We took the midnight express back to Chenzhou from Hengshan late Saturday night. This meant getting dirty. I once spent four years as a grunt. Digging foxholes and wading through marshes was dirty work too. I look back at this previous incarnation with nostalgia as I board a crowded train in which tickets were sold beyond seating capacity for people to stand or sit in the aisles. The windows were sealed shut. There was the sound of people hawking up snotty yellow mucous. Chewed up sunflower seeds and cigarette butts scattered upon the floor. Old men with rotten, nicotine stained teeth smoked in the thresholds between cars. They came back to their seats smelling like death and brimstone. One such man hovered above me in the seat behind me. He was listening to the banter of my seat mates: five college age boys with long finger nails and high hair were engaged in a riveting discussion with my two guides and a lady returning home from a Shanghai shopping trip.
All I wanted to do was rest my eyes and mull over my recent trip to Hengshan Mountain. But every time a vision of green pines and vast blue skies manifested within, one of the boys would try to practice his oral English on me: “Ah, excuse me, sir. Who is the most handsome boy?” He giggled. The other boys laughed.
I opened my eyes and saw that the boy really wanted to know. In his eyes it was a legitimate and innocent question. But such a question failed to capture my interest. For some people it was hard to get their attention when the television was on. I was one such person. My television set was on so I returned to my visions.
Hengshan was one of China’s five holy mountains, sacred to Buddhism and Taoism. The slopes and ridges were lined with tombs, temples, and a monastery or two. A lone pagoda stood aloof on a nearby mountain. Chinese tourists came to pray for an increased return of their stock investments, extra babies, a second car, a safe journey to the shoppers’ paradise of Hong Kong, and other things that promised happiness. I was the only odd ball here. A stranger in a strange land seeking nature, spirituality, and some traditional Chinese architecture.
We had set out on a brisk autumn morning. I packed light for a two day journey. I brought layers, Chinese trail mix, moon cake and a canteen of green tea. My two guides – who shall remain nameless but one whose claim to fame is due her favorite movie being American Pie – went above and beyond the call of duty. They refused to let me pay for anything. In fact, I had to fight in order to treat them to dinner and pay for the cab ride home. “What made the mountains holy,” I asked them.
“Many famous peopre came here,” said one.
Oh, okay. It seemed the concept of religious experience was too alien. Either that or my students lacked the vocabulary to describe the concept in a meaningful way. I had a theory that sometimes English-speaking Chinese people sometimes found it convenient to misunderstand or feign ignorance. From my research Hengshan literally meant ‘balancing mountain.’ Though I still wasn’t able to find out why exactly it was holy, other than the fact that many temples had been built there. I wondered if anything special happened here. Like maybe some holy man had received a vision or some divine inspiration here. But my internet sources were full of useless information.
The students arranged everything. One student’s uncle was a higher-up official in a nearby town — which meant he was a member of the Chinese Communist Party. So — via the guanxi of relationships and connections — I was given the royal treatment. They would not let me pay for a thing. That included transportation, food, hotel, and touring fees. I did not even have to use my passport the entire time. Being transported from the city to the mountain in a luxury car with tinted windows instead decrepit public transport was a highlight.
All this effort touched my heart. So when I tried to pay for things or express my gratitude I was told to just relax. The student’s uncle told me that since his niece’s teacher we had a relationship. And that was that. I got the impression that making a fuss about hospitality was unseemly – perhaps even causing me or my benefactors or both of us to lose face.
After about three months in a city that makes Mos Eisely seem like bucolic desert utopia of order and cleanliness, I was looking forward to a good hike in the Chinese countryside. Imagine communing with Mother Nature: blue skies, mountains and old growth pine. It was the perfect place to cleanse your soul and lungs. It would be a much needed respite from my current residence — a Dickensian hive of scum and villainy crossed with a Blade Runner technocracy — with its dismal miasma of noise and air pollution. But your guides cannot enjoy the silence – such a thing is as remote a concept as religion — nor can they appreciate the sound of wind against the pines. They remedied this abnormality by singing Chinese pop songs or turning on their combo cell phone/mp3 player to “Break up the sirence.” So much for nature therapy.
Our path was a ribbon of pavement that wound its way up the mountain. Tour buses and motor bikes careened down the hill. Their horns continuously blaring like morse code warnings: “Beware, beware. Pedestrians beware. Walk with care. Get out of the way. Go ahead punk, make my day.” Stone stairways short-cutted the switchbacks. Enterprising villagers set up stands where they hawked drinks, corn cobs, eggs, medicinal roots, and trinkets. They advertised their wares with plastic slide whistles – the kind that made an asinine “yo-yo” sound. These dunce whistles echoed throughout the mountain sides like the bizarre mating calls of some long thought extinct dumb-dumb bird. I asked my guides about this peculiar phenomenon. Was it some kind of Taoist tradition to ward away devils and fox women?
No, they explained. They smiled, charmed by my naiveté. You see, one student explained, the adults who come here are parents who have children, and part of the job of being a parent is to give their children something to do. So they buy their children whistles.
“Oh, okay.” That was becoming my new mantra. “Oh, okay,” and sometimes, “Oh, I see.” Seldom ever was it “Om.”
We climbed the holy mountain, our lungs heaved and legs burned as we took the stone stairs through a bamboo grove. Pine trees flexed with the wind against a blue sky. Blissful moments of solitude came and went. And there was that idiot sound of dunce whistles in the breeze. Great temples with their gently sloping gables sprouted from the sides and summits of the mountain. A pagoda sprung up from a hill in the distance. I wanted to go off trail and bushwhack through the woodlands and explore the pagoda. But there it stood: A taunting dark tower never to be entered in this life.
We explored other temples along the way were gods sat crosslegged in their inner sanctums . Candle light glinted off their golden skin. Women in high heels genuflected before something that looked like a three-eyed Blackbeard with a piractical grin. Normally I would call them statues. But my guide scolded me for taking pictures, “With every picture you take you take something away from God.”
“Oh, okay,” I murmured appreciatively.
Some gods had gold skin and black, bushy beards. People folded their hands and kneeled. Outside, people threw firecrackers into brick ovens. I was curious as to what all this signified, but by now, I had stopped asking questions. My guides were as clueless as I was. Inside, incense burned and gods with painted eyes glared at me. There was a god for everything. There was a god for wealth. One for longevity. And still another for making babies. This latter was explained to me by the girl who loved American Pie.
“Want to go in the temple to see the god for babies?” she asked. She spoke in a soft, conspiratorial tone that reminded me of women back in college when they had asked if I wanted to come over to watch a movie after a night out at the bar.
“No.” We were burning day light and I wanted to climb and feel its ascent in my legs and relish the fresh mountain air. Such an experience was precious to me. While making babies was always on my mind – or rather the preliminary business at least – today was different. Additionally, going into a dark, stifling womb-like structure, cloudy with incense was getting quite old.
“No, you don’t want to go in? Or no, you don’t want a baby?” she wanted clarification.
Of course I was always up for going in. I just didn’t want to linger on this precipice any longer. Earlier, I had indulged her request to ‘sing to the mountain.’ It was a Chinese tradition to make you feel good she had explained. Furthermore, this explained why I had seen students at the university shouting with an opened book in their hands. They thought it somehow facilitated learning and induced happiness. And it was why the mountain behind Xiangnan University was known as Crazy English Mountain to the laowai. She suggested we ‘sing to the mountain’ by screaming, “I love you.” Normally, I am all for sounding my barbaric yawp across the rooftops of the world. But this time I did it and felt like I was being nice. I was making nice to preserve the damned harmony. And she had been miffed that there was no echo to bring my words back to her.
Now she wanted clarification. Christ, I barely knew the girl and it felt like we were married already. I liked her as a person. She was nice. She was curious and intelligent. And she wanted to talk about sex. But all I wanted to do was enjoy the scenery. I answered her question. “A little bit of both.” It was far more convenient to be mean than try to explain that at this critical juncture I currently found the bourgeoisie concept of the M word to be a despicable materialistic enterprise. Plus culture shock was setting in. But how does an American capitalist roader explain all this to Chinese communist?
We made it to the top two hours before sundown. The white stone walls of Zhurong Gong, an 8th Century Buddhist temple, jutted out of the rocky summit above the pine clad mountain side. It perched upon one of the seventy two peaks of the Hengshan range. I got away from tourists with their dunce whistles and claimed a new precipice of my own to meditate upon. My eyes closed and the sun warmed my skin. Pine trees and fresh air made for wonderful incense. Mountains beyond mountains wound away in jagged ridge lines below me. I reigned in my breath. I inhaled the sunwarmth and expanded my ribcage to its outer limits. I exhaled toxins – both real and imagined, both physical and metaphysical.
I communed with nature and the zeitgeist. I dreamed of sublime jungles, all asteam with the rising sun, and ancient ruins still somewhat recognizable with their crumbling weathered obelisks amidst emerald plains teeming with bison—and the farthest reaches of known space where brigands and fiefdoms and transnationals clashed over trade routes, water rights, minerals, whole worlds, ancient ideas, heaps of broken images. Men, women, posthumans, and automatons all clamored to find their destiny in the stars, finding only the cold, desolate vacuum of the outer reaches—a tabula rasa devoid of reality, the perfect reflecting glass for the dreams and nightmares of civilizations to come and the wildspace primeval. There would be wars, quests, bloodshed, intrigue, socioeconomic tumult, heroism and villainy, mass extinctions, as well as their macrocosmic correlates—all indicators that the cosmos had come to another particularly unstable, disorderly period of the time.
Only time would reveal the subtleties of the pattern. It was another period of turbulence, when nothing appeared as it really was, when there was beauty in death and decay, and there was truth hidden within illusions and deceit, when all that glitters was not gold, and when the living would sacrifice everything in order to secure a paltry place in a dying hierarchy in the great chain of being. And for many, their place lay on paths unimaginable yet preordained. Souls asail on a sea of dreams could only fathom what shores their ships would sight let alone what storms and scourges or sojourns and salves lay ready to tip the scales of samsara. And so too I wandered afar in flight seeing what I could see, immersed in wonder, astral currents of the great vastness coursing through me, imbuing each living cell with a hint of greater awareness, so that the whole became greater than the sum, which enabled the formation of a conduit for all knowledge and experience of everything, and culminating in a continuous ebb and flow of information so overwhelming and astounding that I would drown and sink one moment, then float and swim the next, and only by focusing on one intersecting nexus between weft and warp of the weave, I was able to plunge into one moment of the here and now: a rose growing out of the stony rubbish a vacant lot.
Crowds formed around me like specters. They congregated behind me and upon the rocky slopes below, laughing, talking, and snapping pictures.
Later that day we sought dinner in that town at the foot of Hengshan. I told them to order whatever they wanted. We had beer, mandarins, lotus root, and spiced pork with green beans. And then a bowl of mystery meat and peppers came out. “What is this?” I asked investigating the strips of ruffly gray meat with my chopsticks.
The girls exchanged glances. “Just eat it,” they said.
Earlier they had asked me some staple questions. What do I like to eat and do I like Chinese food. Of course, I loved Chinese food. And I loved vegetables. This was because you always knew what the hell you were eating. Meat on the other hand was sketchy. It was cut down into minuscule, unidentifiable pieces. I had told them that I did not eat organs, feet, face, ears, tails, tongues or brains. I was willing to try any animal – but only cooked skeletal muscle tissue would do. Now I saw a bowl of mystery meat and I was skeptical. It took all my years of medical and anatomy education to realize that it was bowel tissue. Pig bowel to be exact. They enjoyed their bowl Hunan Pork Bowel and I contented myself with lotus root and green beans.
The streets were clean and it was safe for your children to play in the alleys and side roads. Cars drove by without oppressing pedestrians with their horns and tyranny. Most of the buildings had distinctive Chinese architecture. Just as my current city specialized in clothing shops, this town too had its specialty: fireworks, beads, and trinkets.
By midnight we finally made it home. Instead of paying for tickets my students bribed our way back. I had asked them why we didn’t get tickets. “It’s very easy to sneak on,” she said. It didn’t occur to them that being with the only foreign devil on the train would complicate matters. But I wanted to observe Chinese behavior so I let them Shanghai me. (Plus they made their plans in Chinese and without my input – just one more reason for me to learn Mandarin if I ever want to have a voice here). They gave money to conductors and security guards – which helped me to understand why being a train conductor was a highly coveted job in China.
It backfired when we got to our destination. The guard saw that we didn’t have tickets. It was the last checkpoint. He wanted to charge us for tickets from the train’s origin twelve hours away in Shanghai. And I was worried that he would expect more since they were with a “rich foreigner.” Luckily, we had written proof we had just come from Hengshan just two hours away. The girls gave him the money. He pulled out his wallet from the back pocket of his uniform trousers, gave back some change, and then tucked the renminbi into his wallet. “They are working very hard tonight,” one of the girls offered in explanation.
My guides finally let me pay for the taxi ride back to campus.