Buddhism

May 10, 2015

Real-deal Đà lat, with Rot

Out into the countryside on a guided tour for non-tourists

Rot, the Dalat tour guide who will show you all the secrets
Tour guide Rot will whisk you through the countryside on a cloud of jokes and charm.
In the courtyard at the Pink House, getting ready for the tour
We gathered for the tour early in the morning in the Pink House courtyard.
The cricket farmToasted crickets with chili sauceThe cricket farm pig
As we learned at the cricket farm, these insects are one of the world’s most efficient sources of protein. I’ll still take the pork.
A house out in the countrysideSilkworms at the roadside silkworm farm
Left: A house out in the country; Right: SILKWORMS!
Rot explains the countryside market
A large majority of Vietnamese are Buddhist, and Rot explained to us that for them the death day is the most important day in one’s life. Even more important than a birthday. Each year, to commemorate the occasion, your relatives will burn paper representations of the things you might need in the afterlife; some solemn, some not so much. Here, Rot shows us a full package including glasses, slippers, a credit card, cigarettes and an iPhone. That should please the spirit of Great-great Grand Uncle.
Elephant Falls
While Peter’s seen it all, Emily thought that the Elephant Falls were quite impressive.
Rot's cousin explains some aspects of Vietnamese life
Rot’s cousin was part of the tag team that helped us hit the Đà lạt countryside.
Rot's sister's home
The home of Rot’s sister

Wherever you have a thriving tourist industry, usually at least one enterprising soul will come up with some sort of “not-for-tourists,” “real-deal” experience. Which still, of course, is patronized exclusively by tourists — but, you know, tourists who don’t want to be considered tourists. The cool ones. And sometimes, you just need a guide.

In Đà lạt, this venture is run by one Mr. Rot. And Rot is quite a character. Over the course of his “Secret Tour,” as it’s called, he filled us in on his life story: Born one of 12 children to a poor, village family, he was adopted by the family that owns the Pink House. They sent him to university, where he studied tourism. And now Rot gives tours to visiting foreigners, and does charity work and political activism for his birth village. And sings regularly at a night club in the city. He’s a charismatic showman, and somewhat of a trickster.

The tour is an all-day motorbike excursion out into the countryside. (With the option to ride along in a comfy Toyota Fortuner, which is what we did.) These days, Rot’s cousin handles the actual motorbike journey. Rot does not himself ride anymore, owing to a drunk driving accident a year ago. Among the many things he is, he isn’t a saint.

The tour encompassed a cricket farm, a silk worm farm, a coffee farm, and a curry farm. We stopped at the wet market in the small town of Nam Ban, where Rot goofed with the vendors and compared various vegetables to genitalia.

The Elephant Falls, outside of Nam Ban, was “the only place you’ll see other tourists on my trip,” promised Rot. But he insisted it was worth the stop. Both he and his cousin cautioned against buying anything at the falls’ souvenir shop; all trinkets were marked up to 3-5 times the nominal price.

There were tons of tourists there, all scrambling down the precarious rocky path to the bottom. But I thought the falls were quite beautiful. It was jungle-y and amazing. Peter and our fellow car passenger — an older European woman on a weeks-long ramble through Southeast Asia — were not quite as impressed. They’d seen better and more striking waterfalls elsewhere. We could all agree, however, that the phenomenon of young Asian women hiking these types of dangerous natural wonders in dresses and heels was pretty strange.

Lunch was at the countryside house of Rot’s sister. A Buddhist nun — Sister sister, if you will — she prepared us a simple vegetarian meal of tofu and choko over rice noodles with a soy chili sauce. We played drinking games with soda (though on past tours, I think this was done with actual alcohol). Rot and his cousin explained local customs. Crossing your fingers, a gesture of luck in North America, is a rude expression; the Vietnamese like big noses and big bellies. That kind of thing.

While at the house, we were lucky enough to meet some of Rot’s sister’s neighbors. A group of women in their 60s, 70s and 80s. Rot jokingly married them off to some of the guys in our group. He also got us all to say some inappropriate things in one another’s languages. Exasperated affection was pretty much the order of the day.

As we prepared for the return trip to the city, Rot nipped across the road for a quick volleyball game with some guys he knew. We were giving him a ride back in the Fortuner, so we waited while he finished up. To be honest, Peter and I were a little worried about sharing so much private time with such an energetic guy, but it turned out that Rot seemed as tired as we were, after a full day of being “on.” We rode back to the city in near silence, reflecting on the world we had just seen.

Nov 22, 2014

To the top of Fangshan Mountain

Luzhou’s own scenic spot

A scene at the top of Fangshan Mountain, outside of Luzhou city
Peter on the bus, behind a man and his basket of produceEmily on the busBeside a row of teahouses at the top of the mountainMany teahouses had hammocks for restingA monk and a worker have a chatThe temple, from afarThis chicken is delicious and completely fakeA kitchen full of vegetablesAt the base of the mountain, a monk gets a haircut

The bus out to Fangshan is a small, green, rickety affair, bringing the phrase “bucket of bolts” to life. Our companions on the ride out were a small group of tourists, and farmers with their big woven baskets full of produce and rice. Also, some packages that were making the trip independently. This was a multi-purpose bus. The route to the mountain wends through narrow country roads along the Yangtze River. We passed farms and small villages, and a granny-type who handed the driver a lunch box through his window. The journey isn’t that far — only about 45 minutes — but it felt like traveling worlds away from our city life.

At our destination, the way opened out into your typical tourist structures: noodle huts, incense sellers and ticket booths. The “bus station” here is an informal group of benches across from a couple of reserved parking spaces. Immediately off the bus, some people asked to take a picture with us, the foreigners at the base of Luzhou’s prized attraction.

Fangshan — shan, or 山, meaning mountain — bills itself as a mini-Emei and one of the eight wondrous Buddhist mountains of Sichuan Province. Personally, I think it’s lovelier than Emei; the surroundings feel more lived-in and intimate, and on the day we were there, there were far fewer tourists. (Although a student of mine warned that it can get busy during the holidays.) Active temples and monasteries climb the mountainside, and the natural mixes freely with the man-made. I had a little chat with one of the staff members who was delighted to find that I could speak Chinese. “And so am I,” I said to Peter, relating the encounter.

At the top of the mountain, there is a hotel. Catching the sunrise is a major attraction at Sichuan’s Buddhist mountains, and the best way to do that is to sleep over, I guess. There are also a bunch of scrappy little restaurants and teahouses; most of them with hammocks strung between their own little cluster of trees. Hanging out, of course, being all of Sichuan’s favorite pastime. We opted, instead, for the walking path through the forest out to Knife’s Edge Ridge.

The day was quite overcast, like many autumn days in Luzhou. Our walk through the woods was serene and felt almost otherworldly. At the ridge, the trees fell away and the path became two shallow parabolas, hammocked between a pair of short pagodas. It was a misty, beautiful view, like you see in movies about China. We sat and contemplated our surroundings, marveling that this was in our own backyard.

Mid-mountain, there is Yunfeng Temple — this was the main reason we were there. After three years of making and breaking plans to visit Fangshan, we recently learned from our friend Andrea that the temple restaurant makes amazing fake meat dishes out of tofu (a Buddhist tradition). And if there’s anything that motivates us, it’s food.

It was a late lunch for us. We ordered “chicken” in a scallion and mushroom broth, a side of intensely spicy cucumbers, and the house special — which turned out to be more tofu. Our vegetarian chicken wouldn’t fool anyone (and our server made sure we understood that nothing was made with meat), but it was delicious. Savory and chicken-y with a real fleshy texture. It hit the spot after our morning’s ramble. If the restaurant wasn’t halfway up a mountain, we might go more often.

As it stands, we’d already like to return to Fangshan. There’s really no excuse not to. It’s such a short, easy — if bumpy — bus trip, and there are many more paths to explore. Not to mention the caves and waterfalls that we missed. At the very least, we’d like to try the “fish.”

Knife's Edge Ridge unfurls into the mist
Knife’s Edge Ridge affords a striking view.

Sep 6, 2014

Wandering the Songpan countryside

前面一点点, or Go on ahead, just a little farther

High on the hills outside of Songpan
Some horses in the roadA small streamWhere are we going? Not here.
This is it, our driver told us, Shangniba Monastery. On the phone with a translating David, I said that this isn’t the it we were looking for.
Some kids in a small Tibetan village.More village
We passed through a small Tibetan village on our way out into the countryside.
On the roadSome prayer flagsOur little truckOur little truckWe keep going up
Just keep going up.
On the west mountainMore horses
On our second day of exploring, we drove up the mountain to the west of the city.
Houses on the west mountainMe on the West GateOur friends on the West Gate
The West Gate is isolated from the hubbub of the valley.

All of the travel services in Songpan are geared to get you out of it. Whether it’s on horse or by bike, on foot or by car, someone in town will help you plan and execute your foray into the wild. Our someone was David, the son of our hostel owner and the main barista/bartender at the Kitchen. He also had some great advice for us on local wines. He’s a knowledgeable man.

David found us a driver (because, of course, we went by car). A plucky little guy with a little silver pickup who laughed at all of our antics. For two days, he drove us everywhere we asked to go, even when we had no idea where we were going.

Our first afternoon, outside of Shangniba Monastery — a destination I plucked from the hand-drawn map on the wall of the Kitchen — he had to call David to explain that we were, in fact, there. It’s nice, I said, but it’s not what we had in mind. The sprawling Buddhist temple was in the middle of a serene valley, but we were hoping our trip would take us in a more upward direction. Later, Peter joked privately that, “We’re Americans. We just want to go to the top.”

So our driver drew two arrows on a piece of paper, one pointing forward and the other looping back. We chose forward — “前面一点点,” Peter said — and he took us on a joyride into the mountains. And it was fantastic. He drove until there was no road and we got out to look. Then he turned around and we reached a crossroads with a road that ascended even higher. “上可以吗?” I asked. Can we go up? Yes, we can.

Our journey that day took us through the valleys, up the twisty mountain roads, past farmland and through small villages. Periodically, small herds of yak and horses would crowd the road. Our driver would honk and we’d all laugh. Vibrantly colored Tibetan prayer flags stood out against the green of the mountains. It was idyllic. And the view from the top was just magnificent. Up high, the only sounds were the prayer flags that whipped in the wind, and a horse in a field that snorted at our arrival. Taking it all in we marveled: “It’s amazing that this is China … that this is the earth!”

The next day, we headed for the West Gate, an ancient fortification perched on the mountain that overlooks Songpan city. (That’s actually where I hoped we were going when I asked for the monastery.) Our driver took the back way straight to the top, where we decided that we’d take the walking trail back down.

But before our decent, it was snack time. Peter and I sat looking down on the city on the edge of the West Gate, and broke out our yak and barley bread picnic. We were quickly joined by a boisterous group of kids — and their adult — who had actually done the climb on their own two feet. They — four young boys and a somewhat reserved girl — were still full of energy. Between snacks, they howled like wolves at the city below, and aimed pretend guns through the gate’s crenelations. Like you do. They were also pretty amused by our presence, and tossed jello cups to us. (“Like we were monkeys,” Peter said.)

The way down is impeccably maintained. High up on the mountain is a wooden walkway, which turns into a stone pathway as the incline gets less steep lower down. There are regular rest areas along the way, placed to enjoy the prettiest views. On our way down, we only ran into a few other small groups, so the pathway belonged solely to us for most of our descent.

Near the bottom, humanity reasserts itself. One house becomes a few, becomes the outskirts of the city. A group of local woman claimed the lowest viewing platform for their afternoon hangout. We followed the path to the end and made our egress onto a busy city street. A few kids gave us high fives for our success. Or because they liked the looks of us. Who knows? We were all having fun.

Our travels in Songpan represent probably the least planning we’ve ever done for a trip. But it all worked out amazingly. By just picking a destination and figuring it out, we may look like fools some of the time, but we stumble into experiences we wouldn’t have even know to look for had we come burdened with any expectations. Sometimes the results are confusing, or even boring, but even that teaches us something. On the whole “just go on ahead, a little more” has been a rewarding way to live our lives.

A view of Songpan city from abovePeter eats lunch at the West Gate, the kids look on.West GateWe hike down the west mountain
We conquered Songpan!

Apr 27, 2014

A long weekend in Leshan and Emei Shan

The monks and monkeys tour

Emei Shan has some staggering views
Our charming room at the Teddy BearTeddy Bear exterior
Our room at the Teddy Bear Hotel was cute and comfortable.
Baoguo Village main street
From the Baoguo Village main street, you can catch a glimpse of the Emei Mountain’s foothills.
The foot of Emei Shan hiking trailThe foot of Emei Shan hiking trailThe foot of Emei Shan hiking trail
The story of the mountain is told at the entrance to the hiking path.
Mountains and cloudsMountains and clouds
The mountain peeks through the clouds.
An encounter with monkeys
An encounter with a monkey is something exciting! Or terrifying!
The cable car ride was shrouded in mist
Our cable car ride was completely clouded over. We couldn’t see or hear anything, and it was pretty eerie.
The elephant at the top of the mountainPeter, the hikerLooking down from the topI'm at the Golden Summit
Photographic proof: We made it to the Golden Summit.
Wolverine Peter, meat handsFinding enlightenment at the bar
Left: The table behind us laughed at Peter’s Meat-Hands Wolverine.
Right: We found our enlightenment in the courtyard at the 3077.
Leshan and the river
A view of Leshan city from the river.
On the boat out to Big BuddhaWe look at the fools who took the stairsBonus guard
Left and center: The boat vs. the stairs. Right: A bonus guard.
Big Buddha is bigThe caves in the cliff face

So, let’s get situated: Leshan Prefecture administers the cities of Leshan, home to the Giant Buddha, and Emei, adjacent to the mountain of the same name. All of this is about a three-hour bus ride from home, and must see sights of southwest Sichuan.

We set camp at the cozycute Teddy Bear Hotel in Baoguo Village, the actual closest settlement to Mt. Emei. The main street of Baoguo Village exists solely to funnel tourists up the mountain past its strip of hostels, hotels and restaurants. At capacity, and our weekend was nowhere near capacity, the area can service approximately a bajillion people. But they still manage to balance function and charm.

The mountain itself is a verdant wonder. And one of China’s Four Sacred Buddhist Peaks. At the base of the hiker’s path, the story of the mountain is plotted out in sculptures and plaques: the journeys of the Shakyamuni Buddha and his six-tusked elephant, and the scholar Bodhisattva Puxian to whom Shakyamuni lent said elephant. It’s very beautiful in the lamp light.

Climbing the mountain is a pilgrimage for some, whether natural or spiritual. Or spirito-natural, I guess. And the hike can be a serious, days-long adventure. On our first night there, Teddy Bear owner Andy asked after our plan. We’d see him in deep consultations over maps and supplies with many groups during the next few days. But our plan was simple. We were going to take the bus and then the cable car straight nearly to the top and get the whole thing done in an afternoon.

The cheater’s way did involve some trekking. We followed the masses up the winding, slippery stone paths to the top. (Our fellow bus passengers snickered at us for bringing the bamboo walking sticks that our hotel provided, but on the mountain many of them shelled out cash for not-free sticks.) The low-oxygen of the high altitude was noticeable, but the climbers included grandparents, babies, and women in high heels, so it wasn’t that challenging. But for those that just couldn’t, a sedan chair ride was 60 yuan per kilometer.

Groups of kiosks sprouted every few hundred meters, selling trinkets and supplies (if you didn’t bring a coat, you could rent one), but also fresh hot snacks; mountain plucked loose tea, dried mushrooms, roots and herbs; mounted butterflies; and all manner of panda merchandise. There are not pandas on Mt. Emei — they’re four hours away in Chengdu — but there are monkeys. And the signs that say watch your stuff are serious warnings. These Tibetan Macaques have no fear of people and quite like their food. We saw a monkey rip a bag out of a man’s hand and go to town on his vacuum-packed tofu and water bottles.

The Golden Summit, as it’s called, is home to a few temples and a statue of Bodhisattva Puxian. It also boasts a few kiosks and restaurants where you can buy souvenirs, sausage, and beer. Not strictly Buddhist. A few groups of tourists asked to take pictures with us; we weren’t the only foreigners on the mountain, but our numbers were few. We also got recognized by a former coworker, which was a sweet moment.

All told, the up and the down took about 8 hours. The experience was both completely touristy and genuinely majestic. The scenery was gorgeous and even the encounter with the monkeys was thrilling. We didn’t find solitude (‘cause we weren’t looking for it), but it was there if you were willing to work for it.

Nightlife in Baoguo Village is pretty subdued — probably because everyone there is getting up early to climb a mountain in the morning. Most everyone online recommends the poorly named Good Eats Street (the fools!), a place filled with cookie cutter copies of restaurants serving bland, expensive versions of the same Sichuan dishes we enjoy at home. We were better served, as it were, by the restaurants along the main street. We zeroed in on one in particular that offered a super delicious cured pork dish that we ordered three times over the course of our short stay. Our other haunt was the courtyard at the 3077 hostel which served drinks and barbecue late into the night. The main attraction there was something we started referring to as “night sausage,” made from the same cured pork we enjoyed so much.

Leshan city is a doable day trip from Baoguo Village, and it looks like a fun place to hang. We only had time, however, for Buddha. Again, there’s a hard and an easy way to do this. The hard way takes you down a sun-baked spiral staircase in single file for two hours with thousands of other tourists. (In China, there’s never just a few tourists.) Our choice: a 20-minute river cruise viewing of the statue. From the boat, you also got a bonus view of Buddha’s two guards carved into the cliff face.

This Buddha, at 71 meters, is the largest, seated stone Buddha in the world. It was carved from the years 713 to 803, and is a breathtaking feat of human engineering. As our boat idled in front of the statue, Buddha sat serenely, half in shade, moss growing epically slowly all over his body. He looks as if he’s always been there.

We’re not necessarily outdoorsy people, and we haven’t been converted away from city life, but we had a fantastic time. I also felt triumphant that I was able to get us so smoothly around an area, catering as it did primarily to domestic tourists, where very little English was spoken. In fact, I even helped a couple of other foreigners get where they were going.

I can’t get too cocky, though. On what was to be our last day, some misunderstanding lead us to look for an afternoon Luzhou bus that didn’t exist. We were trapped in town for another night and had to take an emergency personal day from work. But there are far worse places to be held over, I can tell you. Another round of night sausage, please!

All of Big Buddha

Dec 3, 2012

Chongqing: Arhat Temple

History in the middle of the present

Arhat Temple
Arhat TempleArhat TempleArhat TempleArhat Temple

Arhat Temple is a 1,000-year-old Buddhist temple which is now smack in the center of Chongqing’s commercial district. Much like Central Park in New York, you can see the surrounding city from inside, but you feel immersed in a separate environment.

Though that separate environment doesn’t cast off all commercialism; At the entrance and throughout the temple, there are plenty of opportunities to purchase tributes to the gods and souvenirs for yourself. (In the absence of government or other funding, this is how the monks support their operation.)

The long passageway from the entrance to the inner temple was lined with ceramic gods who had received some gifts of apples, baijiu, incense and other small tokens. Many visitors bowed to these gods in prayer.

The main room of the temple is given over to a hall containing more than 500 life-sized Arhat statues. A sign instructed, “Don’t take photograph of carven statles in this temple!” so we didn’t, although we really wished that we could. The statues were amazing — all arranged in action poses, with distinct features and personalities. Men of every complexion are represented. Some hold animals or tools, and some are a little more otherworldly and have extra eyes or another little man inside their chest. Some Arhats occupied clouds, some rode sea creatures. Some interacted with their neighbor, while others stared intently down at the viewers, and still others stared off into space. There was clearly a commitment to giving each and every statue a life of its own.

The room itself was a fit setting for these guys. The ceiling was gilded in gold with images of dragons all over, and colorful banners hung from the rafters. The Arhats were accompanied by some tremendous gold Buddha figures, and there were small altars at relevant locations. We espied a monk giving a young girl a consultation at one of these.

Everything is still in really good shape … although we learned later that the present statues were molded in 1986, so its no great preserved treasure, but it’s still impressive to see.

May 2, 2012

A Buddha emerges from the mist

On the far side of the river

The Buddha in his grove

As I said last week, springtime here is sunny, whereas autumn was not. Because of this, we’re noticing all kinds of things that we haven’t seen before. Including this giant statue of Buddha built into the mountain across the river from where we usually sit.

Here’s a wider shot of him to give you some sense of the scale:

Look at the other side!

I’ll report back if we find out any more about this guy.