Here is a quick update, so sorry for any typos!
So here I am back in China. This time, I started out with the idea of going overland. I wanted to take a slow boat to China, but there is no slow boat all the way. I could have taken a bus to the Thai Lao border on the famous Mekong River, and taken the slow boat to Luang Prabang, in North Laos, but decided to just take a bus. A highway has been built in recent years, so that, once you cross the Mekong River by ferry, it’s possible to avoid airplanes completely.
So for $60 or so, I got a travel package that included a bus to the Thai border, dinner, an overnight stay in a guest house in Chiang Khong, a ferry to the opposite side of he river, and then a minivan from the Thai Lao border to the Lao/Chinese border. Then I took a walk across the border, and was taken by a taxi to the Chinese immigration office. Unlike the busy and intrusive airport security, there was hardly anyone there. They had an Xray machine for baggage, but hardly bothered with a body scan with one of those wand things to check for who knows what.
So there I was in Mohan, China, and I really wanted to get to Xiamen, through Guangzhou, where I had a friend to meet. But first, there was Pu’Er. Anytime you drink tea in China, you’d be unlikely to Not be offered some tea from the area around the smallish city of Pu’er, in Yunnan, China’s southwest province. Some of the tea plants are reportedly hundreds of years old, and tea is aged just like fine wines in the West, sometimes selling for prices comparable to the finest wines. They even had a Tea Bubble in 2007, where tea prices and land prices went out of control and then crashed. But of course, in China, Pu’er tea will always be deeply valued, the influx of 1000 Starbucks shops notwithstanding.
I was told that I would have to wait in Mohan for an hour to get a bus to Jing Hong, and then wait further for a bus to Pu’er. But suddenly, a man pointed to a bus that was headed to some town that passes through Jing Hong, so I got a bus in ten minutes, About twenty minutes into the ride, at a different small town named Mengla, I got off the bus for a toilet break, and as I returned a man rushed towards me, and with my bad Chinese figured out that they wanted me to switch buses and for an extra fee, about $10, get a ride all the way to Pu’er. So I got to Pu’er from the Thai Lao border, starting at 8 AM, and arriving in Pu’er at 8 PM. However, I had no info at all about Pu’er, my guide book doesn’t even mention this most important city of the tea trade. I grabbed a city bus from the long distance bus station, and in my subsurvival Chinese said, “Where’s there a cheap hotel”. A couple of guys motioned to me when to get off, and then another fellow, named Zhao Wei, showed up and in broken English asked what I needed. ” Wo zhao pianyi de lueguan” I am looking for a cheap motel. He led me to a large, somewhat shabby hotel, and for about $9, I got a reasonably decent room with TV bath and shower.
He then took me to a China Mobile Shop, since I needed to reactivate my phone. Early the next day, I went to a big tea shop, ordered, with the help of my tea literate friend Xiaowu, in Xiamen translating for me, a heavy box full of different kinds of Pu’er black tea. A guy on a bicycle rickshaw took me to the post office, so I could send them to my friend Paco’s place in Xiamen, saving myself carrying the extra weight. I got a bus to my next big destination, Kunming, the capital of Yunnan Province. I had hoped to go to Yangshuo, with its beautiful river landscapes so reminiscent of Chinese paintings, however, since my friend in Guangzhou had only a small window when she’d be free, I had to pass and go directly to Guangzhou. As soon as I got off the bus from Pu’er, in Kunming, somehow, some guy approached me and asked if I wanted to go to Guangzhou.
For about $26 I could get a sleeper bus (smallish narrow mattress with reasonably clean bedding), bodies packed in with about a foot between bunk beds, and get to Guangzhou in 18 hours. I wasn’t sure of this deal, but a phone call to one of my English speaking Chinese friends confirmed that I could use this way, not a formal bus company. If you sleep on your valuables, and keep big bags in the storage compartment, it will all work out. And sure enough I got to Guangzhou by about 6 PM the next day. The next day, with the help of my friend Yolanda (her English name) I visited the Bodhidharma temple, with its hall of 500 Arhats (not Buddhas, but totally purified beings who are bound for Nirvana), followed by two temples dedicated to Hui Neng, the 6th great Ancestor of Chan, or Zen. I told his story in my piece about my visit to the 5th Ancestor’s Temple, Wu Zu Si.
Yolanda is typical of modern young Chinese, eager to succeed in life, yet feeling the pressure of work. We had a wonderful long talk about what we hope to find in life, and with her help, I got an overnight bus ticket to Xiamen.
She had set up a guest house for me to stay in, with a better rate than most tourists get. So when I arrived in Xiamen at about 8 AM, tired from the overnight ride, and damp from walking in a drizzle with my 40 pounds of baggage to last me 6 months, I got to the bus stop for the guest house, but couldn’t find it. So I stopped in to ask directions from another guest house on the street. The owner took one look at me and said, ‘you look so tired’ and you need to take a rest and a shower”. I assured her that I only needed to get to my guest house, but would rest for a bit before proceeding. I told her of my interest in Buddhism and Chan, and how I enjoy helping Chinese with their English, both by teaching, as well as editing Chinese speakers’ translations, which often range from cute, to unintelligible.
She showed me a brochure for the company she owns in Shanghai, and so, here I am staying at her charming guest house at the rear of the beautiful Zhong Shan (Sun Yat Sen) park, teaching her assistant English, and planning to edit her brochure.
Meanwhile, my good friend Lily in Beijing, let me know that an artist friend had written comments to her paintings and needed a translation. So Yolanda and I have worked the past few days preparing that. Aside from the translation, the artist’s ideas and paintings, which are distinctly modern, while reflecting Buddhist and Daiost themes, have been quite interesting and enjoyable to reflect on.
While Chinese are sometimes the ‘inscrutable orientals’ we often have heard of, my experience at least is someone who has had my path smoothed by many Chinese, many of whom were total strangers, and many more who have become wonderful friends.
I am hearing of more and more places where there is serious meditation practice going on, including a 100 day winter retreat. I don’t do well in cold weather, usually getting a bad case of bronchitis, but I do hope to revisit Xue Feng’s temple in early September, and the just mentioned temple, as well as friends in Beijing before the weather gets too cold. Before then, though, I intend to stay at a temple outside Xiamen, where I stayed last summer.