Archive for September, 2010

A temple less traveled, Part one

September 8, 2010 Leave a comment

When I went to Italy several years ago I was determined to see EVERYTHING that Florence and Rome had to offer.  That was until I got museum feet.  And by the time I’d walked into the fifth cathedral, I wanted to screech, rip a censer away from one of the nuns and begin to swing the thing madly over my head.  The same feeling took hold of Brian and I our second day in Bangkok, traveling with two Thai-Buddhist friends of friends.  We had first experienced temple fatigue the day before, after being rushed through three separate temple grounds and ending in a Gem-scam trap.  We’d thought we were going through a cruise on the Chao Praya river, but first we went to a temple.  Then, when we actually went on the gondola-like boat ride (except for the single engine rudder and the water snakes) we ended up at another temple.

“I don’t even know what that is,” Brian was saying, crouched in a parking lot next to a golden statue of an elephant at which we’d been instructed to throw some sort of oil.  “What is that elephant thing?  That’s not even Buddha, why are we giving it money??”

How closed-minded, you may say.  The problem is, an answer to a question like, “What is that?” is often something like, “[Unintelligible god-name] Very important god.  Very big god.”

And to “what does [feeble attempt at reproducing sounds making up god-name] do?”

“Bring you good luck.  Bring you money.”  People all over the world have this desire in common, I suppose.  To clarify, I am VERY interested in world religion.  I love asking questions about religion and letting people go on and on about it to me.  I love studying religion and looking at religious art in small doses.  Something about temples, however, brings out the devil in me.

Fortunately though, this didn’t happen in Shangri-La.  Shangri-La has

the biggest prayer-wheel in Asia, towering at 24 meters that spins on the hilltop over the old-town area.  It stands slightly down the hill from a small, but “kinda gaudy” temple in which I spent all of two minutes.  In the temple grounds, however there is a lot more to see, plus the prayer wheel is of course why people come.  Megan and I took

our turn spinning the wheel, taking our place alongside a gaggle of Chinese tourists.  Not twenty seconds afterward, two monks in rich yellow and magenta robes took their places immediately behind Megan and I.  They don’t leisurely stroll around the prayer wheel–to these guys, prayer matters.  They put their heads down, bent their backs and HUSTLED.  Megan and I ran along with them, solemnly, even as the other tourists dropped off in alarm.

At the bottom of the hill was another one of the pleasures of Shangri-La: a huge circle of Tibetans dancing in a circle, with people all around, taking pictures, visiting with friends, eating or playing games.  We watched an old man wearing a tailored suit and fedora skipping rope by himself.  He then invited a skinny child with a bowl cut to jump along with him, and as he did, knocked the fedora over the end of his nose.

Patrick and I couldn’t help but join in the dance.  Everyone smiled and made room, shouting directions at Patrick in Chinese.  We only made one round–the dances were surprisingly difficult to pick up, usually restarting their cycles on something other than the downbeat, taking backwards and circular steps, kicking and bending, hurling arms up in the air.  We left laughing though, and happy we’d taken the often sketchy journey all the way out to this place.

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The first mountain town of many (part 1)

September 3, 2010 Leave a comment

Since my travel style is usually more meandering, I was worried about letting my inertia get the best of me (or us, rather) during our time in Shangri La.  Patrick and Kay were the best people possible to hook up with, in that case!  I don’t know how we would’ve found our way out to the Pudacuo National Park without them or to the other adventures that were to be had in the attic crawlspace of the world.  Patrick and Kay had plans and were kind enough to include us in them, to help us by going through some of the more intense negotiations, building a relationship with a 23 mian-bao-che driver and former soldier who gave us great deals on rides out to the mountains.

The first day in the mountain paradise, we went to a national park full of mountain lakes, meadows and hilarious Chinglish signs exhorting us to be mindful of the environment and the possible dangers it presented.

After Tiger Leaping Gorge, we felt invincible in our hiking abilities.  The national park had a hop-on hop-off shuttle that took us along with Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and even a few  American tourists from one lake to another.  We walked down boardwalks suspended beside the lakes, waving off mosquitos and talking about our favorite childrens’ books and previous adventures in other parts of the world.  We also discussed the Shanghai expo, which they had previously visited.  Patrick alerted me to the fact that Denmark had shipped the actual Little Mermaid statue to the expo and had it under 24 hour surveillance.  Based on how frequently the cultural relic is vandalized in its own home, I remarked that it might experience fewer dangers during its stay in China (ironically enough).

Because of the flatness as well as the enhanced environment the walk felt like nothing, but the distance that day probably amounted to at least five or six miles.

The next day was a lot more impressive as well as an unexpected delight.  Our plucky Mian bao Che driver drove us out of the city about an hour and down a bumpy dirt road.  I was curled up in the backseat when a toothless woman in traditional Tibetan clothes ran out to our car and negotiated a price for our guide to take us on a hike up the mountain, withdrawing a cell phone from her clothing and shouting into it (like ya do in China).

Out of the field beside the road rose a woman who looked older than I’m sure she was, but with a completely placid expression.  She wordlessly turned from us and started down the path.  The trail was less a trail than a river bed, complete with embedded stones and gravel that was hell to walk on when a misty highland rain began to fall.  Every tourist we saw descending was Chinese, and was seated on a horse.  The horses had particular problems with polanks that had been laid out along the meadow at the top of the mountain to keep us from sinking into the mud.

Both Megan and I slipped in yak excrement.  When we got to the lake that was our destination, Patrick’s attempt to walk across a log out to a boulder ended with him falling into the water.

Kay was delayed not only by the fact that the altitude was making us all short of breath, and not only the fact that there were so many purple irises to photograph, but the fact that she made friends with every small child who tried to hustle us and every yak farmer we encountered.  “Yi ji zou!” She’s shout–let’s go together!  And would engage in heavily accent Chinese chat-time.  Our guide eventually warmed to us, though everything she said, including her name was quietly mumbled.  We finally got some laughs out of her when we all sang Bohemian Rhapsody a capella from beginning to end on our descent.  As we reached the car, our driver dozing softly in the back seat, we could see the full arc of a rainbow forming over the valley.

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