Yanji in Jilin Province

I arrived at the Yanji airport at nearly midnight on March 10th, 2008, after traveling overland through Thailand, Laos and China to Kunming — where I took a couple of flights to finish the journey. Of course, the first thing I noticed was that it was ‘damn’ cold. Yanji reminded me a lot of Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia, where I spent a winter a number of years back. I felt like I had returned to the freezer of Mongolia. There was no snow here on the ground, though, which is still six inches deep in Ulaanbaatar in April. There were similarities. Both cities are heated by coal-fired furnaces. In Ulaanbaatar, the entire city is centrally heated from one, massive, old Russian built coal-burning furnace. Here in Yanji, the solution to the heating problem is more elegant. Each block of apartments or housing complex has its own coal-burning furnace. You see the brick chimneys all over town and can smell the coal smoke but don’t see it. You know it’s there because the coal soot falls out of the sky as a gray covering of dust. You can see it lying on parked bicycles and scooters that haven’t been ridden for a while. I also was surprised to see the local coal haulers — donkey carts.

The buildings in Yanji were cooler, though. The Chinese government seems more economical in its use of coal. In a Mongolian apartment, it was usually too hot! You had to open a ventilator window to regulate the room temperature. Here, the only truly warm places are the public bathing houses. I want to write about the history of public bathing — something so-called Western civilization could learn from. I am especially interested in Korean bath house culture with its similarity to Japanese, Roman, and Turkish bath house etiquette because of my belief in the effectiveness of water treatments as prescribed by naturopathy. Thus, one of the first places I wanted to revisit — after spending two years in Thailand where I mostly bathed outside in nature — was the local bath house.

The first I found and recognized from previous visits in South Korea was the Yimpu chain of bath houses. I found it while wandering around town on a morning walk before going to work. Here you can luxuriate in one of the many heated pools of water — ranging in temperature from icy cold to hot enough to turn your skin pink — or baste your body in a steam room or sauna. I started my tour of bath houses in the one just a two minute walk from my apartment near downtown. It was a nice, friendly, family type bath house. On the advice of my students and with the gifts of their coupons, I trekked on out to the King Kong Castle, and on another day, the Yimpu bath house pictured above. I remembered how early Europeans considered themselves civilized although most royal families at first thought a bath once a year was sufficient.

The bath house culture has finally caught on worldwide, though, and spas are very attractive places now become part of the tourist trade in most countries where mineral or hot springs make themselves known.  I will probably spend a lot of my ‘off’ time from work relaxing in these places. At around $1 a trip, I can afford this one luxury of life in the cold, northern climes of what many call Little Korea. I have come from the warmth of Little Burma so feel this is an apt comparison. Now, my bathing will be inside.

My walk around town led me past the Yanji train station — a bleak and forbidding sight — to the outskirts of town and the hills that surround it. Like Mae Sot in Thailand, I found myself down in another ‘bowl’. Ulaanbaatar has a similar topography. The hills covered in brush and not many trees are similar in both places. When the weather is warmer I will explore these hills and have a lot of hikes around Yanji. I was very struck by the boom in building of apartment complexes all over the city. This was exactly the same as it was in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. The entire city there is consumed with a building spree that seems to know no bounds. Perhaps, the builders know it as a good investment. Their philosophy seems to be that if you build enough apartments, the people will finally come to live in them. However, I saw more empty apartments in Yanji than those that were lived in. Where were all these hypothetical people going to come from? I guess the upside is that local rental rates are extremely cheap — less than $100 a month for a two room apartment with central heating, and usually fully furnished. Most people live in these apartments but I did walk through a few suburbs where the original brick houses still remain. This was on the other side of the railroad tracks, of course. Is it an axiom of most cities that the poor people usually live on the wrong side of the tracks? I met a little boy while walking behind the local train station. He was all wrapped up against the cold but still had a cheerful disposition — one that I was trying to acquire. It was a big change for me from the sunny skies of Thailand to the cold, overcast sky of Yanji. I now live as the guest of a Korean family in an apartment near downtown Yanji. The local river runs through the middle of town from east to west, roughly, and curves around a hill to the east of town, out of sight and on into the surrounding hills. Last Sunday, I rode with a friend on a bus out of town and through the outlying villages and farms to the base of one of these mountains. There was a cluster of little hotels — guest houses, really — and restaurants at the base of the hill. Peter, my new friend, led me up the hillside to stare at the local tourist highlight, a 1,500 year old tree. I think it was a cedar, but it looked the age. The hillside above had interesting trails I will explore on another day. We hurried back down the hill as the afternoon sun had retreated behind a cloud and we were chilled again. The warmth of the bus ride back into town beckoned and we didn’t linger. I’m sure I’ll be back there to the tree for a picnic as soon as the weather warms.

On the ride back into town, we were joined by throngs of school children returning home. Their school was out in the country surrounded by plots of farm land and they seemed a hardy lot — all rosy cheeks and pale winter faces. The road back into Yanji follows the river, lined with empty, new apartment blocks, rising from the cold ground, and old, decrepit factories. I wondered about the local economy — is it going up or is it in decline? There are a lot of empty buildings in town that look abandoned or are half completed. I am sure the economy picks up during the summer when most of the South Korean tourists will arrive. I’ll write about that another day. That day never came.

The stay in Yanji was short — six weeks — and I was just settling in when the world changed. No one really wanted me to leave but something in my heart told me to return to Thailand. It wasn’t the cold weather in Yanji or the coal soot in the air. It wasn’t lack of friends — there were enough true ones made quickly enough. It wasn’t the orphanage I had, in part, come to see. It didn’t match my expectations — more of a business than a home for children. But, I could have become a volunteer there. It was the realization that I just couldn’t walk away from something I had already given two years of my life to. As impulsively as I chose to leave Thailand, I as impulsively decided to return. Whatever daemon had possessed me — it was gone. Or, was it lying in wait all the time. I had half considered returning to Chengdu to work — a job offer was on the table. Another job offer was on the table in Thailand. I took that one. My return to the south of Asia coincided with the arrival of a cyclone in Burma and an earthquake in China for Chengdu.

The day before I left Yanji, April 24th, for the train ride back south, my Korean family took me to a Buddhist temple — to bless my trip. To my surprise, I found myself reading the sign board over the entrance. It had originally been built by Buddhists from Bihar, India — the writing was in Hindi script — same for the Nepalese language I had learned years ago. It was a spring day, but still cold enough that I and my friends were wearing coats. There weren’t many visitors to the temple and we had the place virtually to ourselves. It was strange to see the Indian Hindu statues of gods in the entrance way — what were they doing in China they seemed to be saying. I wasn’t going that far south but I was heading in that direction again.

The temple stretched out over a hill side with at least five levels or terraces — each with its own temple and outlying buildings. The whole thing was obviously modeled after the Forbidden City in Beijing and most of the temple buildings were decorated in a Chinese style. The Buddhas were southern, though. The final temple had a beautiful Buddha — six-sided with the six faces of Buddha on six different statues. I am sure someone can make up some occult significance to this. The temple housing this Buddha also had six entrances, or gates, each with its own cupola. The whole thing was ornately decorated and covered with beautiful Chinese landscape paintings. It was just a shame that the countryside at the end of the winter didn’t match these paintings.

I am not that fond of temples and don’t see why people spend so much money erecting them. Yes, they demarcate a holy place or one that we’ve projected this holy value onto — whatever that means. We often forget the true temple of our heart lies within. It can never be reconstructed outside of our body. A statue of a Buddha will never replace a living and breathing teacher. We get caught up in the external rituals one goes through at a temple. We convince ourselves that going to the temple and going through a prayer ritual will make a difference in our life. Maybe it does — for the people who pay attention to their inner voice when they visit a temple. Perhaps we project it externally to remind us when we visit it that the only truly holy space is inside of us. By going to a temple we reside — at least for a while — in a space projected around us that reflects the space we want to experience internally and subjectively. We take a rest from the chaotic world we all too often get caught up in by residing in that feeling of inner peace. At any rate, visiting this temple told me the pilgrimage I had made to Yanji was now over. I had found what I came here to find — the will to continue my search for the ‘heart of Asia’ — one I’m not even sure exists. It was time to return to Thailand with a changed attitude — one of appreciation for the Buddhism of that country. I had witnessed the Buddhism of Tibet ‘act out’ its daemons while in China. I realized that religion or faith has its own problems coming to grips with a modern world — one far removed from the feudalism of the past. Anyone who wants us to return to that kind of world is due for a surprise. Romanticizing that past won’t earn us merit in this life. We need to look further back in time before we had religion to an older civilization and its understanding of the universe we live in.

Dhane Blue

May 2008

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