Sunday, April 16, 2017

A Try Up the Rickety Structure

Back in from the provinces.  I believe everyone woke up this morning feeling rather sore.  My thighs, particularly the front side of my upper legs, feel like granite.  I need to convince myself to head up stairs, plodding step by step.  But it's a good sort of soreness.  The “leg machines” at the gym don’t ever seem to leave you feeling the way you do after you’ve climbed a mountain. 

I’d been worried that we wouldn’t have what it takes at the end of the day to then climb up to the Hanging Monastery after mounting Heng Shan.  Personally speaking I was worried that my left foot might give out.  It’s a modest climb compared to the effort to top the mountain, and after a bit of persuading I’d managed to talk the two girls into giving it a try up the rickety structure.

Daoists or Buddhists or Christians for that matter all to build temples in remote areas, I suppose in order primarily to simply get away from it all.  If you’re up on the face of a cliff, it’s a lot less likely that someone will come to visit you and disturb you in your meditations.  But clearly you’re not well defended.  If someone wanted to bring the Hanging Monastery down, I would think they could lasso a pole or two and do their worst.   And its position up there almost begs for defiant interference.

Perhaps, like a flying buttress, this has more to do with achieving something remarkable in God’s name rather than building a cathedral that could accommodate more Parisians.  The Hanging Monastery is a testimony to what faithful people could achieve and their desire to have the quality of their faith acknowledged by others as much as by God. 

I finished my salad lunch just now and I was reading a remarkable passage in Jane Goodall’s “In the Shadow of Man.”  Just now, a rising power in the book, the chimpanzee Mike, has used “technology” and innovation to assert dominance within the tribe.   He grabbed two empty kerosene containers and began to shake them and slam them to get the others to acknowledge that he would now like to run things.  After some showmanship, he gets his way.  Obviously kerosene cans were a human introduction and were otherwise not part of the local environment.  Mike was smart enough to use them, but it would take many chimp generations before one knew how to make them.  But it reminded me of some sort of battle of the bands when one group has bigger amplifiers than the other or when some nation produces a technological advancement over another and solidifies its dominance.   

Sunday 04/16/17

Saturday, April 15, 2017

To A Quiet Bluff

Riding back home now.  The map suggests we just passed into Hebei Province from Shanxi.  We’ve been traveling now for some time at dusk along a broad plane with a three thousand foot hard scrabble mountain range on either side.  Every where are cherry trees with blossoms.  It’s almost hackneyed how many of these small trees are in bloom with pink flowers.  It’s been a theme all day.  Were they planted, are they indigenous?

For the second birthday period in a row we have climbed up and down one of the five sacred Daoist mountains: the Wu Yue.  Last year we got everyone together an climbed Mount Tai.   That was hard earned.  I think I’m in better shape this year, and even though Mount Heng (properly pronounced in the same fashion someone might suggest another is "hung" like a horse.) in Shanxi, the northern mountain god, Bei Yue, is taller, this climb was undoubtedly more gentle than Mount Tai.  Still to come are Mount Song, the middle mountain in Hennan, Mount Hua, the western mountain in Shaanxi and the other Mount Heng in Hunan, outside of Changsha which is the Southern mountain god.  I kept thinking of Strawberry Field as one does, affirming its all “nothing to get hung about.”

Last year we woke in the hotel and looked out to see an overcast sky.  This year we had a sunny April day, but my younger daughter had not slept well, saddled with a case of the runs. She had, in fact, come home early from school the day before, as she’d felt sick.  It was clear she wasn’t comfortable in the morning but she rallied and decided to pass on the offer to sit it out or ride the gondola and joined us for the journey to the peak.

The town of Hunyuan is certainly a rather basic county level seat.  We stayed at the "Heng Shan International Hotel," and  I labored to understand what it was that made it international.  The staff was rough and young and clearly used to providing the lowest possible amount of effort, with minimal supervision, as there wasn’t any competition.  We got in late and nothing was open.  We attempted to find a place that had “local food” and then opted for some random chain-store hot-pot place.   Back at the International the executive suite room I splurged for at $40.00 per night, was ill kept, with coal stains visible on the ceiling from the air vent and condoms with passionate western faces on them, available in the bathroom.  The floor of the shower had the same coal stains as the ceiling.  They’d become part of the tile and no amount of soap or water was going to remove them.  I asked my wife what the stereotypes about people from Shanxi were?  Everyone had stereotypes about the Henan people and the Shanghai people.  What about folks from Shanxi?  All she could say was "coal." Late she mentioned that two people dining next to us at the place who looked typically “Chinese” to me, looked typically “Shanxi” to her.  I considered this.

And we spent time comparing to the obvious benchmark for us, which is the Tycoon hotel in the county of WuDi where my wife hails from.  It is similarly simple with a "Service?  What do you mean service" approach to service. The breakfasts are bad but perhaps not as bad.  The service is rather bad but again, perhaps not as bad.  Outside the fifth floor window lay rows and rows of simple tiled buildings.  I considered how the residents must all necessarily look up at this silly hotel.

But we came to climb the mountain and this, certainly, was wonderful to do so. The path starts out gently.  We proceeded up from the parking lot along a gradual incline.  Aside from some pines and the ubiquitous cherry trees, the landscape was stark, rocky and not especially inviting to plant life.  Proceeding along we came to some cliffside temple constructions.  Before you can reach them there is a final dash of one hundred impossibly steep stairs with no banisters that suddenly reminds me of Taishan.  I had a nice chat with the monk inside the God of the Northern Mountain temple.  He asked how long I'd been in China.  I told him since before he'd been born.  He wasn't a venerable monk.  I wondered about what, precisely a Daoist does up here on the mountain besides temple upkeep and prayer. “You've only thirty minutes to go” he said.  I’d thought we had quite a bit longer remaining.  After a wrong turn up to a steep dead end we plodded along until reaching a pagoda which, as they always do, seemed to be the summit.  But another straight dash up the mountain to the summit still remained.  No trees, no vegetation, just a rocky pathway with steps riding up to the peak. 

My older one reminded me of me.  “I want to keep my pace” and she kept going on up the trail.  I badly wanted to follow.  But thought it was best for me to wait for the wife and the younger one to reach the pagoda.  They did and had the same disappointment as everyone else when they looked upward.  Once we made eye contact,  I continued on the path upwards to the peak  And then gasping for air, receiving a welcome from my daughter I mounted the top and gazed off at the valley we had recently driven through, flat, grey, cultivated.  Counterintuitively I walked down away from the peak to a quiet bluff one hundred years down in the other direction.  I enjoyed the rare Chinese privilege there, of silence.  There were no other people who had made it down this way.  I listened to some mountain birds and though for a moment about what it meant to be fifty-one, until I heard my wife calling my name from the summit.

Saturday, 4/15/17

This Year, The "Northern" Mountain

I’m in the middle of Shanxi.  That’s a mountain and a west, characteristically speaking.  We’re heading to the holy mountain of Heng Shan.  That’s 恒山 not 衡山。 Last year I was turning fifty and I grabbed upon the idea of climbing Tai Shan in my wife’s home province, Shandong.  It is the eastern representative of the Wu Yue 五岳, the sacred Daoist mountains.  This year I managed to somehow talk everyone into cultivating a fledgling tradition to go climb a second of the mountains, this year, the “northern” mountain. 

I have visited the base of this mountain some fourteen years ago, driving up at dusk to the Hanging Monastery that clung to the cliff face impossibly as the sun went down.  We’d driven up with only the intention of catching a glimpse.  Usually one doesn’t get a chance to return to sites that merit a second visit.  This time I may. 

It is so great to get up and out of Beijing.  I wanted to leave the city right after the girls got out of school.  It was a fine goal but we didn’t have gas and commence to mount the highway till well after 5:00PM. We traced the familiar route up to the heavily touristed Badaling section of the Great Wall, and then, as the sun set itself down behind the mountains, we were off and over into Hebei, riding roads that were new for us all.  Off in the distance were dramatic rugged peaks with a new spring fuzz of then green to soften them. 

We’re set to arrive about 10:30PM.  Who knows what there will be to eat.  Who knows if the small town hotel will be meet the standards of my three-lady team.  Who knows if tomorrow it will suddenly rain and mean we have to go scurrying for ponchos like last year.  But the climb of Hengshan is apparently the most modest of the five and with any luck I’ll be able to tell you what the view from the top is like, by this time tomorrow. 

I tell my kids, who loved Greece that Shanxi is the Greece of China.  I’m not sure I convinced them.  May we all be fortunate enough to mount our third peak next year.

Friday, 04/14/17

American Egg-smashing Ritual

With the luxury and the burden of working from a home office, I plan my trips into the city judiciously.  I knew I’d have one meeting in town today so I planned two others around it.  This was going to be a smashing success until my wife reminded me that I’d promised to speak to her class right in the middle of these scheduled meetings.  I’ve been told by a regular reader that traffic reports are not especially good copy, so I’ll spare you detail on the trip in the trip out the trip back in and the trip back out.  They all occurred. 

When I came back out the first time, my wife wanted me to speak to a group of eight year-olds about Easter.  No.  I wasn’t on the hook for reckoning with the mysteries of Resurrection.  Rather I was supposed to talk about what bunnies and candy were like for me as a kid in the U.S.  I told them the story my father has always told me, which seemed wonderful, if a bit fantastic, as a kid.  According to the old man, the crew in New Rochelle would assemble and then carefully manage a pillowcase or two’s worth of candy from Halloween, until, with only a Mary Jane or two left, they would arrive at Easter, when they would be once again replenished by the magic hasenpfeffer.  My own efforts to save Halloween candy never made it past November, as I recall, but it’s a nice story, all the same.  Prudence and self-denial: good Christian values.

I had no intention of considering it again, but my wife reminded me that, on a whim, as I recall, I had taken the kids out to the back wall of her compound, and instructed them all to throw their hard boiled, painted Easter eggs against the wall.  I’d run out of things to say about bunnies and this was high-tone.  The kids absolutely loved it.  Now, a year on, I felt a bit like Elder Cunningham in “Book of Mormon” asked to recount the detail and lead the ceremony of the “traditional” American egg-smashing ritual.  

This year, as I went through my discussion, one child and then another made it clear that they most assuredly expected we were going to smash eggs this year.  “Really?  OK.  Right.  Egg-smashing.  Of course.  We’ll get to that.”  They gathered up their eggs and I suggested I wanted to first check the smashing wall.  I suspected, correctly, that the area we smashed eggs at last time was no longer uninhabited.  Indeed, whereas last time the wall was abandoned, there was now someone getting a massage behind a window on the wall we’d last year done our damage. 

“OK.  Follow me.”  This barricade to the construction site will do.  I told them to try to hit a character in the center of an old sign on the wall.  Who ever hits it is the “winner.”  The first child tossed his egg and I quickly discerned that the eggs they painted this year had not been boiled first.   “No, that’s OK.  We’ll clean it up later.”

Thursday, 04/14/17