It has been almost a year since I last flew over China. The view from the aeroplane is always unmistakable. It is the blue roofs, of course, that are the ultimate give away. The shallow sloping blue metal roofs the Chinese adore so much. But there are other traits that make China so distinct: the endless blocks of flats; the scarred, brown earth; the endless construction work of roads and buildings.
It has been a while too since I have stood in a wholly domestic Chinese setting, being bustled and shouted across by people who seem to have no volume control, nor any understanding of a queue. It has been time too since I have been driven along winding Chinese rural roads by a man who at times steered with an elbow.
But if this sounds as if I start with a litany of complaints, it is not my intention at all. For these things, though they may at first jar, conjure up the many delights of China too. The energy and enthusiasm, the downright friendliness of people. My taxi driver recognised me from a picture I had sent him, he sorted out every logistical detail of the (surprisingly complex) journey from the airport, and he finished off by undercharging me (though in this respect he was an uncommon man).
The drive from Dali could not be described as pretty. For a town famously pretty, the part I saw was dominated by a huge cement works, and pretty much everywhere we passed was in the process of being cemented over. Where the earth itself still peaked through, it was a bare, damaged land. I could not call it beautiful. It simply wasn’t. Even the farming villages we passed lacked beauty. The vineyards that sprawled in every direction and filled every little space of unbuilt-up land at times seemed to be more concrete post than grape or leaf.
Journeys, of course, are rarely just about the destination, yet rarely too are they just about physical movement or the view along the way. Journeys in the real world can provide a changing backdrop for an introspective journey. As I was taken ever further into the Yunnan countryside so I ventured into a kaleidoscope of thoughts.
Perhaps today was not the right day to read Carson McCullers, but I was reading her nonetheless. Her pages exposed the awkwardness and difficulty of life, and the frailty of our existence. They left me struggling to keep other thoughts at bay. Since my last trip to China, so much had changed. Changing jobs; changing countries; changing lives. The past haunts our choices; the present tires out the mind; the future piles up fresh anxieties. We solve a problem only by plunging headlong into another. As someone I am a mentor to rang me up to ask, why had achieving all her ambitions not made her happy? Why did she feel no better, no more secure, no more content? What was it she was meant to do?
The light faded quickly as the car climbed the mountain and finally, in the darkness, we stopped. Two people dressed in black robes met me at the car door. I was whisked from the cold dark outside, to a brightly lit reception room with a golden Buddha, women arranging flowers, a drawer where my passport was lain to rest, and a very welcome cup of pu’er tea.
But let me explain what I am doing here, on this journey that has so far gone deeper into my soul than it has into Yunnan’s mountains. During my trips to Beijing, I used to frequent a tea house across the road from the Confucius Temple at Yonghegong. The man who served me tea ended up giving up on Beijing and headed south to a monastery and a simple life. After two years in the monastery, he was to formally become a monk. Convinced that I should give up tickling the plastic of my laptop’s keyboard, convinced that my happiness lay not with the corporate world or with saluting the totems of careers, he had invited me to visit. My friend, a man who had walked away from a life he did not care for, choosing instead peace and simplicity, was convinced that I too would benefit from such tranquillity.
My cot is a lower bunk in a room with four bunkbeds and two little tables. I am left for a few minutes to gather myself and then shown the washing room. I am given a small bucket of hot water with which to clean my face and hands. A monk sits back on an old garden chair in the middle of the room; his feet have disappeared beneath a bowl of now-muddy hot water. The stench from the loos is such that I know I will not be doing more than a pee.
Morning comes very early. At 4am I am up, following my friend on his rounds as he sets out sacred bowls on alters and pours out water. As I look on, he arranges prayer mats and lights incense. He tells me to stay where I am, and he is gone. The sky through the windows is still pitch dark. It will be for hours. A monk enters the room, but he says nothing to me; muttering under his breath, he stands to the side, eyes shut, fingers on a string of beads. Then the student who had arrived at the monastery minutes after I had, looking to all the world like some mediaeval magi, enters the room. Others follow. At 5am chanting begins.
The main ceremony starts at 9am. People have come from all around to participate. Nuns from the nearby sister convent have come up. Quite a crowd has gathered to watch the initiation of the new monks. The chanting lasts hours and we guests must periodically leave and then re-enter the room. Even when it finishes, it does not end. At the signal that everything has finished I get up and walk out of the temple, my frozen feet longing for my shoes. But though the Master also leaves, it seems most of the monks remain, to pray and chant yet more. But finally, in their orange or brown or purple cloaks, they flow out, their big metal begging bowls in their hands.
The nuns have cleared a space in front of the main temple hall and have swept the ground of large stones. Rose petals have been strewn across the area. A line of tables supports a weight of snack food: sugary rice crackers, fruits, nuts and chocolates. As the monks process along, the nuns and local townspeople pile these sweets into the begging bowls and shower the monks with yet more rose petals. There is laughter and smiles and a final bout of singing before silence descends as everyone starts eating. Lunch is dished up soon afterwards, the food markedly worse than it had been at breakfast. As I manfully chewed on my cold, dry-and-yet-soggy rice, a local townsman came up to me to practice his English. With a broad smile he told me that in Buddhism there could be no waste. ‘I am sorry,’ he said. ‘No waste. No waste at all.’ He watched me lift another chopstick-full of rice to my mouth. Mid-tasteless bite I paused and smiled.
On this Jizu Mountain, mine is not the only temple. They dot the entire mountain, and up at the top a stone pagoda juts up into the sky. It is a steep walk along mountain paths to get there. The drops are sheer but the views staggering. My friend, newly-made monk that he is, swishes in his new robes confidently: he has walked these paths before. He course is clear. We stop at a hermit’s hut, gather wood, draw water from a spring, and boil up some local pu’er tea, our backs to stupas covered in swastikas alternately pointing to the right, alternately pointing to the left. I am a little out of puff as we finally make the summit in time for the last of the evening light. In the dying light the colours seem more vivid, and the quickly cooling air focuses our minds.
Yet as we make our descent our conversation broadens out. It is as if we both feel that this is our last chance to speak. But what it is that we are meant to say? This is the Buddhist way. This is the moment for the profound. For the life, the universe, and for everything. But reality is somehow more tawdry, even when we manage to step beyond the awkwardness of a Carson McCuller’s tale. In simple English and Chinese we chat. He tells me of his choices and his path, but he is keen to dissect my life as well. He wants me to experience the joy he gains through his new found simplicity: a simplicity of life that has shorn him of much, including wife and child. But the questions are too great and we are out of time. The darkness now is complete, but there are little dots of light ahead. We are back at the monastery. It is time for bed. Tomorrow I must return to the world.