Sunday, October 04, 2009

Big Wild Goose Pagoda and my descent into the 1st Circle of Hell

It’s amazing how fast your experience can change from the sublime to the crass when traveling in this country. While being assaulted by the souvenir hawkers on the way out of the Terracotta Warriors Museum, we passed a beautiful sculpture of horses running up a rock defile, in the middle of a broad fountain, totally out of phase with what was going on around us. The theme of horses would be repeated many more times over the remainder of the day, establishing the importance of that noble animal in the history of the country and this region in particular. As we re-entered the city, a massive modern equestrian stature of a mounted warrior held down the center of a traffic circle and I was sorry I did not have a chance to stop and get a photograph.

On the way into town we passed a rural brick factory that looked precisely the same as the adobe yard down the ditch from me back home. I asked Lily about that and she told me that brick making was a common industry, although here they are fired. I told her about our house and how adobe was common in the Southwest where the climate allows it to be used. She told me that she thought most American houses were built from wood, and I told her that she was correct. She seemed to like the word adobe, although her version of it sounded more like “dobie”.

When I booked this trip I had discussed destinations with the agency owner, Mr. Lee. He told me that the Little Goose Pagoda was hardly worth the bother and that the Big Goose Pagoda was the far more famous and better of the two. Contrarian that I tend to be, I went to the former first and found it lovely. The Big Goose Pagoda figures large in the history of Buddhism in China. Legend has it that monks in India were starving and worried that they would not survive when a flock of migrating geese flew overheard. The biggest of the flock, died suddenly and fell to earth at their feet. The interpreted this as a sign that the Buddha supported their style of Buddhism and had provided the meat of the goose to help them survive. Hence the name, honoring the legend. Lily agreed to take me there on the way home and upon arrival I knew immediately that I was in for a modern China experience.

First of all we couldn’t find a place to park the car, it was that mobbed. The government had seen fit to capitalize on the history and reputation of the temple to build what they called “a cultural district” by the name of Tang Paradise. It’s hardly a paradise at all, just a long garish shopping boulevard built in the traditional Chinese sloped roof style. I only saw it from afar, but I knew that I did not want to ruin my earlier experience by wandering down that thing in the hot sun. We went into the temple grounds and I was disappointed to learn that the spirit of the place could not overcome the spirit of the people taking in the sights. The pagoda was quite beautiful, and Lily did a great job of interpreting an amazing frieze done all in jade pieces that depicted the life of the Buddha. We wandered around gardens looking at the tomb markers for the famous monks – this pagoda was built in 652 AD during the reign of the Emperor Gaozang at the request of the Monk Xuanzang who was the first to travel to India in order to collect the sacred texts. The pagoda was their home, and Xuanzang spent his entire life translating them from Sanskrit to Chinese.

We finished the place in about 40 minutes which made Lily remark on how fast I walk. Normally, her guests (as she calls them) spend at least one hour here. She returned me to the hotel, collected the fees and said goodbye.

I cooled my heels at the hotel for a couple of hours and as it was approaching dinner time I had to make a choice –brave a solo dinner in a restaurant or just make it easy and dine on snacks in the Horizon Club. I wish I could say that I have moved past this daily solo travel dilemma, but I haven’t – I just hate dining alone what with all the people in the restaurant staring at me and wondering why I have no spouse and no friends. But it was only 4:30 and for some odd reason, the Tang Paradise beckoned so I loaded up my bag and headed out, catching a cab after walking a few blocks.

It was much cooler with the sun heading towards the horizon but it was still a madhouse with people and noise. I entered the place by the pagoda, stopping to get a few more photos with it against the evening sky. Heading towards the shopping district I passed stall after stall like those that you would find at an American county fair – pop the balloon and win a bear, throw a dart and win a poodle, etc, etc, etc. Having these set up against the outside of the temple walls just seemed really wrong, or perhaps a throwback to the ancient times when the itinerant carnivals came to town and set up around the center of worship in order to attract patrons. Across the street and in front of the pagoda, a bronze of Xuanzang was eternally walking in place towards India. Here, the world changed from the spiritual to the commercial.

One side of the mall was contained by a tall wall advertising an impending Westin hotel. Down the center, granite blocks held more bronzes of ancient Chinese – more horses, monks, warriors and philosophers. I assume this display was telling the story of the region. At the end, Qin Shi Huang stood mounted atop a tall white granite pillar, catching the rays of the setting sun. I went up to the end of the pedestrian mall and made a u-turn, heading back down the other side. Over here, it was busy with a long line of food stalls selling anything you might want to eat from soft-serve ice cream to fried scorpions. This side was mobbed and it was hard to walk. It was even harder to hear given that just about every one of the sellers had techno booming from their stall. At some point the walkway turned from asphalt to red carpeting, giving the place some sort of perverse Academy Awards feel. I kept pushing my way through the crowd staring ahead at the pagoda which stood there, leaning slightly to the left as though cocking its head in wonder at what was now spread below. I crossed a street where a couple of cars sat blasting their horns at the pedestrians in the crosswalk who had the green light.

I’d had enough and headed back towards Keji Lu, my path out of this place. As I rounded the last corner on my way across the square towards a taxi, I was about flattened by deafening Chinese pop music – the fountain show had begun. Lily had mentioned this earlier, and I had declined not wanting to spend 20 minutes hanging around waiting for it. It was on now and it was something. Thousands of water jets exploded and twirled and shot into the air in time with the music. The people were loving it but for me it was just another perceptual affront. I stopped to shoot a short video and caught a cab back to the hotel.

Dinner turned out to be a solo affair in the hotel’s Chinese restaurant, local dishes of wok-fried lamb with fennel and a cold shredded green bean and fungi salad. A Han Dynasty Red Wolf beer capped the evening. The waitress told me that my Chinese was quite acceptable. The kindness of the service staff always helps when you’re sitting there in the middle of a bunch of people wondering why you have no wife and friends.























No comments: