus without even looking at my ticket. Not a single person on the bus spoke English. I asked every single person "Nanning?" which is where I was headed, and none of them would look at me or reply. I even got out a map and pointed and said "Nanning?" and got a couple of ever-so-slight nods, but nothing else. What the hell, I decided, and sat down.

Rather than retype a big long message, I'm going to copy part from an email I sent. This explains how nice the people have been since I've been here:

The people here are the nicest I've met anywhere, hands down. I first experienced this on the bus. There were two Chinese men on that barely spoke English, but we managed to communicate that I was trying to catch a train from Nanning to Kunming. They got out their phones and laptops (equipped with edge or 3G) to book me my train ticket onwards. It was full, so they got me one for the next day. When we got to Nanning they took me to an army hotel to stay with them for the night. We went out to dinner so I could try Chinese food, and they bought six courses: soup, veggies, beef, omelette, snails, and fish. The next day they took me around the city, to find medicine for my runny nose, and then to the train station, where they came in with me and waited until the train boarded. The only thing they let me pay for was the train ticket and the medicine. They paid for buses around the city, food, hotel, absolutely refusing to accept any money from me. Wow.

On the train I met a family with one high school girl that spoke English who was translating. Everyone had kind of been eying me and some had been smiling and I'd been enjoying it. As soon as they had a link via the English-speaker they all crowded around and asked me questions. A few stayed back, possibly because they thought all the attention I was getting was rude. They wanted to see pictures of where I had been, but all I had was the pictures I'd brought from home. As soon as those came out EVERYONE, even the stalwart stragglers, jumped up and crowded around to be part of the circuit as the pictures got passed around.

The first person to initiate contact with me had been a Chinese man, and he had called over his niece, who was the one that spoke English. He kept saying how much he liked me, how I had a good laugh and a good smile, and said something at length to the girl. She said he wanted her to come with me to Lijiang and be my guide, but she was sorry, she was waiting to get test results back to see if she could go to a good university, and couldn't guide me. Lijiang was two days travel away, and she seemed genuinely sorry she couldn't come. She wanted to go to a university near the "sea," because she'd never seen it. "Is it true that it is blue?" I had a picture of Puget Sound, and she was thrilled. When she was getting off, at the last second she guiltily asked if she could keep the picture of the sea, and couldn't believe it when I said of course.

She had also never spoken English to an English speaker before; she had taught herself from books. Her pronunciation was good and her command of tense and vocabulary was excellent. I couldn't believe it.

The uncle wanted me to get off the train with them at their stop and come to try their food and to drink with him. After he saw a picture of my dad with a salmon, the deal was sealed in his mind--he loved fishing as well.

If I'd had more time, I would have, but I didn't leave myself enough time and just couldn't do it. They were understanding, gave me a bag of favors from the wedding they had come from, flashed me smiles and said good bye.

Getting in to Lijiang, a group of Chinese students asked me (with about 20 English words) where I was going. I showed them the address and asked if they would call for me, which is what the hostel said to do. Call, and they come pick me up. They had me get in a cab with them, wouldn't let me pay for it, looked for my hotel, couldn't find it, called, and waited with me until the hostel staff came.

All this has been in less than three days in China! Unbelievable. Even if everyone else in the country tries to stab me, these have been standout kindnesses out of the seven months.

--End of quote.

Remarkable? I'd say yes.

Lijiang is famous for an old town that is a maze of cobblestone streets. They built it so that a creek/river enters the old town and is split up into little streams that run down all the streets. I have some pictures that will do it more justice, but I can't post them right now because of a slow connection.

A little town called Baisha is an hour's bike ride from Lijiang. It is known for being home to a famous herbalist named Dr. Ho. I went to see him, and he spent 30 minutes serving tea and regaling me with stories about himself. He had ziplock after ziplock full of clippings, business cards, files from the Mayo clinic proclaiming the validity of his herbal remedies, on and on. Then he gave me a small packet of tea and asked for a donation to support his work. I only had a 100 yuan note and three 10s, so I gave him 30. I think it offended him, because he wouldn't look me in the eyes again and showed me out of his shop. It seemed reasonable to me, but I guess not to Dr. Ho.

A windy, bumpy two hour drive from Lijiang is the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge. Hiking it is a two day affair. There are guest houses along the way. The one I stayed at was surprisingly nice. The toilets were the typical Asian-style squat toilets, but they were on a raised deck with stalls that had one side open to the gorge. Easily the best toilet view I've seen or heard of.

I was sleeping in a dorm. From my porch (as well as the bathrooms) you could look across at a rock that was almost sheer. It plunges straight down to disappear out of view, blocked by the foliage on your side of the gorge. Following the rock face up, the trees begin to disappear as you reach the tree line. Then the rock is mottled gray, cut by dry white rivulets and punctuated by patches of sun breaking through the clouds that shroud the uppermost peaks of the jagged mountains. All while you're taking a squat.

From Lijiang I took a 24 hour sleeping bus to Chengdu. In this case, sleeping bus meant all bunks, no seats. I got to the station a little late, and most people were already aboard when I clambered on to look for my bed. Most of the bunks were individual, but a select few were one big mattress that three people fit onto. Mine was one of these. Chinese culture is very conservative about mingling of the sexes. They even think it's a little scandalous for men and women to be in the same dorm room. It was thus an extremely awkward moment when I climbed up to my bunk and found that I was crammed next to a Chinese woman and her late-teens daughter. She had been talking and laughing with her mom, but stopped the instant she saw me pointing to the bunk and asking the driver "that one?!" I've never seen a face look as disappointed as hers did. I had to climb over her and her mother to get to my spot by the window. My space was so narrow that even crammed against the window my shoulder was encroaching on her space. The carefree laughter that had so recently been pouring out of her was long gone, replaced with what you might expect if I had just killed her pet hamster. She unfolded her comforter, pulled it up to her eyes, glared at me for a second, rolled over and went to sleep. It was 1pm.

Tonight I'm catching a train to Xi'an. There I'm going to see the terracotta warriors and hopefully do a hike on Mt Huashan. Nothing else that I can think of... Off to the shower and then to the train station.

Ah! One more thing. The signs here have been the funniest so far. The post office in Lijiang called itself the "Postcard Monopolist." Signs around the city said "Behave in your outing, also, shopping should be rational." In the city today a sign on a construction site said "SAFETY HELMET MUST BE WURN NTTH N SITE BOVNDARY" (sic a lot).

Alrighty. That's it. More to follow. I don't have time to proofread this, so if you notice anything glaring that isn't taken from an English language Chinese sign, don't judge.

Monday, June 7, 2010

On To China

I'm in Hanoi, have fallen slightly behind on posting. I'm leaving this morning for Nanning, China. I've heard that very few people speak English in China, so I am planning on it being a test of my new-earned traveling skills.

The other day I went to a snake restaurant, where I pulled the beating heart from a snake and ate it. I had expected something pretty hardcore at a snake restaurant, but not quite THAT hardcore. I got some pictures, but the guy running my camera wasn't as on top of it as I would have liked.

More soon. I think I'm looking at 24-36 hours of traveling in China, assuming that I can get my connections immediately, which I probably won't. So it might be a few days before I make it to Lijiang and Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is where I'm headed.