This is a story about a hike I was on with school children and their parents — one that I wasn’t expecting and was ill-prepared for. It took place last year (2009) on October 25th during the Sichuan fall season. I’m 58 now, fatter than when I hiked to Hemkund in north India.
It’s a good thing because I was fitter, more than 15 years younger then, and the Hemkund hike took two days and went up to 5,000 meters in altitude. This hike was more appropriate for who and what I am now. It was two hours up a steep hill but the hike still took as much out of me as the earlier trip in India. Old age is creeping up on me.
I am now working in a Chinese kindergarten and my students are mostly in the 2-4 years old category — they don’t challenge me to very many feats of physical strength but keep my spirit young on a daily basis. It is a fair trade-off, in my opinion. I have been in Chengdu for the past 15 months and worked here previously — for a year and 8 months — beginning in the summer of 2003. Then, I began my stay in Chengdu with a hike into the mountains west of Chengdu. There are a group of sacred Taoist mountains not far from Dujiangyan with the most famous of them called Mt. Qingcheng. Not far from that mountain is Tianshi Cave where I walked with my new boss and his family back then. I remember the cold water spilling off of the cliff we climbed on a set of ‘rusty’ steps clinging to the side of the rock face. At the top was a dilapidated, fire-damaged Taoist shrine and the cave. Inside the cave, we followed a winding stream lit by hanging light bulbs into the dark and to a statue at the stream’s head. Ice-cold water gushed out of the cave wall, beneath the sage’s feet, and on out of the cave. Walking into the cave was like opening the door of a ‘walk-in’ freezer and as cold. That was my introduction to the Himalaya in Sichuan Province. I made other trips into the mountains back then and never had a premonition of the earthquake that struck them last year.
So, back in the present, I recently met a group of Chinese families who befriended me and who invited me on another trip into the mountains during the recent National Day holidays. We spent two nights in the mountains and got to know each other at a makeshift picnic in Bao Xing — a small town about 6 hours drive west of Chengdu. It is further south than the earthquake struck area and didn’t suffer much damage. Thus, tourism has slowly grown in that area. Unfortunately, there aren’t many ready-made picnic spots in China. We made do with a vacant lot on an overcast day but still enjoyed the clean, mountain air and my home-made American cooking. My barbecue pork burgers and mustard potato salad helped fill stomachs. I have shared my cookbooks and recipes with my newly made friends. That’s still my big ole gut hanging out there — still too much Sichuan pork and beer. I don’t appear ready to give up either just yet.
So, that was about two or three weeks ago. It is now after that refreshing, 2 week long holiday, and things have settled back into the day to day routine of a kindergarten teacher. Not that I am hard at work on that — it’s still only a part time occupation for me. That leaves me a lot of time to ruminate on other matters, study a little, research a few things on the internet, and wander around in town for good places to have a cold beer and put up my feet.
I didn’t get to do much of that yesterday. Shuwei, my new Chinese friend, a former student at a university in Tampa, Florida had shared stories about life there. I was a lawyer’s assistant in Panama City, Florida so we shared our impressions of life around the time of 9-11 in Florida. Anyway, Shuwei called me up on Saturday and told me about the trip the next day — this time, with a much larger group of parents and their children. A local university teacher has formed an organization and networked with Chengdu parents to create opportunities for the city kids to get out of the city on bi-monthly educational trips — discovering that life in the city is not all that Sichuan Province has to offer. So, we met at the toll gate to the freeway north of Chengdu and collected all the parents and kids — more than 15 cars of them. It was only an hour’s drive out into the countryside and through a small town to the next hamlet along the river. The day was overcast and foggy, but not cold.
Upon arrival, the kids were lined up and prepared for the hike up the mountain. I didn’t know what to expect. I hadn’t understood Shuwei’s explanation and thought we might be going to a cultural museum and were going to have another picnic. Ha ha — little did I know what was in store for my old, tired muscles. But, I was game for anything and couldn’t relax into the role of ‘grandfather’ just yet. We set off down the road, paralleling the river, and came to the beginning of the set of stairs up the mountain. I had imagined a small hill and thought we’d reach the temple in half an hour or so. Again — ha ha — tricks on me!
I don’t remember the name of the temple but the picture gives it — albeit in Chinese. I will leave it for the reader to decipher for himself or herself. All I knew is that we were going up and that meant hard work for me. I get winded these days just carrying my bicycle up to my 3rd floor apartment. I wasn’t carrying my bike up the hill, though. I have done that in the hills around Kathmandu, in Nepal, before — including one time I was traveling with a student of mine. We ended up spending that night on the cold hillside — but that is another story. I guess I’ll have to post it sometime soon. Anyway, while the kids were at the bottom of the steps getting their name tags made out and directions issued, I set out after a couple already climbing the stairs with their 3 year old daughter. I reassured myself that if she could do it, I had no excuses for not tagging along.
With that little girl in sight and ahead of me, I started putting one foot up after the other. Climbing hills or mountains is mostly ‘psychology’. I told myself that if I could walk with my wife and her family for a week of 12 hour days in the Himalaya that this hike should be a sure thing. That thought boosted me up the first flight of stairs and onto the second. I didn’t think the top was far away. From the top of the second flight of stairs, we reached a cupola and could stop and sit for a while. Before I knew it, the troop of kids were bounding up the stairs behind me like young kangaroos. I wondered where they got all the energy from. But, then they don’t have a lot of bad habits that we so-called adults accumulate. I am sure I was the same when I was younger. I climbed a lot of hills in the Appalachian Mountains when I was the same age as the older kids in this group and I didn’t think much of it then. Of course, the Appalachian trail wanders up and around rounded hills and doesn’t attack a hill straight up with flights of stairs. Maybe, this ‘straight up’ approach is OK but I’d prefer to wind my way up like a snake — of course, in Chinese astrology, I am a snake. I suppose that explains my style. I keep growing — I certainly look like a snake that’s swallowed a big, fat rat when you look at my stomach. I got that way, at least in part, from the last year spent in Thailand — the year of the rat when many Thais were happy to celebrate with a feast of that meat. No thanks! Snakes shed their skins as they grow, leaving the past behind. The bigger the snake, I guess the harder that gets. I remember watching a Hollywood movie about a giant Anaconda that swallows the bad guy at the end of the movie. It ends up spitting him out, undigested. That reminds me of myself — the bad guy representing unpleasant memories of the past. I have to get them out of me sometime, someway.
So, the hike began and went on with steeper and steeper sets of stairs. I was thankful for the railings and the relatively short and flat sections between sets of steps. My climb to the top took 2 hours and at least a kilogram of sweat. At the second level, we came across a road that I surmised winds its way to the top. Later, I was to discover I was right. But, this was not a trip by car, instead on foot. So, we continued the climb, passing through a hillside cemetery and on up the hill. Next, we came to a village surrounded by orchards on the terraced hillside. I was reminded of my hikes in Nepal and felt a powerful surge of memories that almost convinced me I was back there. A lone village woman was planting bean seeds under the trees in the orchard and I stopped to watch her. I remembered planting corn and beans behind the house in Thailand where I visited with Burmese children. I still have a lot left to learn if I ever want to become a successful farmer. I think the only way to learn would be to live with one. Perhaps, that is still something I will do in this life. On up the hill, we crossed the road a couple of more times. I stopped to buy a bottle of yogurt drink from a woman standing beside the road and watched her little boy toddling over. I hadn’t escaped the kindergarten after all. We started to climb through what was more of a forest on the hillside and then through what looked like a tunnel under a stone wall. Shuwei told me that the temple at the top was within the remaining walls of a stone fortress built here more than a thousand years ago. Once inside the tunnel and the walls, I could see we were still not at the peak and had more climbing to go. Finally, we reached the road at the top and took it further up to the peak. A small village was there with a lot of abandoned buildings. We walked along the road and beside a small guest house — apparently closed for the season. Winter can’t be far off. At the top of the hill, we entered the temple through a passageway in the process of being remodeled. At last, we were at the entrance to the temple.
As temples go, I’ve seen bigger and grander ones and I’ve seen those in a more humble state. We all rejoined each other as a group and made our way to the dining hall for a refreshing, vegetarian lunch. We were destined to spend a few hours here hanging out with the kids and playing games. I was ‘volunteered’ to read a few story books in English. The kids had received free copies of the books as part of the program. It seemed OK to me. I read them a book about ‘bugs’ but couldn’t help but chuckle on the inside as I remember my own lessons taught me by Burmese kids in Thailand. At that time, I made a small video called ‘Burmese Bug 101′ as one of my kids instructed me in the fine art of finding, catching, killing, roasting and eating big, black crickets. That is yet another story for another day. I didn’t know what to make of the story about ‘Froggy and his Red Pajamas’ — I just read it with a deadpan expression on my face. I have a lot of experience camping and hiking — mostly as a Boy Scout when I was much younger. I also took kids from Denver, Colorado on trips into the Rocky Mountains so I will probably suggest this as an activity to the group that I could teach. That is for the future and another page on this blog somewhere — I guess I’ll have to create a ‘camping’ page.
I decided to leave the group an hour early — I wanted to walk back down the hill alone. As I was leaving the temple, I was struck by a couple of carvings. One was inside the temple of a small demon helping hold up a larger structure. It reminded me of Atlas holding the world on his back. It also reminded me of the image of a comet with three tails — the demon’s three ponytails. What’s going on there? There is a lot of unknown history of the Earth and catastrophes that have struck it encoded in the world’s art and religions. Do you have any idea of what story might be waiting to be discovered in such images and statues? I have been doing a lot of reading and researching of the subject of comets and the ‘electric universe’ theory held by some scientists. If I ever begin to understand any of it to my satisfaction I’ll try to write about it some on this blog. For now, I am satisfied that I made this climb to a Taoist temple and discovered my favorite ‘god’ waiting there — the one I most identify with. Can you guess who he is? A hint — take a look at my stomach in the picture above. Have you got it?
Yes, you might have guessed it. Within the Buddhist tradition, it is the smiling, fat, happy Buddha. In China, he brings good fortune to all who rub his stomach. I often rub my stomach in front of my kindergarten kids for a laugh. It usually breaks them up. They understand where I’m coming from on the ‘gut’ level — pun intended. Within the Hindu tradition, the same god is Ganesh. Except that he has an elephant head — symbolic of the elephant’s ability to never forget. Scientists have recently referred to a newly named particle — the Ganesh particle. What does it mean to them? You might be surprised by the answer if you ‘google’ it. Ganesh is my particular favorite. Of course, in the Christian tradition, ole Saint Nicholas, or Santa Claus, or Father Christmas — is the same being. He loves children and provides them treats at Christmas if they have been good. Hindus worship Ganesh for ‘good luck’ — something the Irish also appreciate. If what I’m reading and researching about catastrophes caused by comets is even only partly true, then I am ready to pray for some ‘good luck’. Nothing else seems to offer much promise for survival in the event of such apocalyptic tidings. So, I can only conclude that this unplanned trip to the mountain top was a pilgrimage of sorts to ask for ‘good luck’ – for myself, for the children in my life, their families, and for China and Burma. Sichuan Province doesn’t need any more earthquakes nor does Burma need any more typhoons. Both have taken the lives of many children. One can only hope they are now in a happier place where the smiling Buddha is with them. It’s certainly a better image than ‘Saturn’ — the god that eats his own children. That is not a good way to get so fat and content. I can only hope that it’s not some obscene cosmic joke on us all. Anyway, if one must give up one’s life — and we all must at some point or another — let’s just pray that we can smile when it happens.