Sunday, August 30, 2009

All I wanted to do was go home, part 2

When I was last in Beijing I had taken a quick trip to Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City before catching a plane to Spain. I didn’t have much time and the trip was nothing more than a brisk walk in the sub-zero temperatures, a ride down the subway and the entry to the outer ring of the old palaces. It was fun but I wanted more and I figured that today I’d take in one of the other sites – The Temple of Heaven.

The map the concierge gave me showed it as a straight shot with one left turn and so I left the hotel and headed off in what I supposed to be the proper direction. Given my luck so far that day I guess should have made a plan and then done precisely the opposite of whatever I thought was correct. And as it turned out it would have been a pretty smart thing to do. But at that moment I was determined to turn things around.

The first thing I passed was a Starbucks and I considered throwing it all away for an iced Americano but I overcame that urge and planned to stop in at the conclusion of my trip. I walked on past a shopping mall fooling telling myself that it was the one I was seeing on the map. If that was true, this was going to be a short walk. It was 2:30.

A block or so down the road I found myself the Shangjiang subway station. Now this made no sense if the map was correct because it meant I was walking in the wrong direction. Luckily there were street signs here and this one was telling me that I was at the Third Ring Road which added to the confusion. Taking my bearings I decided the best course was to head back the way I had come, because clearly I had it backwards and the map was wrong – the hotel was not where it showed it to be. This was not a big surprise because the tourist maps here are often incorrect. Things are in the general area that they claim to be but often on the opposite side of the street. “Close enough” is good in horseshoes and Chinese maps.

I found a policeman a bit down the road and asked him if I was heading in the proper direction. He started out telling me it was too far to walk – everything in China is too far to walk, which makes me wonder how Mao managed to bring his army along on the Long March. I repeated that I wanted to walk and asked him if this was the correct way – he pointed down the road and said, “yes.”

I kept checking landmarks and street signs and for a while it looked as though I was going the right way. I passed under an elevated train and over a river, right where they should be. Further down the road I went by another shopping mall, this time the correct one for sure and after getting funneled into a dead end bus queue I recovered and kept moving forward. But one thing was troubling me, the CCTV building was looming on my right and I knew from my January trip that it really shouldn’t be there. And it’s hard to misplace a building, right? Of course being a world famous landmark it the map designers might have thought to include it? No on both counts. I went past a subway station that I could not find and then was disturbed to see the Shangri La Hotel off to my left where it really didn’t belong. I stopped in the shade of a construction wall (those are really handy here) and tried to orient the map relative to the hotel discovering that I had been walking in the wrong direction for the better part of an hour. It was 3:20 and thankfully the day was cool by Beijing standards.

Taking stock of my situation – the map was correct and the policeman dead wrong – I turned around and headed back. I was less bothered by the fact that I had wasted all that time covering all those blocks than I was about my feet – my socks were getting pretty sweaty and being stranded they were the only pair I had. I figured I’d deal with that one later and kept on walking, wondering if they would dry by tomorrow if I gave them a sink washing.

I once again passed the mysterious subway station and stopped – at this point it made perfect sense to just get on the tube and cut out some of the leg work. Down I went into the wonderfully air conditioned station.

The attendant helped me to negotiate the token machine which had some bad news for me – I could take a straight shot down Line 10 but the walk from the station to the Temple was about equal to what would have been my original trek had I been able to actually read and trust the map. It didn’t matter, I was on a mission and I was not about to fail. It was 3:50. The Line 10 car was pretty empty, no doubt due to the fact that it was a dead-ending spur and not a cross-town. I grabbed a seat and enjoyed the ten minute ride.

Subway stations in China have the tendency to lie directly below major intersections. This can be nice because if you’re smart you can come out and not have to cross streets to go where you want to go. Or, if you’re like me you can just pick one and exit and hope it’s the right one. I stopped for a moment to make believe I could read a sign that might have something to do with the location of the temple and picked the closest exit.

Up on the street I had two choices - left or right – and so a 50% chance of picking it. At this point I was sort of beyond caring and so I went right, figuring if I was wrong I’d run into the big highway that the map said was off to the left. I headed down the street trying to stay in shade patches as much as possible. I was in regular neighborhoods now, away from the commercial districts that I’d been walking through. People were going about their late afternoon business and every once in a while I would pass a little group of four or five wearing red armbands with gold writing that said something like “volunteer guard.” I hoped they were not there to report suspicious foreigners and they must not have been as they studiously ignored me as I wandered by.

Street signs were starting to make sense and it appeared that I had chosen the correct direction. I wandered into what must have been the sports retail section of Beijing, passing the State Olympic Committee headquarters and an endless line of stores selling tennis, badminton and running gear. Little billboards in the center median of the street advertised treadmills. Actually not treadmills, but a single treadmill since they were identical, one after another.

A check of the signs at one intersection confirmed that hope beyond hope I was heading the right way and after another block or two I could see the grounds and the golden ball at the time of the main building in the complex. But first I had to cross a major boulevard and this crosswalk happened to be managed by a crossing guard with an orange flag. She didn’t need to convince me by holding it out in front of me – the mass of cars was without a break. I stood and waited until it began to slow down in anticipation of the light change. Before it was green the mob surged and I went along with them, the crossing guard lowering her flag and telling us it was safe about the time we reached the middle of the street.

I bought a “through ticket” for 35 kuai imagining that it gave me access to things inside and not just a way in the door. It was now 5:20 and I was wondering about closing time but it really didn’t matter, I was there and I was heading in.
The first thing I noticed was the huge amount of foreigners in shorts and golf shirts wandering around. The second thing was the serenity – even today behind these walls with one of the world’s largest cities on the outside I could sense what it must have been like for the Ming and Qing emperors to be here, conducting their rituals out of the gaze of their subjects. It made me appreciate just how disconnected a monarchy must be. But the peace and quiet was wonderfully overwhelming after the way I had just spent two hours covering on foot.

There were three parallel roads leading inclined with ancient cedars and pines. Black-headed Magpie Jays were gliding from tree top to tree top, calling their raucous Jay calls. Off to the left traditional Chinese music was playing and a crowd had gathered, fan dancing ala Dalian I suspect. I headed on eventually reaching the outer walls of the main temple. Here, long covered corridors wrapped the outer walls of the temple complex - coincidentally called “The Long Corridor” according to a sign –they were crowded with people. Waiting in line or just hanging around, I was not sure until I heard the singing – small choirs were singing traditional Chinese songs and the crowds were watching them and in some cases singing along. One tune caught my ear – a throwback to my childhood, it was known then as “Midnight in Moscow” and was performed by Kenny Ball and his Jazzmen. It had been a Top 40 hit in the days before the Beatles changed everything and I really liked it, being the oddball little kid that I was. It had words here though and it occurred to me that it probably was some sort of Communist era anthem, co-opted by Kenny and the boys for the western market and their notion of what jazz sounded like behind the Iron Curtain. I walked along from song to song until I reached the entrance to the main square and the notion of “through ticket” became clear – you can buy entry to the park or the park and the buildings. I gave up my first stub and went in.

One of the amazing aspects of this period of Chinese architecture was the sheer volume of empty space. The main tower stood at the center of a huge main square paved with gray stone and hemmed in by a short wall topped with shiny green tiles. The temple stood to the north and supporting buildings were due east and west. To the south another building housed giant doorways beyond which another empty square led to the next set of buildings. I wandered around taking picture and people watching which by all standards was pretty amazing. I wandered up the steps and took a look inside the building itself – a soaring, intricately painted roof was supported by massive wooden columns painted red with gold ginko leaves embossed on their surfaces. Taking a decent picture here was tough due to the number of people and their seemingly intentional movement directly in front of me each time I framed something up.

I went out through one of the main doors before I realized that it was an official exit. I turned around and snuck back in when the attendant wasn’t looking and spent some more time exploring until I figured I’d seen about all I could see. Exiting the second time I headed down the broad plaza passing by the building that was once used for the emperor to dress before moving to the temple to conduct his rituals. It had a yellow roof of a hue I’d never seen. Little girls were running around, each sporting a traditional hat that featured a giant pink chrysanthemum, no doubt for sale at the souvenir vendors up ahead. Up ahead was a round tower enclosed in a giant circle of stone. Surrendering a second tab from my ticket I went in to have a look. This one was interesting having once used to house the sacred texts that the emperor used to converse with the gods. It followed the same pattern at the main tower – support buildings to the left and right and a gate to the south that led to a tall, round stone platform used by the royal family for viewing the surrounding forest. All aligned to celestial north. A long line of people was winding up and down the stairs to see inside the main building but I decided to pass on that, choosing instead to take a break by the inside of the circular wall where people were testing its properties by standing far apart and speaking softly to each other – the wall was such a perfect concave mirror that their conversations were carried along its arc.

By now I’d had about enough culture for one day and given that I had a long walk back I decided to head in the direction of the north gate as it was a better choice than the way I had come. After getting a bit lost in the maze of cedars I found the north walk and went off in search of the exit. People were flying kites in the dwindling light and old men were running in packs along the outer wall, getting their evening exercise. In theory may path should have arced slowly to the left before joining the main road out. And it did, but it didn’t seem to be doing enough arcing. I stopped and asked an elderly man for the “chukou” or exit and he told me to keep going. I did so and a short while later I found a right turn and managed to escape the grounds.

Outside and back in the bustle I spent a lot of time checking the map and the street signs before finally concluding that I was heading the right way. A short way into my long haul though a subway station presented itself and I decided that I’d had enough walking for one day. This though was not going to be an easy one, my route involved 2 train changes and 3 different lines but I’d had it with the life of an infantryman – I was riding home.

Being 6:30 though the trains were not quite so empty and in fact they were jammed. Rush hour subways in Asia are precisely what you imagine they are and the transfers are even worse – cheek to jowl masses of humanity winding through the stations on some sort of hajj from line to line. At the last transfer I realized I was going down the same stairs I had gone down so long ago when I had tried to recover from my original spate of bad choices. And like the first time today on Line 10, the car was empty and so I had a seat opposite some Chinese who couldn’t quite figure me out, given their stares.

Once again at Shangjiang Station albeit underground this time I was presented with four exits and of course I picked the wrong one ending up having to cross 2 streets to get back on the right side as my hotel. Passing Starbucks a second time I decided it was time for a coffee.

Now refreshed, my mind returned to my socks and I figured I could add a second adventure to the day by trying to find a pair. The coffee shop was in a mall so I walked around looking for any store that might offer a pair. None of the shoe stores had any, not did the men’s stores who obviously figured that scarves in August were far more important. On the fifth floor of the main department store I found a section that advertised Columbia and North Face so I thought I’d give it a try. With my trusty iPhone in hand I asked the girl if she had any and she looked perplexed. Her friend though was quicker and she pointed to a little locked Plexiglas case that had maybe five pairs of Columbia hiking socks and said “right there” in her poutiest, dismissive Chinese. I could only see size medium so I asked the nicer of the two if she had large explaining that my feet were size 45 or 46. Footwear in China is a problem for almost all westerners, their feet are so small and so our sizes are generally not offered. She ran off to get the key to the box and having returned and opened it I could see why they were under lock and key - $30 US for one pair and $26 for the others. I said “very expensive” and she took them from me and asked me over to the register where she checked the price on the computer. A 50 kuai discount brought them down to $17, a reasonable price given the condition of the pair I was wearing.

But nothing is easy here and especially not department stores. You don’t pay for your purchases where they are; you pay for them at central cashiers. And you don’t bring the goods to the cashier, the salesperson writes a little slip that you take to the cashier. And once you pay you take your little slip, now sporting a couple of red stamps, back to the salesperson who collects it from you before handing you your purchase. It’s slow, it’s inefficient and if you have my kind of luck it’s terribly time consuming. I grabbed mine and went off to pay and had the incredible misfortune of lining up behind a young woman who had perhaps 15 little slips of her own. I watched as the cash register rounded 1400 kuai, sighing, tapping my foot and staring at the ceiling. I forgot to mention one thing - each little slip has to be stapled to the cash register tape and at this cashier station it took two girls to do that – one rang them up and handed the paper to the second one who aligned the two pieces of paper so that the first girl could staple them. Naturally the stapler ran dry about midway through the pile of receipts but at least they had refills. They returned them to the customer and she wandered off. The cash register girl started to work on my order but she and her co-conspirator realized that they still had a few left over from the girl who had just left. They stopped to discuss that for a bit but must have realized that the customer would come back if she was missing something. She tossed them aside and went back to collecting the money for my socks. I wonder how often that happens, you wander around buying things for hours and then pay in bulk and you go home with half of what you’ve paid for. How do you remember where all your stuff is?

It was dark now and after stopping at a “personal supplies store” to pick up an alternative deodorant (never being really satisfied with that spray, I opted this time for a Nivea roll-on figuring I had less of a chance of a horrific skin reaction with one of their products) I headed back to my hotel.

I ended the day alone in the executive club eating some truly excellent watermelon and some really average peanuts for dinner, along with a beer or two. I spent some time talking to the girls up there about my Chinese ability and even had a brief conversation with one in Spanish, a truly exceptional Beijing opportunity that no one should overlook.

In the final summary my day started with a clever conversation about a hyper-intelligent overweight cat and moved on to a scheduling disaster and then to taxi driver extortion and a helpful policeman without a clue but a desire to help. It ended in a sublime place from different time, some fun in the subway, a cold coffee, a clean pair of socks and a healthy dinner consisting of two major food groups, beer and fruit. I guess I’m proud that I’ve come have the ability to take a pile of lemons and turn them into lemonade but in the final tally and even after all those great little experiences I really just wanted to go home.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

All I wanted to do was go home

Yesterday was one of those travel days when everything that can go wrong, did. I started out early leaving my apartment at 6:20AM to make my 8:20 flight. Jiang and I had a great conversation on the way in about his grandfather’s cat apparently it’s very old (17), very fat and unusually smart being able to follow commands just like a dog. I guess my Chinese continues to advance given that I can more or less follow a conversation on something as off the wall as that.

Checking in was quick and security the same. I was encouraged at the presence of a plane at the gate and I settled in for the 45 minute wait. A German that I’d seen around Kai Fa Qu sat opposite me dressed all in black save for the piece of shiny silver stretchy cord, the kind you get on Christmas presents, that he was using for a belt. I wasn’t quite sure what to think about that.

Around 7:45 the gate attendants showed up around the same time that I heard an announcement about my flight. I didn’t quite catch it and so I checked the board – departure time was showing as 8:20.

Fifteen or twenty minutes later, things seemed to be progressing. The plane was attached to the building, people were lining up in the jet way and by all indications we were heading out. That is until the gate attendants packed up their stuff and left. Which is when I heard the next announcement, my flight was delayed until 9:30. My internal trip calculator kicked into action - I had 2 ½ hours between flights in Beijing, usually a bit on the close side but always workable. Minus an hour, it was getting tough but if we landed at 10:30, I would still make it. I sat back and stewed about that for the remainder of my wait.

We did leave on time to the delay and the flight was quick. Time was ticking away and by my account we’d be on the ground about 10:40 – the window was shrinking. The plane landed and I continued to run assessments as it took forever for us to get to the gate. When the doors opened up I realized why – we weren’t at the gate, we were somewhere out in Northern China where buses were waiting to take us to the terminal. My heart was sinking – while everything was still governed by the wait for my bag, I might still make it. Except that the normally slow bag delivery was bound to be even worse than normal. I was resigning myself to the fact – I wasn’t going to make it and I was beginning to wish I had never checked on in the first place.

The bus dropped us off at the most remote point in the terminal possible. I hurried down the corridor to bag claim – why I don’t know – grabbed a trolley and proceeded to wait. I’ve stood in this place many times before and the wait always seems like forever but eventually the belt turned on and luggage started to appear. Everyone’s but mine that is. I waited and waited and then the belt turned off and I was the last person waiting. Now I had a choice, I could abandon my bag and run to the counter or I could continue to wait and watch my trip crumble completely. I decided I would deal with it later and took off, heading upstairs to the counter. A grim scene awaited me – no one in line. I went up to the agent who sadly informed me that I had missed the last call by a full 20 minutes – no more check-ins within 1 hour of the flight. She offered me Chicago or Washington but with no flight to Albuquerque I decided that staying here was the best course so I collected an itinerary and went back down to luggage claim.

With all the time in the world now, I went back downstairs and told the guard my story – in Chinese – and he let me through. I took a look at the carousel –still no bag – so I wandered off to Lost and Found and relayed my sad tale again. The young man there told me it was on the belt and we went back to find it, upside down and so invisible to me as I was looking for green. I thanked him, picked it up and went off to find a taxi.

The problem with having things get derailed like this is that my brain stops functioning in a linear fashion. Before a cab, I needed a place to stay and before that I needed to find the hotel desk. In Shanghai there is a row of stations for all the major hotels, if there is one here I didn’t find it so I dipped into my emergency file and pulled out a card. I went up and down the escalators a couple of times before deciding to just stop and get organized. After having my plans get disrupted on numerous occasions, I began traveling with cards for major hotels in the transit cities I use. It’s an easy way to start yourself down the road to recovery without needing to ask for help and without having to find wireless to connect to the web. I pulled out the card for the Renaissance Capital and after getting disconnected a couple of times and having to explain that I was making a reservation and therefore did not have one, I managed to book a room.

Finding a cab, I was on my way. My friend Matt had recommended this place – nice, new and relatively inexpensive compared to some of our favorites. Problem is the cabbies don’t seem to know where it is, and neither did the one I happened to get. He looked at the directions card and the map, and turning the latter upside down seemed to help. At one point he pulled alongside a cabbie friend of his, at 100 KPH and yelled out the passenger window for directions. I asked him a few times in Chinese if he knew where the place was, and he answered “More or less.”

As we were getting close, I went to pull out some money and realized I didn’t have any. This little finding put me into a complete panic and I was already trying to figure out how I was going to get myself out of this one, do I ask him to wait while I run to an ATM at the hotel? I don’t know, but I was beside myself until I realized I had taken my cash stash out of my pocket before going through security in Dalian as the little metal anti-counterfeit strands set off the metal detector. Sure enough my wad was there in my messenger bag, right where I had put it. Sensing something was amiss, he was looking back over his shoulder. I told him I couldn’t find my money and he said something which I later realized was “American money is just fine.” I had tried to figure out what he was saying and gave him a couple of stupid answers which he brushed off.

Eventually we pulled off the highway and came to a light – I could see the hotel off to the left. I said something along the lines of “We found it” and he smiled and said yes. And then he said “Jiang li” which was a new one on me. But when he followed that with “200”, I knew where we were headed – he wanted a bribe for getting me there and the little Chinese program in my iPhone confirmed it. Isn’t technology grand, we can now understand that we’re being shaken down instantly, no more dumb looks, no more confusion. Looking at the meter which read “83” I told him I didn’t understand. He repeated what I had said with a tone of “Yea right, you speak Chinese so you know full well what I am asking” and repeated “200”. I told him no way and he replied by continuing to repeat himself. We arrived at the hotel and I told him he was getting 125 and not a miao more, and he gratefully accepted the 27RMB “tip”. I figured $4 worth of karma was a small purchase considering the day I was having.

The hotel was ready and gracious and the room was beautiful with a nice view of the smoggy city. I had a pizza with prosciutto and basil in the restaurant, a simple meal made complicated when I tried to assign the bill to the wrong room number and I had to correct it – in Chinese – with apologies for how tired and confused I was. Done eating, I decided I needed to go out to find some supplies – one of the hazards of traveling light like this is that I don’t bring anything along knowing I have things at home. Normally hotels of this stature provide shampoo, toothpaste and toothbrush but I didn’t think it would be fair to my fellow passengers to board a 12 hour flight without some sort of underarm treatment so I asked the concierge who told me of a 7-11 just across the street. How could deodorant shopping at a 7-11 not be an adventure? Off I went.

It turned out to be a 7-11 just like every other one except this one had a well stocked personal items department. Imagine every top shelf acne scrub in the world – Nivea, Neutrogena, Olay – right across the aisle from Ramen and Cadbury. My options were limited – an aerosol or a tiny little Chapstik sized roll on – I went with the spray, paid and headed back to the hotel.

It was now about 2 o’clock so having the whole day ahead of me I stopped again to talk to the concierge to find out if there was something historical nearby. The simple hotel map had shown Tiananmen in the vicinity so I figured I’d see if it was within walking distance. He gave me a map and showed me the nearest subway station and told me “15 minutes.” As we were talking in Chinese, I might have misinterpreted his time estimate but undissuaded, I gathered my camera and bag from my room and headed out to find it.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Dinner out with the boys (and one girl)

We got together for a big work dinner the other night at a very fancy restaurant down by the bay. Its name is Nán Tuó Hǎigǎng which more or less means “southward facing cliffs overlooking the harbor”.

Fancy restaurants in China are like nothing else in the world, typically they look much more like a royal mausoleum from the baroque period than a place you’d want to eat dinner. This one was particularly hard on the eyes, coated from floor to ceiling with acres of peach and white veined marble with the occasional oversized chocolate brown fixture added to jazz things up. The ceilings of course were gilt wood panels and the chandeliers had most likely stolen from a palace in pre-revolution France.

We walked in across a bridge that spanned mudflats, exposed by the low tide. There were a few people working down in the mud, no doubt gathering their dinner from under the rocks. I joked that it was a good thing that the tide was out as we might not get dinner after all. Being a large party we were given a big private room on the second floor and escorted to the all glass tubular elevator that was controlled by a young women standing at a panel with blinking LEDs informing her of the vertical location of each of the lifts.

Once seated a few of us went downstairs to choose the items for the banquet. There were two long tables laid out with example dinners, a long cooler with same and of course the requisite aquarium featuring the live fare. Octopi, abalone, countless shellfish, flounder, crabs, worms from your nightmares, sea cucumbers, shark fins, you name it and it was for sale. Off to the side was a grill with such exciting items as tripe, pig tongue and duck heads. For fun we ordered the Giant Boat of Sushi along with the makings for a feast and returned to our room.

The food is always great and the experience even better. I could write all day about it, but the pictures say it all.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Qiānshān, Part 2

The road led up a small rise away from the parking area under the shade of tall trees. There were groups of people heading both out and back and still others riding the small blue shuttles swooshing their way to the far corners of the park. Apparently there is something sinister about peace and quiet because although the seasonal hum of cicadas was loud many of these people felt the need to break the natural silence by playing Chinese pop music loudly from their cell phones. Others were not so threatened and walked along in silence or conversation. It was not as hot as it had been in the previous week and was just barely on the edge of uncomfortable due to the humidity. As the road climbed I began to suspect that we’d be hot by the time we attained the upper reaches of the park. Birds whose sounds I did not recognize chattered in the upper reaches of the trees.

Qianshan has been a religious site for Buddhists and Taoists for more than 1000 years, starting in the Tang Dynasty and today there are many temples in the park but few genuinely ancient remnants. A significant amount of building occurred during the Ming and Qing Dynasties (1368 to 1911) but the turmoil of the 20th resulted in the area being largely abandoned. In the 1990’s a restoration effort began and today the temples are in wonderful condition.

In Chinese a Buddhist temple is known as a miào and the equivalent for the Taoist is known as a guàn. The monks are known a héshang and dàoshi respectively. Here they regularly exist side by side with monks of both ilk welcoming visitors. In terms of their philosophies they share many similarities, particularly the drive for a simple, studious life and a strong respect for the natural world and living things in particular. From the outside their temples are very similar but the similarity ends at the doorway. Buddhist miào always contain a representation of Buddha and often many other saints. Taoist guàn have representations of one or more of their “Immortals” in addition to lesser figures. The appearance of the monks is also quite different with Buddhist héshang having shaved heads and typically garbed in saffron, gray or white. Dàoshi often have long hair tied up in a topknot and wear black pants and either black or white jackets with an elaborate set of buttons. I gathered all this in conversation with Jiang, and it cleared up a question I had about a monk I had seen on a bike ride a couple of weekends ago. I was riding out in the middle of nowhere countryside and I passed a holy man walking along the road dressed in a way unfamiliar to me; I now know him to be a Dàoshi. Complementing the various temples were small tombs or mù set back off the road amidst the trees, marking the final resting place of a revered monk or abbot.

I didn’t have an actual plan for what I wanted to see, rather I figured we would simply wander around for a few hours and take in what might be close to the main road. Judging from the map many of the sites involved climbing up roads from the bottom of the valley and while I was up for that kind of activity, I am not sure that Jiang was of the same mind. While he is a wiry little fellow he is like just about every other Chinese guy, a chain smoker. I stopped here and there to take pictures of the ornate gates that span the temple roads. Their decoration was very similar to the temples I visited last year in Kyoto with intricate designs painted on every surface and carvings of animals and dragons. Very different than the architecture I am used to around Shanghai. One featured white elephants on the upper levels and golden dragons wrapped around bright red pillars. Hanzi characters painted in gold announced the name of the temple that lay up the road.

We passed by a retail stop and the minute the sellers identified me as a westerner, they began yelling their prices to get me to come over to shop. Jiang had warned me in the car to stay away as their goods were overpriced and fake; something that tourist traps the world over share in common. Here they were selling bracelets and pendants celebrating Buddha and for some reason, tiny wooden crossbows.

At the midpoint of the hill a stream had been dammed to create a lake that teemed with big bright orange and black koi. Visitors were feeding them and a pack of geese that was horning in on the action. At the head of the lake the stream entered over a series of small rapids where people were alternately cooling off their feet and filling their water bottles. We walked on along the shady road taking in the sights and beginning to feel the effects of the heat. Jiang asked if we could sit down for a few minutes, I figured he was tired but it turned out to be time for a cigarette.

Three-fourths of the way up a crossroads offered us the opportunity to continue climbing to a golden pagoda I’d seen from the bottom or up a set of stairs to where a cable car system was purported to be. We chose the stairs and at the top wandered through Bird Singing World, a bird aviary. Cages full of finches, parakeets and tiny parrots lined the walk in, the last full of Japanese Waxwings panting in the heat. We passed on the giant net covered enclosure and instead went looking for the cable car which we found at the top of a set of stone stairs, hidden behind the aviary.

The ticket sign did not bode well – 30 Yuan for a 1-way ticket and 1 Yuan for “insurance.” I paid for us and we climbed up to the boarding platform. Our short wait ended when three tiny silver cars rumbled into the station. The downward bound riders jumped out quickly and we climbed in as the cars continued their way around the giant cable return wheel. Jiang and I jumped in and helped a young couple join us. The doors automatically closed as we cleared the station and when they did, the heat inside our capsule rose like a rocket. In a manner of moment it was like riding in an oven. We began our ascent and started to sweat.
Jiang and the couple were conversing in Chinese and I was struggling to join in as best I could. After a few minutes of chit chat the young woman turned to me and asked me in perfect English how long I had been in China. I laughed and told her my story, commenting on the quality of her speech. She told me that she was in China on holiday and that she presently lives in Dublin where she works part time in a friend’s laundry. The irony of moving from China to one of the world’s most expensive places to work part time in a low paying job was staggering to me but it made perfect sense to her.

Our car was gently swaying in the breeze and occasionally making a nervous-making halt whenever we crossed the pulleys on the support pylons. I pretty much hate cable car rides and this one barely qualified as something that might be found outside an amusement park. By now it was so hot that I was pretty much drenched. Jiang ran a finger along my forearm, amazed that a person could be so wet outside of a pool. The young woman told him westerners sweat that way.

Despite the gnawing fear the view was spectacular - pointy peaks spread out across the horizon. On the opposite side of the valley I could see the spire of the golden pagoda that I’d spotted from below. The trees here changed from leafy to pine and a pair of Jackdaws rode the thermals along the ridge top croaking away. The general landscape looked very similar to our Southwest - pines, junipers and exposed orangey rocks. The ride took perhaps 15 minutes and we did the same scramble to get out of the car that we’d done to get in; it was nice to be out of the heat. A short walk through the woods and we found ourselves at 5 Buddha Peak.

There were two temples here, one Taoist and one Buddhist. Several dàoshi were selling soft drinks and incense. On a rock shelf off to one side, 5 golden Buddha sat protected by immaculately clear Plexiglas boxes silently staring out across the valley. A cable was attached to the rock wall behind them and was covered with faded red ribbons and hundreds of bronze padlocks – prayers offered by pilgrims to the peak. We stood around for a few minutes before deciding to continue on up to the actual summit of the mountain.

I have done so many perilous climbs in China that it’s a wonder I’ve not broken something. This one continued up from the temples via foot holds carved in the face of the granite but they’d graciously provided a set of green handrails lest one lose their balance. It’s always something to stand at the bottom of one of these pitches and imagine what it would be like to fall backwards. Jiang told me to be careful every five minutes as we climbed. We had to step aside on what little path there was to allow people to come down past us, including one ancient man who was making the climb with his cane in hand. As we climbed the stairs slowly degraded into foot sized holes in the rock.

We climbed quite a ways before leveling off at the top of the mountain. The view to the west was of Anshan and what appeared to be a giant strip mine. The rest of the panorama was of the park and temples could be seen peeking out of the forest on ridges high above the valley. The wind was howling and the temperature was thankfully much lower. Three stone saints stood facing east, cloaked in bright yellow capes. Jiang lit an incense stick and prayed. I wandered around in what little flat space there was, taking photographs and enjoying the sights. After a bit we headed back.

The climb down was no less scary than that coming up. We ended up in the cable car again with the same couple who had declined the opportunity to climb to the top, the young gal’s high-heeled shoes being inappropriate for that task. The sun had disappeared behind some high clouds and so the return ride was not quite so hot. We jumped out at the bottom and started the long walk back to the car, taking the time to discuss the finer points of Buddhism, Taoism and their associated symbolism and beliefs.

We made it back to the car and started on our way to the next destination, The Jade Buddha Temple.