Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tour Bus to Heaven: Monks and Monkeys

This last week was the Mid-Autumn Festival, and we got some time off from school (although we have to make up for it on the weekend, which is weird) so my classmate Kiana and I decided to go to E’Mei Shan, the highest of the four Buddhist holy mountains of China (3,099 meters or 10,167 feet if you're American), and home to around 30 temples, all dedicated to the bodhisattva Samantabhadra (in Chinese: Puxian) who got around the eastern world in style, by flying on the back of a white elephant.
As a tourist destination, E’Mei Shan tries to be all things to all people.  It’s renowned for the  martial arts practiced by masters and monks, and it's the namesake of the proto-feminist E’mei sect in Wuxia fiction. It was the site of the first Buddhist temple in China--built in the 1st century CE--but most of the original temples and religious structures have been rebuilt following some catastrophe or another.  There are about 50 kilometers of “trails” that run roughly circular around the mountain.  I’m scare-quoting “trails” because the paths here are not maintained dirt routes running through a wilderness, in the American hiking/backpacking cultural sense of the word; they’re stone walking paths, and lots and lots and lots and lots of stairs.  (I think I climbed/descended the equivalent of Queen Anne Hill 800,000 times.)
Kiana: Wushu victim

Hold me back!
At the bottom of the mountain there are resort-y things to do--fancy teahouses and hot springs that look like water parks, and even an obstacle course where you can play soldier for an hour.  For the lazy, elderly, time-constricted and infirm, there’s a bus that goes within 6km of the top of the mountain, and from there you can climb the rest of the way to the “Golden Summit”(2 hours)  or take a 65 kuai cable car (5 minutes).  There’s a small ski resort up there too, as well as numerous tchotchke stands with truly tacky items for sale (plastic prayer beads anyone?) and for the kids there are…monkeys!
Fake-ass butterfly tchotchke
The mountain is home to ruthlessly clever Tibetan macaques, who rob all the tourists.  Everywhere I saw monkeys, I also saw a ton of trash.  Most of it was from tourists who had their goods stolen and rifled through, and discarded by the monkeys, or from tourists who just threw their food to the monkeys for fun, or out of fear. (They were amply warned beforehand about the monkey "problem" by extensive signage and verbal admonishment, so they have only themselves to blame if they suffer the loss of their overpriced souvenirs and/or get monkey herpes).  Kiana and I saw a monkey leap on top of a guy and climb all over him aggressively until he yielded his bag of food.  Kind of depressing actually.*  I also saw a monkey drinking a can of Red Bull.  The monkeys left me alone since I was empty-handed, and maybe also because I was born in the Year of the Monkey, making me the wily and brilliant Monkey Queen who can control the macaque with her mind.
They do look like Ewoks.
Non-handsome trash-pickers
Bottled water: modern scourge

Kiana and I started our trip by taking the bus up to the highest accessible point by road, and stayed in a hotel under the cable car station.  We asked for the cheapest room, which turned out to be accessible only from the outside of the building, inside the basement where one of the hotel guards lived (a man’s home is where he hangs his socks to dry).

We got up at three in the morning to climb to the summit, called Jinding Peak, to see the sunrise.  This is the biggest tourist draw on the mountain, and we were surprised to see no other people on the trail.  (Kiana later said, bitterly, “I guess they knew something we didn’t.”)  It was cold and rainy, the air was thin, the trail was steep, with only my headlamp to guide us…we suffered, but we persevered! Kind of!
小红鬼 at one of the temples along the way
At the top of the mountain, the trail opened up into a wide expanse of steps, and it was very very dark and foggy.  There were elephant statues everywhere I shone my light, and somewhere looming over us was an enormous golden statue of multi-faced, multi-elephant-riding Samantabhadra.  And it was spooky.  At the base of this statue we saw a light from a door, and we wandered over to it like refugee children in a fairy tale, cold and tired.  We went inside a small anteroom connected to an even smaller office, and sat down to warm up.  Soon a groundskeeper came back to the room, and very kindly invited us to sit in the office with him beside a plug-in heater.  We did.  He listened to a radio broadcast of the morning prayers, and then said his own prayers out loud, and then we all fell asleep in our chairs for about half an hour.  About 15 minutes to 6:00 he said “time to eat!” and walked out of the office.  We followed him across the plaza to a monastery building where the monks were finishing up a chanting/drum thing.  We lingered a little longer then decided to look around outside.  Everything was covered in a haze, there was no sunrise to see, but it was beautiful nevertheless.  In the morning light the elephant statues looked less sinister.

Samantabhadra and the Little Red Ghost

The first tourists started streaming up from the cable car station as we were leaving, and I could tell that the place was going to turn into a madhouse in half an hour or so.  We returned to the bus station, and Kiana and I parted; she decided to return to the hot springs at bottom of the mountain, and I decided to endure the weather and walk down the mountain.  I wanted to see the “nature” part of E'Mei Shan.

Immediately after leaving the bus stop the trail turned quiet and scenic.  I saw only a handful of people on the way to the monastery where I planned to spend the night--the Elephant Washing Pool monastery. (Once, a zillion years ago, Samantabhadra flew in here on his white elephant for a quick rest and wash, not unlike a Flying J Travel Plaza.)  This monastery is in a great location, as you can see in the picture, but the rusted metal roof sure makes it look “rustic” (a less generous person might say “janky”).  Lots of monkeys.  I saw a monk take a running swipe at a macaque.
Elephant Washing Pool

Tin roof, rusted!
I read for several hours in a small restaurant beside the temple and then another hour while sitting on a hard bench inside one of the inner courtyards of the monastery. (the book I brought: Portrait of a Lady, which I described to the restaurant’s laoban as 一点没有意思, seriously James, frequent paragraph breaks let your reader know you care.)

I watched the monks and nuns walk around (one nun was wearing very stylish knee-high blue wool socks and a cape, natch).  The toilet room had one of those really scenic views that BW** and I have noticed all over the backwoods Cascades and beyond, I regret not taking a picture, but I didn’t want to be another western-blogger-complaining-about-Chinese-toilets, since that ground is pretty well worn.

That night I had a six-bed dorm room to myself, and there were a number of other Chinese tourists staying at the monastery too.  The monks did a nighttime chant/prayer, and I wondered if it was distracting to them to have all those tourists wandering around the monastery, talking on their cell phones and chatting.  It’s strange that a place built to be a remote spiritual retreat (is that the purpose of mountaintop monasteries?) is a tourist destination.  For many—maybe most— of the tourists, the Buddhism is a big draw, and the trip is something of a religious journey.  But the tourists also bring their (predominantly) middle-class, secular, worldliness with them, and I wonder how this effects the day-to-day life of the monks and nuns who live in the monasteries.  Perhaps they polish up their tarnished hearts during the off-season.
My bed
Best thing ever: waking up in a monastery.  It smells like incense and damp stone (the mountain is pretty much located inside a cloud).  The bed had a heated mattress pad and a very heavy blanket, quite warm.  At 5:30 a monk with a beautiful voice started chanting, and I lay there for half an hour listening to the music and the sounds of the forests and the scuffling around of the waking-up hikers.  I left about 20 minutes later, and continued walking down the trail in the dark grey-blue morning light.
Before I left the monastery though, something confusing happened.  I was walking through a courtyard when one of the monks pointed me towards the dining room where they were serving everyone breakfast.  I kind of wanted to walk for a few hours before eating, but I thought maybe it was a free breakfast, so why not?  The dining room was chaotic, I couldn’t get a sense of the procedure, so I grabbed a bowl off the table and took it to get some porridge.  One of the servers told me not to use the table bowls, (they were kind of fancy) but rather to use the cheap bowls in the cabinet.  I thought that maybe the fancy bowls were for the monks.  I apologized and took a cheap bowl, filled it with porridge and put it on the table and noticed that the fancy bowls were not being used by the monks, they were for some other variety of Chinese tourist.  I went to get a spoon from the servers, and they said no, to give them 8 kuai, so I took out 10 kuai and tried to give it to them, but they ignored me.  I was tired of trying to figure out the situation, so I left to go be on my own again on the trail.  What does it all mean?  I have to say though, I love porridge with pickled vegetables.  (“I’mma let you finish baozi, but I just gotta say, porridge with pickled vegetables is the best Chinese breakfast of all time!!!”)
That day on the trail was one of the best days of my life.  I walked along through beautiful mountain scenery, stopping in several small outdoor restaurants to drink tea and eat fresh fried bread.  Every 4 kilometers or so there was a small temple with a few buildings around it, built to suit the landscape.  

At one point I was sure I saw a fox (which has long been one of my favorite animals because of The Little Prince).  But it turned out to be a large orange cat.  The cat stopped and meowed at me, walked a little ways down the path and waited for me to follow.  It did this all the way down to the next little temple along the path, and once there, it ran off down a rock-lined trail towards an outhouse and disappeared.  At this point a monk in orange robes appeared from behind the temple (I’m not saying he’s a magical monk that can transform into a cat, I’m just telling you what happened) and headed down the trail in the same direction as me.  For the rest of the day we were walking in tandem, sometimes he walked ahead of me on the trail, then he would stop to sing a song to the scenery, and then I would move ahead, and he would follow.

Orange Cat Temple

The Buddhist fairy tale I had been living in since leaving the bus stop started to fade the closer I got to my destination at Wannian monastery, a popular tourist spot accessible by cable car from a bus stop.  I was a little stunned to be back around so many people, and even more knocked out of my shell by a large group of tourists that asked me to be in like, 800 photographs with them.  (“But I haven’t showered in three days!” “No problem, you are beautiful, SMILE!”) After looking around for a while, I escaped into a cable car, which was a lot more fun and less tacky than I thought it would be.  Best form of automated transportation:  floating glass pod

This elephant butt is 1030 years old.  That's actually not an exaggeration.
Path to Wannian

Some flora and fauna:

Blue Punkapillar!
Banana Slug is my favorite slug, but this is my second favorite slug.
It wouldn't be paradise without one of these.
Turtles and money, at Wannian monastery

*This reminded me, in a tangential way, of the scene in the movie Into the Wild when Chris McCandless leaves the wilderness and goes to LA, and all of a sudden his free-spirited existence in the wild spaces of the world turns into what looks like, you know, dirty homelessness.  Context means so much, in our perception of wild animals.
**Bruce Wayne, millionaire playboy

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