You really know you are going somewhere when you have to sit on a plane for 12 hours to get there. Emerging from the international arrival area into the crowd of hundreds of people waiting for their parties, we spotted the Association's logo and were met by our smiling friends: Wei and Master Yang Jun's daughter Ning. They led us to a waiting bus and so began our China Adventure. For the next 20 days we traveled into the heart of China visiting places that have enchanted poets and painters for thousands of years.
The next day we had our first taiji practice in an alley way behind the hotel; a group of 50 foreigners and Master Yang Jun in the early light of a Shanghai morning. From time to time we had to break ranks to let a bicycle go by. Shanghai is such a cosmopolitan city that our group barely attracted a second glance. Boarding our buses for our first excursion everyone had the giddy good humor of schoolchildren heading out on a field trip. Watching Shanghai roll by through the windows, one was stuck by the immense vitality of the street life, the shops were full of activity and everyone was busily getting about their business. The same scene played out all through the trip, the incredible energy of the Chinese economy, and the inexhaustible creativity of her workforce.
Walking into Zhouzhang village we left modern China behind and wandered through a town of canals and overhanging trees, graceful bridges and houses that have somehow survived the upheavals of the last 400 years of Chinese history. In one residence, the ordered serenity of the halls and gardens, the spare elegance of Ming Dynasty esthetics was deeply impressive. While the village was packed with tourists and shopkeepers chanting in English, "Hello, hello, come take a look!" there remained echoes of a calmer, slower pace of life; boats floating by instead of buses and motorbikes. That evening we were on a boat touring the heart of Shanghai's waterfront and were back, full throttle, into modern China. This was to be a constant theme of our tour: traveling through time, modern to ancient and back again, often in the same afternoon.
Our flight to Huangshan City the next evening was inexplicably delayed for over two hours. This was also a theme of our travels: rushing to the airports, checking in luggage for a group of 50 and then waiting for several hours for the plane to show up. Blessedly, we had some kids with us: the excellent Stephanie (8) from Montreal and Master Yang Jun's children: Ning (13) and Yajie (3) so that we passed these delays throwing paper airplanes or playing volleyball with a balloon, or just generally misbehaving. We arrived at Huangshan City at midnight. The restaurant and staff had been waiting for 3 hours and so we obligingly sat down and enjoyed local Anhui delicacies such as frog stew and sautéed snakes. During our morning practice under the eaves of the hotel, the heavens opened up, lightning struck nearby, and it rained cats and dogs.
We left our heavy luggage at the hotel and with just a daypack of essentials we boarded the buses to ascend Yellow Mountain and spend the night up on Jade Screen Peak. The clouds were low, thunder frequent and rain heavy. We began to climb the steps to the tramway, the first of thousands we would tread, looking up through the mists and wondering what was above. The cable cars sat six, as we lifted off into a cloud you couldn't see the next cable tower ahead. About half way up the mists began to part, my fellow travelers gasped in amazement, one began to weep at the beauty revealed. For we were in a landscape so different, so otherworldly and yet familiar from scroll paintings, that I must count this as one of the great scenic thrills of my life.
For the next 24 hours we were in a vertical landscape of towering pinnacles, shifting mists and ancient pines. That afternoon the skies cleared and we hiked the old routes across Yellow Mt. with names like, "a thread of sky", "guts testing wall", "one hundred step cloud stairs". All were cut into the living granite, some hugging precipices with chain hand rails and a vertical drop of 800 meters. Sunset on Huangshan: fading views across the far horizon of endless mountains, fresh air and stars; this was truly a heaven on earth.
The next morning many of us rose at 4am to watch dawn break across the mountains. Our morning practice on the terrace in front of Jade Screen Peak was inspirational. As I turned to complete "flying diagonally" I felt as though I was soaring across the mountains like the immortal sages of old. Some of us decided to climb the Celestial Capital Peak that morning, descending past the Welcoming Pine, across the Heavenly Bridge and started the stairs upwards, straight upwards. About halfway up, in a heartbeat, clouds blew in, thunder clapped and it began to pour. Our intrepid guide shook his head and we were all relieved to head back down, as we really wanted to survive this excursion to see more of China!
On the way back up to Jade Screen Peak I encountered a porter with two large baskets hanging from a bamboo shoulder pole. He had a walking staff, shod in steel, with a V cut in the top and from time to time he would stop, set the staff under the cross pole and rest. I reckon he was in his late sixties, lean as a greyhound, in shorts and canvas sneakers, shirt wrapped around his shoulders in the pouring rain. He had been climbing for close to three hours from the town below carrying vegetables in one basket and a small office copier machine in the other. Watching him climb the steps, his gongfu was deep and impressive. There was an ancient rhythm to his work: one step up, then the load would bounce slightly and he would wait for the rebound upwards to take his next step. Everything up at the Jade Screen Peak hotel from soup spoons to sheets of plywood had been hand carried by porters up the vertical steps. Of course this has been going on for centuries on Huangshan; whole clans in the town below have been climbing these steps for generations. Up at the top I saw him with empty baskets and I don't think his feet even touched the ground.
That afternoon, traveling back down the tram line, onto the buses, descending into the miasma of heat, pollution and noise that is modern China; there were still the clear winds of Huangshan blowing through our minds.
Across the street from our hotel in Huangshan City there was a park with the strangest statue: half camel and half sphinx, who watched us practice taiji as the unforgiving sun rose over the horizon. Most of the local exercise groups were already leaving the park as we assembled at 6:30am. We soon discovered that even at that time of day the heat in Southern China is like putting on a wet wool blanket.
We explored two villages: Xidi and Hong, unchanged since the Qing dynasty. They were mazes of narrow streets and old temples in the blistering midday sun. In the afternoon, waiting for stragglers to return to the buses, I taught Stephanie and Ning how to skip stones on the lotus pond surrounding Hong village. Young Yajie wanted to play too, throwing handfuls of stones into the water and holding up both arms as if he had scored a goal in the World Cup. Master Yang Jun joined us as well, skipping his stones far across the water. For a moment the burdens of his role as trip leader fell away and he jumped with joy after a particularly excellent toss. Our flight back to Shanghai was delayed by the customary two hours. We arrived back at our Shanghai hotel at 1:00am for a 5:30am wake up call for our flight to Chengdu.
By now our group had formed an admirable esprit de corps: helpful, playful, patient, and happy. The traveling began to take its toll with some becoming ill from the change in diet and lack of sleep. Others stepped in to carry their bags and look out for their welfare. Stephanie's mom, Helen, is a doctor and we had two highly experienced nurses as well in our group, along with enough medications to treat Napoleon's army in full retreat from Moscow. Before the trip was over we all benefited from their care.
In Szechuan province we visited several amazing places. Leshan (Happy Mountain) featured the largest Buddha in China, carved out of a riverside cliff. Walking up to the top of the cliff you saw what looked like a small hill with foliage. Coming closer and looking down it turns out this was the Buddha's head top and his feet were some 100 meters down at the riverside. Descending more vertical steps and standing looking up, straight up, at the ineffable half smile, the Buddha was gazing west across the river commanding the dragons in the river to remain calm and civil. That evening we arrived at the foot of Emei Mountain and during dinner were warned about the hordes of monkeys awaiting us the next day on our visit to Hua Zang Temple. No red clothing, no hanging straps, no feeding the monkeys and if accosted, no repulsing the monkeys. Evidently there were park rangers to do that. The next morning we waited in line for 45 minutes with about a thousand other tourists (all Chinese) to board another tram line up to the Temple. Another trip up into the clouds, walking upwards through the lush forests of Emeishan a temple bell tolled deeply up ahead in the mist. As we reached the Temple the heavens opened up and it rained as hard as I have ever seen. One of our members said that in Kentucky they called this kind of downpour, "a real frog choker"! Water streamed off the temples, rushing down the mountain. Indeed, on the way back down I saw a drowned frog, but not a single monkey. In vain we trekked up Monkey Mt., again no monkeys only the jade green forest and clear rushing waters. A 3 hour bus ride back to Chengdu: some sleeping, others in long conversations, Stephanie, Ning, Erwin and I misbehaving in the back of the bus.
Our flight the next day to Chongqing was miraculously on time. Chongqing, along with Wuhan and Nanjing is called one of the three furnaces of China; well deserved for it was wicked hot. Fortunately all our buses were air-conditioned but after another 3 hour bus ride we stepped out into the late afternoon blast furnace to visit the stone carvings at Dazu Baoding. Nothing in the surrounding area prepared us for what awaited. The countryside was rural and non descript, we walked down to the entrance of a small ravine and entered the most fantastic open air assembly of stone figures carved into the limestone cliffs. Dating from the Song Dynasty (960-1279) these carvings had been protected by Premier Zhou Enlai from the rampages of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. One whole hillside was a vast panorama of Buddhist heavens and hells. Legions of bodhisattvas at the top and gangs of demons at the bottom, the display was carved to educate illiterate pilgrims in the wisdom of moral virtues and the consequences of malfeasance. The setting sun illuminated the scene with a soft light, bringing the carvings to life. One grotto I entered was completely dark. As my eyes adjusted the sun came out from behind a cloud, the grotto began to glow and there, larger than life, sat a dozen bodhisattvas in deep meditation as they had been for the past thousand years. The magic and deep mystery of that moment will be with me forever.
At this point in our adventure we had been on the road for nine days, 5 different hotels, and four flights. So it was with great anticipation that we boarded the Yangtze Angel, our floating home for the next four nights as we cruised down the Yangtze River. A chance to unpack, catch up on hand laundry, dry out the socks, put your feet up and watch the countryside go gliding by. Early morning practices on the deck, lazy afternoons napping and reading, evenings in the disco. Yes, there was a disco onboard and nightly dancing. The second night I left the flashing disco party, walked out on the deck and spent an hour under the full moon, dead center above the mighty river. The dark countryside was rolling silently by. My thoughts were with Li Bai and all the other poets who have sung of the moon and the river. I could feel the heart of China beating. The next morning waking at 4am to stand on the deck waiting for dawn, I could hear the birds awaken and begin to call to each other across the water. Here the river passed through the mountains, the stars were still out and the full moon had set. Gradually others came up for morning practice as well. Our pace practicing seemed as one with the river and the hills sliding by.
After practice that morning we began to pass through the first two of the Three Gorges: towering green hills on either side of the river sparkling in the morning sun. Truly, this is one of the great scenic journeys in the world. We took a side trip up the Shennong River, leaving the muddy main stem of the Yangtze boarding peapod boats that carried us far upstream until the water was clear and clean enough to drink. The Tuijia boat trackers jumped into the shallows pulling us up and over some rapids, pulling so hard at times their noses were touching the water. I so wanted to jump out, get soaked and help them pull. But we were the tourists and they the trackers and I probably wouldn't have lasted a minute pulling the boats. In clear waters and under a hot blue sky we turned around, ran the rapids and listened to old love songs the trackers sang as they rowed us back to the docks. It was a demonstration of extraordinary skill and strength, accomplished with rhythm, song and good cheer. That evening we passed through the third Gorge and spent our last night on the boat discoing with the crew.
Wuhan was fiercely hot as well. Before air conditioning the entire populace would bring their bedding out on the streets every summer night to sleep outside. We were given a tour of the Three Gorges Dam, a monumentally audacious project akin to say, building a great wall thousands of miles long to keep the Mongol hordes at bay. Something in the Chinese spirit aspires to massive, earth changing projects and this dam is the most recent of many such endeavors. Wuhan was a favorite spot of Chairman Mao's; he loved to swim the Yangtze here. We visited his private villa by Lake Dong, put on little plastic shoe covers and walked into history. Mao's villa has been untouched since his death. The paint is peeling, the slipcovers are unchanged. His desk and chair look as though the Great Helmsman will soon return from a swim. His bed still has a crease in the middle. Mao's last wife, the supremely evil Jiang Qing, had her bedroom nearby also untouched, the vanity mirror and hairbrushes at the ready. An old movie projector was set up in another room along with a TV set from the 1960's and a record player. Nothing had been maintained or restored, only lightly dusted. It was a deeply unsettling visit. When asked why the villa was not maintained the guide simply explained that many of the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution were encouraged from this villa, it was not to be touched. Very few groups are allowed to visit.
That afternoon our flight to Beijing was delayed, we barely made our connecting flight to Taiyuan and arrived at the hotel well past midnight for the next day of special events celebrating Master Yang Zhenduo's 80th birthday. This auspicious day began with meeting many international friends who had arrived for the 10 day trip, swelling our ranks to 180. Our small band of 50 intrepid travelers dispersed among the many tables at breakfast, old acquaintances were renewed and new members welcomed.
The first birthday event was the induction of a new group of disciples, formally recognized by the Master as advanced students. In groups of six they stood before Master Yang, received their certificates and bowed deeply three times. It was a solemn yet joyous occasion; many had studied, practiced and worked for over twenty years for this moment. For the first time, there were six non-Chinese disciples inducted, myself among them. All I can say is that as I bowed to the Master there was a special twinkle in his eyes and a wide smile on his face. My thoughts were with my first taiji teacher, Dr Yuet Sun Chan, gone now for some thirteen years. He had hoped I would find a high level taiji teacher to study with once China opened her doors in the early 1980's. I felt I had done the best I could possibly do in this regard.
In the afternoon we gathered in an arena for a special program of demonstrations honoring Master Yang. For three hours over 25 different performing groups held forth, beginning with a spectacular lion dance troupe. International groups participated as well: the French group sang "La Vie en Rose" and danced as if in a small Parisian café. The Michigan group square danced and the Swedish group amused every one by parading in outlandish costumes and then falling into formation to do taiji. Visiting taiji masters performed as did the best of the best taiji players in the Shanxi Association. The event closed with a rollicking swing dance performance by Bill Walsh and Holly Sweeney, after which the audience was invited onto the floor for a waltz en masse. Master Yang came to the floor, dancing beautifully. Then the music changed to a Brazilian samba, the dancing became freestyle. As Master Yang made his way off the floor he briefly broke into a joyous freestyle boogie. I can only ask you, gentle reader, to imagine what it was like to see him shake his tail feather, to thunderous applause.
The Birthday banquet was a grand affair with over 500 guests. There were numerous toasts and increasingly high spirits due to the liberal application of Fen Jiao, a local distilled concoction clocked at 116 proof. Many people had worked tirelessly and traveled hard to be at this celebration and Master Yang was deeply moved by the proceedings.
The next morning we boarded five buses for a four hour trip deep into the mountains of Shanxi province. The road just kept going up and up impossible grades, with jaw dropping views off the edges. As we climbed higher the air cleared and the mountains sparkled as we descended into the valley of temples known as Wutaishan. Our home for the next four days was a large hotel where we stayed with Master Yang and a handful of his most accomplished disciples. For three mornings the Master taught, assisted by his students and translated by his grandson, Master Yang Jun. In the afternoons we toured the valley visiting so many temples that by the third day many were saying, "What? Not another temple!" Each however was truly unique, ancient and impressive. There were many more steps to climb, bargains to be struck, and pictures to take.
On the last morning of the seminar as Master Yang said goodbye to all of the friends who had come so far to celebrate with him he was obviously and deeply touched. We too, were speechless with gratitude that he had traveled with us, taught us one more time and was now heading back into retirement. To get this opportunity to study with him, to hear the vitality in his voice and feel the deep commitment he has to his art was the high point of the journey. All the scenery, ancient sites, indeed all the tea in China could not compare to the grace and wisdom of our gifted teacher entering his 80th year.
The last two days of the trip were a blur. More interminable bus rides, temples and landmarks, check ins and check outs. As we headed back to Beijing and points homeward, exhausted, exhilarated and finally adventure weary; we carried Master Yang's inexhaustible smile and that special twinkle in his eyes as the most precious gift China could give.
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