Bopping with Niall JP O'Leary

Niall O'Leary insists on sharing his hare-brained notions and hysterical emotions. Personal obsessions with cinema, literature, food and alcohol feature regularly.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

All Buddhas, Great and Small...and Sweaty

I haven't exactly being doing China justice with this blog. Having said that we are travelling like crazy, and what sights we see are big enough to take up a lot of time. Some reminiscences then:

In case I didn't say it before, Beijing is almost more West than the West. Fashion labels litter the main shopping streets, and we are not talking fakes here. It was as close to one vast temple in honour of consumerism as I have ever encountered.

After Tianamen Square and the Forbidden City (the latter sadly marred by an occasional - large - renovation canvas), we went to a workshop kind of like the charity cafes I visited in Cambodia etc.. This was a small cafe and workshop for mentally challenged Chinese. Teaching them some of the basic lifeskills they might not get in state institutions, it also gets some of its interest from (Intrepid) tourists, cooking a nice dumpling lunch and then putting on a show. I felt uneasy. This reeked just a little bit of the old English habit of going to the asylum for entertainment. However, the show put on by the pupils was obviously a great source of joy to them and, funnily enough, they did entertain, and for all the right reasons. One very serious accordionist gave a very credible rendition of a Khatchaturian ballet piece. Later they showed us how to do a little calligraphy. I am proud to say I wasn't too bad for my first go.

Xi'an, again, was wonderful. Our first night there we went to a huge plaza. Up the middle of this plaza was a tiered set of squares, each sown with fountain after fountain, and each fountain flush with the ground and turned off by day. Naturally this was to allow a wonderful water and light show at night, a rival (though an unsuccessful one, in my eyes) to Barcelona's Montjunc. Our restaurant was right beside it the plaza. We tend to order banquets for dinner, everybody sharing and all paying an equal portion of the bill by the end, in true communistic spirit (well, someone has to; the Chinese don't). Just as we ended our feast, the show began. It was a lazy amble out to a nice seat by the water. At one point Deborah and Chin Chin (Rachael's Chinese name), following the lead of some of the locals, went ambling among the water. Deborah slipped and got a tad wet. Still I ducked a few fountains myself. It was when we got back to the hotel that Chin Chin and I went to the hostel.

As one of China's oldest and longest running capitals, Xi'an is a big place, encircled by a huge wall. We hired bikes and cycled the wall, all 14 km of it. Andy and Jane, seeing the romance of the occasion, hired a tandem, and for a while it seemed like a good idea. They powered along with their four-leg powered chain. Unfortunately that chain soon broke down, and then again, and again, and again. eventually they were stranded and a rescue tandem had to be sent out. A good way to see the success and decay of the city though. I remember vividly a busy junction with a traffic cop on an island at the North Wall, a fluid, active place, while by the West Wall around fifty old people huddled around some ruined houses at a kind of makeshift market.

The main street of Xi'an is South Street and our hotel was just off it. With its huge KFC signs (isn't there something absurd about Colonel Sanders, or whatever his name is, grinning inanely down on a huge Chinese thoroughfare?) and impressive width I was crazily reminded of Dublin's O'Connell Street (it's a hell of a lot more impressive than that homely alley though). Neon signs were a fixture everywhere in that city, as indeed every Chinese city we have encountered, but Xi'an an a large number of giant video screens too. With the obvious orientalism of the place, and this constant barrage of light, Xi'an by night was like nothing less than the LA of 'Bladerunner'. What had been given as an image of the future has become the present of urban China.

Chengdu: our first stop in Chengdu was a visit to the giant pandas at a research facility dedicated to their preservation. Give them a few bamboo shoots and they'll sell their souls to the camera, which they did. They are remarkably photogenic. This is especially true of the infant pandas, who roll around with footballs, wrestle each other, climb ropes etc., etc.. Whether they are chewing, playing or crapping, you cannot but ooh and ahh. I sought in vain for their presence on a menu.

After the pandas we had a "I can't believe it's not meat" vegetarian meal in a monastery. The ersatz beef tasted like beef, the fake chicken tasted like chicken, the false tofu, er, tasted like tofu. Actually it was all tofu, and though I won't be giving up my t-bone quite yet, it was a credit to them what they could do with non-meat stuff.

I joined Pat, Jill and Barbara on a trip to 'Computer City' on 'Computer Street' then. There are quite a lot of Computer Cities on more than one Computer Street in Chengdu, but our one did the job. Despite looking like something from a Christmas cracker, I managed to get a 1 G MP3 player for 200 Yuan (20 euro). Also a text reader, voice recorder, a telephone book, I later thought I'd really gotten what I'd paid for when the voices on my songs started to warble. A small twist of the headphones and all was well though. The crackerjack prize is a real winner. I might have gotten more than I bargained for though. The sales guy, with minimal English, said he wanted to be my friend to improve his English and insisted on getting an email address. Given that having English might possibly boost your income (education is very controlled here), this is not as creepy as it sounds.

In Beijing, I had gone to the opera, and thoroughly enjoyed the catwailing of it all (the stories were great). Chengdu Opera is regarded as a little less high-brow and a little more 'flamboyant'. One way or the other we went along to a variety style night that night. Our initial impression was one of disappointment as the front row seats with tea and biscuits (something we had gotten in Beijing) was not on the programme this night. In fact we had back of the hall seats. However, once the curtain went up and the pretty compere came out, we forgave them a lot. For one, they had a backdrop, and something approaching an orchestra (as opposed to the Beijing quartet). Then we had foot jugglers, a 'comedy' (very S and M), hand shadows, stick puppets, a Richard Clayderman-esque two-string erhu player (playing a rock version of Sarasate's Gypsy Themes), fire-breathers and, a local speciality, face-changers. Before our very eyes the masks of the performers would suddenly change. I figured there was some contraption in their hats that slid them up and down, but it was very impressive. Yes, the catwailing worked again!

When we got back to the hotel, Haika, Chin Chin, Daniel and I headed off in search of food, venturing into a local shopping area. With the old style woodwork, red lanterns and buzz, it was a pleasant stroll, but Chin Chin saw some jewellry, the stalls were closing, and in the end a lukewarm beef mess in a banana leaf was all I got to eat.

We were to go by bus to our next destination the next morning, but as we awaited everyone in the hotel lobby, I decided I needed toothpaste. Our hotel faced a supermarket, so by running I could easily make my purchase and get back in time. So I ran. And so I fell, right in front of four very amused old Chinese. I did a 'Ta-da' pose when I got up, but I still looked stupid.

We had three days to spend in two monasteries, but to get us in the religious frame of mind we stopped by the Giant Buddha of Leshan. At 71 metres (and that's sitting), he has never been in danger of being called short. First to take the sight in, we got on a ferry and sailed down the river that runs by him. Fair enough. Back for lunch (another wonderful banquet), then into the park to see the big guy, indeed to climb down the stairs beside him. Fair enough. (The painted face actually reminds me of an old college friend of mine). By this stage, most of our four hour stopover was used up. We had one hour left. As a by the way, Nigel mentioned the 'Buddha Park', a park with thousands of sculptures depicting the many and varied ways in which the Buddha is depicted. I'll give that ago, I thought, but was the only one to think so. heading off I climbed the omnipresent stairs up and down into the Buddha park. I regretted all the time spent with the Big Guy. This was far more impressive and ironically enough features a Buddha even bigger, a lot bigger. So big in fact that the Buddha has to recline, all 170 metres of him! And there were other big Buddhas, and small Buddhas, and a cave of Ten Thousand Buddhas, a many armed Buddha, an Indian Buddha with some very fetching dancers, some female Buddhas, some wise Buddhas, some fat Buddhas, in fact quite a lot of Buddhas. One very big Buddha graced the top of a very big stairway (two icons of China together at last!). With fifteen minutes to rejoin the others I scaled this stairway (resolutely not looking down) and ran, ran, ran as fast as my little heart would let me. When I finally got back to the bus, only 5 minutes late, my sweat was such that I was told where the washrrom was and my lovely chocolate bar was politely refused by all group members to which it was offered. Thank Buddha!

We reached the monastery in Ban Guo an hour or so later. Close to Mt Emei, Nigel had been downplaying the accommodation all through the trip. It was a bit of a surprise then to find a tv in our room. Of course, good and all as our room was, the down side was the nasty squat toilets (around the corner of our building) and the 'slimy', basic shower. Not too much of a problem really. As it was we were to spend this night and another a day later in this monastery. The next day we were to travel to another monastery, high above us, in monkey ridden jungle heights.

Our guide the next day, was a hyperactive 57 year-old, with a few hairs for a moustache and an English name of Zebidee (named by an Englishwoman who presumably watched too much Magic Roundabout). He looked and acted like a Zebidee. In the morning, he brought us into town to the public bus station, from which we drove far up Mt Emei. It had snowed near the top. Snowed. Having been in sweltering heat only two weeks back, this was a little bit of a shock to the system. Mac in a Sac made a surprise reappearance, to complement little black jacket and shiny new sweater. At the top we discovered it wasn't the top and we had to get a crowded cablecar to the real top. Once there we saw the huge gold Buddha (another one) on the four gold elephants which you no doubt always see at oxygen deprived heights of 3000 feet. I could certainly feel the thin air. I needed sustenance. Taking the opportunity to tick another one of the culinary list, and to warm my poor hands, I bought and ate a boiled thousand-year old egg from a vendor. Just like a normal bolied egg only tangy. Quite okay, though I might not make a habit of them. Taking the cablecar down we soon reached more breathable heights.

More air though meant more activity and, after yet another fabulous banquet (I love the green veg in garlic), we set off on a two hour hike to the next monastery. Part of the way would be through monkey territory. We had been hearing stories of their thieving ways for ages and now we sealed up all our edibles in our day packs. Monkeys understand that food comes in plastic bags and can open crisp and nut bags easily. They will grab what they can from your hands. Nigel even saw one open a can of cola once (they love it apparently), so red was to be avoided if possible. Also we had each been given a walking stick, ostensibly to help in the climb, but at least partly to fend off monkeys. We were not to hit them, just to strike the ground, the action being sufficient to keep them off. We walked in anticipation.

Finally after some stunning scenery with pagodas, waterfalls and all the other paraphenalia you associate with China, we entered enemy land. They were everywhere, on fences, in the trees, on roofs. And they were bigger than I expected, not quite baboons, but not far off. We oohed and ahhed and cried out at the Monkey Police, park attendants who supervise the area, who frequently threw stones and hit at the animals. We were very easy as we walked, I more than anyone, quietly shooting everything on my video camera. The group has split into two and I found myself at the head on the second posse. A monkey
policewoman was walking ahead of me when we came to three large monkeys. She approached them, they approached her, and funnily enough this time they weren't scared by her stick. She retreated back, but I just stayed filming it all. It was then I noticed I had hissing monkeys in front of me and behind me and they were hissing at me. Apparently one large mother had a baby and we had come too close. She and the other two now menaced me. I am sorry to say I let my camera drop to my side as I tackled them with my stick, so it is only on the soundtrack that you get my monkey threats ('You're one monkey that's not getting by me!'). They backed off. It was only when I lifted my camera again and I notice the shake in my hand, that I realised how dangerous it actually had been (they can be violent, hence the monkey police). We moved on out of scalping territory.

My abiding memory of China shall always be bound up with that of steps and stairways. There was the Great Wall, the Xi'an Wall, the Giant Buddha, getting to the cablecar; everywhere we go we encountered steps. As we neared the end of this particular journey, we came again to some pretty evil step work. 1200 steps led steeply up to the monastery.

Deirdre had a back operation a few months back and a day or so before she left England tripped on a paving slab and damaged it again. Add to that that she is in her sixties and you can imagine that steps don't do her any good Nevertheless she has gamely tackled every activity we have tackled. And yet again she proved her mettle. Marvellous, particularly given that I had second thoughts about climbing more than once. We climbed and climbed. My sweat flowed over my glasses until I had to take them off for the blindness. On and on. Eventually I crossed the top stop to be greeted by a monkey eating pot noodle. I took up my camera again with a sigh.

This monastery was a little more basic, and deserted, than the last one, but the communal showers, at least that evening, were hot, and the communal toilet was not as communal as we had feared. We were at a great height though and it did get cold. After dinner in the Hard Wok Cafe (100 steps down from the monastery), we all went to bed after 8.00 (there's a 9 pm curfew in these places anyway).
I spent an hour reading most of the end of 'A Maze of Death' before consideration for my roommate made me turn out the light. Not one of Dick's finest novels I am afraid. After some interesting theological stuff, he ends an intriguing, though very flawed novel, with two fairly lame chapters (still a few pages to go though), calling in what to him is a standard device, and one which he used to far greater effect in 'Ubik', and the unfairly disregarded 'Eye in the Sky'. A 'for the money' book, methinks.

The night was freezing and I got a chance to use my silk sleeping bag from Laos. It didn't contribute too much, acting more as a sheet, but I was warm enough. Seeing frost on the roof this morning though wasn't a great incentive to getting up.

At 7.30 Zebidee led the others in a Tai Chi session. Scorning that for a deserted toilet and shower room, I got a pretty cold shower instead. My choice of pork noodles too, ordered because I like them, but also because they usually take little time here, ended up coming last after all the banana pancakes, an inconvenience that at least built up my appetite. Still it was pleasant watching the steam from my noodles complemented by the mist rising from the valley beside the cafe.

We met the monkeys again on the way down, but, two warring factions having been split up, they were more docile today. The walk back then was pleasant, particularly the latter half when the main bunch went on a longer route, while Zebidee, Daniel, Chin Chin and I took the short one. I really enjoyed the quiet and fresh air. It also gave me time to get back, eat and write this.

A bit of trivia: the monastery room I am sleeping in was once the office of the Chinese nationalist leader, the one who fled and set up Taiwan. His former boardroom is just around the corner.

And finally for all those looking for gossip on nightclubs etc., I am very sorry to report nightclubs have not been on the itinerary. I wish they were (there looked to be some interesting ones in Xi'an), but this isn't really the group for dancing, drinking or otherwise giving the local police cause for concern. Add to that the fact that though a 600 ml bottle of Chinese beer costs only 4 or 5 yuan (40 or 50 cents), it is only 3.3% volume. It is a funny place, is China.


At 10:34 am, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Even more reason to drink about 50 of those bottles (thats only 25 euro) and then go out and strut your stuff. Surely getting arrested is all part of the trip???


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