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Zhengzhou and Shaolin Temple

In which one little girl leaves the provincial museum having spent more time staring at me than looking at the exhibits!

sunny 21 °C

Last weekend, Matt and I traveled to Zhengzhou and the Shaolin Temple in a much-needed weekend away. We took a soft-seat express train five hours south of Beijing to Henan Province. As soon as you leave city limits of Beijing, the landscape turns rural and remains flat. We passed through acres of crop fields dotted with brick shacks, some flocks of goats, and a great deal of flat, sandy nothingness. Approaching Zhengzhou, we crossed over the Yellow River and could see the tiny skyline of the city of 2 million. Train travel in China requires that, immediately upon arrival at your destination, you get back in line at a ticket counter to purchase your return tickets. After some great advice about a counter especially for foreigners (and mind you, this does not imply service in English, just that there is a shorter line, confusingly populated by Chinese-looking people, but a shorter line all the same), I managed to purchase return tickets and we got the heck outta the train station.

Zhengzhou is small and walkable. We headed to the town center, the Second of July Square, marked by a many-storied double-pagoda featuring huge clocks that rang and announced the hour. We checked into the Second of July Hotel, and went for a wander. (Note to self: Find out what happened on the Second of July!!) The city is packed with street life: food, vendors, hawkers, strollers, shoppers. One long avenue is designated as pedestrian only and features snack stands at convenient ten meter intervals along its length. Our first evening we spent wandering, in awe of the sheer number of stands selling soft serve ice cream. After walking (jostling our way through) through an intense food street and ascertaining that we mostly wanted to drink the local beer (as beer is a very local commodity in China; in Zhengzhou, they drink Kingstar for 2 (for the cheap stuff) and 3 RMB per bottle). We ate a lovely meal of marinated tofu, vegetables with shrimp and surimi, and deep fried, spicy not-beef. The not-beef, you see, was captioned on the menu using the character for beef. It looked and tasted like fish, or possibly frog. Post dinner, we wandered through back lanes and more food streets until we found an outdoor establishment, the kind with miniature tables and chairs, loud customers, several cats and dogs, and a steady flow of Kingstar. We splurged on a few bottles of the higher grade and enjoyed the absolutely perfect temperature of the evening.

Living in Beijing, I forget how cosmopolitan and modern the city really is. Zhengzhou, a mere 5-hour trip from Beijing, is nothing like the capital city. In our entire stay, aside from the Shaolin Temple, we saw three foreigners. Folks on the street were clearly curious, and several (including teenaged girls, usually the shyest group in Beijing!) ran up to shout “Hello!!”

The following morning, after a very early meal of the most beautiful jiaozi I have ever seen (for 3 RMB a steamer tray!), we set off for the long-distance bus station. After purchasing tickets to the venerable Shaolin Temple, we set off in a small bus across the countryside. About 45 minutes into our journey, as I was just drifting off for a nap (sleeping on public transportation is my most favorite pastime), a woman with a microphone clocked in for her shift. She had a voice like nails on a chalkboard and the microphone had reverb not rivaled by any KTV joint in the Middle Kingdom. Volume cranked up to max, she prattled on and on about the surrounding countryside, the history, the temple, and I do believe (and mind you, my Chinese is quite limited) about the prices of each food item and gift shop souvenir available for purchase at the Shaolin Temple. Every time she stopped for a breath (which was not nearly as often as I had thought humans required), I hoped she was done, but alas, her spiel took us nearly to our destination. And when she finished, another woman took her place. And then we arrived. At someplace that was NOT the Shaolin Temple. By giving a 45-minute oration, the tour guides (which I did not know was included in the ticket price, nor did I particularly want included in my bus ticket) probably thought that they were answering every question their guests could think to ask. But they did not plan on having The Foreigners on board. The passengers disembarked, and I began my questioning. It turns out that we would be making TWO stops on the way to the temple, one at the Songyang Academy, one of the oldest in China, and then at the Songyue Pagoda, China’s oldest made of brick (and thus, by classifying each edifice so specifically, each becomes the “[superlative]-est in China”). Matt and I looked around for a short time, and then boarded a different bus to expedite our travel to the temple.

The Shaolin Temple, the birthplace of kungfu, is a sprawling complex of buildings around the actual Temple. The temple is still in use by a small population of monks who must just absolutely abhor the hoards of tourists that descend on their beautiful serenity by the busload each day. Also present are phalanxes of youths in residence, there to learn the martial art. The surroundings are mountainous and forested; green and tranquil, full of singing birds, butterflies and other nature-y things not seen in Beijing. We took in part of a kungfu stage show by some very young and tiny performers, before hiking off to the temple itself. Similar to the Lama Temple in Beijing, a series of buildings on a north-south axis housed a great variety of Buddha and altars and incense burners. The reclining Buddha, my favorite, was in full form, along with that blue god I enjoy (please refer to Picasa photos). After a relatively brief wander through the massive crowd, we set out for the hillsides.

Along side the temple is located my favorite site in the complex: the Pagoda Forest. 246 brick pagodas of varying sizes and shapes, each containing the ashes of a monk, are scattered across a small area of hillside. Some are in great shape and are adorned with glazed tiles, while others are held up dangerously with tree branches. They were very photogenic.

The location features two cable car rides (a fairly ubiquitous item anywhere the topography allows) to two ridge tops. We embarked for the highest of the two, Oreos and water in hand. Once on the top, we were met with clean air, more trees than I’ve seen in the past many months, and a dramatic valley before us. The valley between the mountains and surrounding hillsides was viewable from a pathway around the inside rim of the peaks, somehow attached to the mountainside. This path meandered up and down with steep sets of stairs, warnings of rock-slides (one read, “Do not stay here too long!”) and extended Chinese families clad in totally inappropriate shoes. We did about ¾ of the circumnavigation under an azure sky, warm sun and beautiful breeze. Then, we caught the cable car down the mountain. The return bus trip to Zhengzhou featured no surprise stops or screeching orations.

Back in town, we wandered around for a restaurant, and ended up (thanks to my very limited ability to read and Matt’s uncanny ability to interpret) in a hot pot joint on the fourth floor of a shopping mall. The place was outfitted to look like a cave with the excellent addition of giant bamboo and mushrooms, all gaily painted. Alas, the place had no picture menu, and we were left with a hot pot standard: the tick-box menu. With the help of a very distracted parade of wait staff, we chose our soup, sauce (on the second try) and an agreeable assortment of vegetables. And then, a girl came over and asked me, in Chinese, if we spoke English. Turns out, it is her major, but she was afraid to assume we spoke English!! If only the hello’ers on the street would be of this mindset…

The following day, our last, we set off for the Henan Provincial Museum. Although housed in a unique building, it was mostly closed for renovation, leaving just a small exhibit of extraordinarily old bronze work and The Jade Mummy. I had seen pictures, perhaps in National Geographic, but didn’t know this archaeological treasure rested in Henan. The mummy was found encased in hundreds of jade rectangles, each with a hole at each corner, stitched together into some sort of armor. There is even a face plate with a spot for the nose, and gloves. The whole thing is astoundingly beautiful and in perfect condition.

On the way to the museum, we had an interesting encounter with a very nice taxi driver. We were chatting about visiting Zhengzhou and what we had seen and done so far. And then he asked if we had been to “Huang He.” I was stumped; I had no idea. “Yellow something, maybe?” I muttered to Matt. I pondered, and eventually told the cab driver that I couldn’t understand. He proceeded to say, “Huang He?” And then louder, “Huang He?” And still louder, while turning around and staring me in the eyes (while driving!), “Huang He!!!” And then Matt, with his vocabulary of 20 words says, “Maybe he means the Yellow River?” And he did. Too bad increased volume doesn’t increase my understanding!!

Post brief museum venture, we wandered through People’s Park. Every city has a People’s Park, and this one had no shortage of adorable old people exercising and playing instruments, and children toddling around on squeaky shoes. I finally engaged in an activity I had been eyeing: painting a giant plastic-y sticker. One buys an outline of a picture (mine was a fish with a big tail) done in black plastic, and has a seat at a miniature table on a miniature stool (too small for Matt!) to fill in the spaces with colorful goo. Immediately, I attracted a crowd, ranging from elementary school boys who introduced themselves as “Ja-kuh,” “Sa-ham,” and one too shy to speak, a grandfather who took a seat next to me to keep an eye on the proceedings, and a baby who kept shaking the table. I filled in my fish with rainbow scales, and had him baked for three minutes to plasticize the goo into a thick window sticker.

After a lunch of conveyer belt sushi (what a concept!!), a tea set purchase (celadon green with matching baijiu cups!), and the careless abandonment of my ATM card in an ATM (don’t worry, everything’s ok!) we boarded our train for the five-hour trip (this time first class soft seat which includes foot and head rests!) back to Beijing.

As always, the fun doesn’t end until you’ve set foot back in your own apartment. The train station is a short cab ride away from the subway. We waited in the taxi queue and quickly boarded a cab. The following is a translation of the conversation between the cab driver and me:
CD: To where?
KB: To the subway.
CD: Which subway?
KB: The closest subway.
CD: The closest subway? Which station?
KB: The close one. The museum station. (The station is called “Military Museum.” I’m lucky to have remembered the word for museum, and have no idea how to say military!)
CD: The museum station? Which museum?
KB: I’m sorry, I don’t know how to say it. It’s the closest subway station!!
CD: Oh. That one. Why didn’t you just take a bus?!
KB: (Sigh.)

Posted by ucpegasus 05:00 Archived in China

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