Memories: The Peak That Flew From Afar

Memories… is a random series of memories of my trips to Asia in the late 80s and early 90s. Here is an excerpt from my travel diary of a trip to Hangzhou in eastern China in 1993.

The bus stops abruptly and the doors open with a metallic snap. All the passengers try to leave the bus at once, pushing and shoving to get out and into the pouring rain. I’m being dragged along, my only effort is to stay on my feet.

There’s a small ticket office next to the entrance, the price for foreigners is a moderate one yuan.

After entering the temple grounds I face a long row of booths that sell everything from multicolored plastic toys to intricate Jade carvings, from freshly made noodles to Coca Cola. One booth has Sony Walkmans and Kodak Film, the next one offers one-minute shoe repair.

The lane is crowded with Chinese tourists clad in their colorful raincoats, all of them cheerful despite the heavy downpour that went into high gear a minute ago.

All along the lane narrow paths lead off into the forest to the left, across a small creek and then up and along the steep hill. To the right the entrance to the Lingyin Temple itself comes up. I walk into the heavily scented temple and out of the rain.

The first temple hall is filled with two sorts of people, one being the worshippers who burn huge amounts of incense, insert small banknotes into a transparent plastic box and then kneel down in front of the Buddha for prayer. They are usually either very old or in their teens or early twenties.

The other kind of visitors are the children of the Cultural Revolution, either in age or in spirit, who basically enjoy a day off, wherever that is. They are easy to recognize in the crowd by their manners, talking loud, taking pictures where it is forbidden, oddly resembling the package tour groups seen in European Cathedrals.

The second temple hall is huge, with a 60 feet high sitting statue of Siddharta Gautama, made out of camphorwood, as my guide book tells me. The hall is spacious, with large, red columns supporting the wooden roof more than 90 feet above. I wonder if the smoothly lacquered columns are made out of single trees – it looks impossible to move tree trunks of such size.

I stroll through the hall, walking around the statue and the wide wall behind it. There is only a narrow gap between the wall behind the statue and the sides of the temple hall. After passing through the gap, I turn around and for a few seconds just can’t comprehend what I see there.

The backside of the screen is a floor-to-ceiling sculpture of hundreds of figures. There are musicians on an outcrop far up near the roof, playing all different kinds of instruments, in a niche I see meditating monks, next to them a sculpted waterfall comes out of the wall. To the far left there is a caravan of animals, some elephants, camels, horses, that seemingly is edging along a precipitous mountain pass.

Down near the foot of the wall the waterfall floods the landscape, there is a small hut with a man rescuing a child on his shoulders, next to them is a boat in rough sea with the fishermen praying. Behind them a ghost breaks the surface, with his two-pointed harpoon not unlike Neptune.

Up front on a huge wave there are Buddhist monks… surfing! They stand on the backs of dolphins and ride the wave. There is also a huge whale that feels almost life sized, about 15 feet long.

I stand there spellbound for more than half an hour, discovering new details, new groups of figures up at the wall.

Finally I leave the wall, forcing my eyes back down to take in the real world.

I walk back out to the lane with its ear-shattering music and the shouting crowds of one-day tourists in a shopping craze. The rain has traded place with a light drizzle, steam rises out of the heavily wooded hill across the small creek.

I cross the creek on a narrow bridge made out of a single rock that got slippery from the rain. Small paths with stone steps crisscross the lower part of the hill, passing hundreds of sculptures that got chiselled out of the rock almost a thousand years ago.

The hill is named the ‘Peak That Flew From Afar’, because there is – or was – supposedly a very similiar hill in India. Chinese tourists crawl all over the lower paths to get their picture taken in front of the sculptures or a specific piece of calligraphy overgrown with the moss of a millenium.

I head up through the forest. Big, cold drops fall from the trees, some of them managing to hit my neck and then working their way down my back.

The sounds of the drops take over, slowly blotting out the din of the lane below. The forest is misty, a composition of grey and green that could be right out of a chinese painting.

I reach the rounded top of the hill, a small stony clearing. The high trees and the fog make it impossible to see the West Lake or Hangzhou. I sit down on a convenient boulder, enjoying the silence all around me.

I realize that, for the first time in weeks, I am alone.

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