Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Shihtoushan, Dec. 2009, Pt. 2

...was awoken at 5 by a bell ringing from one of the temples on Shihtoushan. Slept again, but had to get up for 6:30 breakfast. We found ourselves the only ones there. It was a simple meal of congee and veggies, thankfully less oily than usual. There was also a triple-decker sandwich of peanut butter and tofu, as well as the obligatory steamed buns. We decided to save these for lunch, and as we walked toward the door to look for a baggie, the caretaker yelled at us for wasting food, until he figured it out. We relaxed and read in our room until 9:30 or so, then decided to go over the mountain. A long steep flight of stone steps led to the top. There was a woman about 30 meters above us. I heard her shriek, then yell something down to us. I thought she was talking about some stones that had fallen just beside her and were now rolling our way. Then I saw the snake, about two meters long, greenish yellow with black dots. It was racing downhill toward us, veering suddenly up the slope again when it got close. At the temple at the top of the hill, we again found the woman talking to a couple of old nuns, gesturing wildly to tell them that the snake had fallen from the cliffs above, landing at her feet and scaring the crap out of her. She laughed and pointed in our direction. In her broken English, I caught two words: "beautiful," and "poison." Much later, I came across a picture of this type of snake. A Russell's Viper, one of the most deadly in the world.

At the next temple, we met a friendly young nun who spoke good English. She spent the next half hour explaining all the figures here, to our relief, since they'd been puzzling us since yesterday. Our talk was occasionally broken by another visitor, who paid this nun great deference. It was apparent that she was someone of great respect and importance, but we never got her name. Further down the mountain was another temple, a cave temple like the others, but this one was an actual cavern rather than a ornate building erected across a gap in the cliff face. The entrance looked to have been re-carved, evidence of rebuilding after the 1999 earthquake. The monk we met there had a kind face but didn't speak. Miki commented that the women's temples seemed softer than those of the men. This point was proven at a small Confucian temple back up on the ridgetop. Three old men were sitting back in conversation, and seemed quite reluctant to let us enter. OK, fellas, keep your boys club...

We ate our lunch at a pavilion above Chiuanhua Hall , then dropped down a steep narrow trail through the jungle. Midway down were some Chinese characters carved into the rock wall, alongside some bizarre cuts that looked like the face of a gorilla. At the bottom of the steps was a rowhouse, abandoned but for a single residence in the middle. A man was sitting inside, watching a TV that blared its drivel into the jungle. As the bus stop was directly across the road, we in turn sat and watched him. Chinese homes are open like dollhouses, so we could his every move. When an exercise program came on, he sat astride his scooter which was close to the set, then followed the arm and neck stretches onscreen. This finished, he returned to his seat further back, yet could only remain seated for a few minutes at a time. He'd get up, go pull some weeds, then sit. get up, walk across the road, return, and sit. He repeated this for the 45 minutes we were there, though we don't know how it all turned out since the bus came by about then and took us away.

We followed the river back to the city. One stretch of hillside had been cleared of jungle in order to erect graves that were almost the size of some Japanese apartments. In Asian societies, the dead always get the best real estate. The temples that served them also made the occasional appearance, their ornate roofs always looking in need of a shave.
On the train platform, we sipped our long awaited tapioca shake and nearby, a woman popped her son's pimples. We walked from Chung-li's station, past the youth culture monuments that flanked the station, moving back in time past shops that served the needs of their parents and grandparents. Later, after dark, my friend Slavek showed up with a couple of colleagues from the University, one French, the other Mongolian. We sat at a dark back table of a local drinking hole, eating wings and drinking beer. The design was of any similar establishment back in the States: long bar, funky art, pool table. A few of the local expat teaching crew were in attendance, served by a friendly Chinese girl with perfect English. Accent American, of course. I thought of all the other expat nights I've crashed -- Seoul, Nanjing, Miyake...

On the turntable: Talking Heads, "Stop Making Sense"

Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Shihtoushan, Dec. 2009

We were walking through the forest when I noticed the birdsong. It was different than that of the birds which had serenaded us in Shikoku and Kumano. The forest opened onto a large parking lot, revealing a pagoda atop one hill, and Chuanhua Monastery above it on another. Here we'd spend the night.

We'd left early from Zhungli. With time to kill until the train, we walked the narrow streets surrounding the station. It was a busy Sunday morning, and Miki commented that she felt that fashion here in Taiwan was a simpler, scaled down version of the fashion in Japan. We laughed at how Mr. Donuts says, "Japan's #1" where the ones in Japan tout America. Circular signs hang in front of 7-11, advertising coffee and mimicking the familiar Starbucks logo. Beauty salons have sexily-clad employees and I wonder if they're a front for prostitution. There are different faces on the streets, speaking in different rhythms, making me wonder if they are maids and if they are Filipinas.

The train we take is an exact replica of an express train in Japan. From it, we get our first glimpses of true countryside. It is landscape I'd been expecting, jungle and rice fields, none of this cold urban stuff of the last few days. A lone dirt house sits squat between these two extremes. In front, a man squats and soups the rims of a luxury car.

After 45 minutes, we are in a quieter town. Trying to find the bus, we head down a road lined with shops now becoming familiar. What surprises us is a bride and groom coming out of a comic shop and getting into a Lexus doled up for the occasion. Well-dressed young women stand nearby, taking photos and wearing wide smiles. We spy a foreign couple walking with a Chinese man. The latter helps us find our bus and after 10 minutes we're aboard. At the bus stop, a young couple expresses their affection. Behind them, a shop keeper rocks her toddler to sleep, despite Eminem blaring through the speakers above. There's a market going on at the center of town. The bus can't make a turn due to a couple of poor-looking peasant women who've set up shop at one corner, their goods overflowing into the street. The driver yells at them to move, and after a moment, we inch forward, unsnarling the traffic backed up in three directions.

The town drops away and the mountains loom up. Our eyes follow a river awhile, then taking a wild guess, we get off the bus in exactly the right place. There's just a hint of a village here, just outside the gate leading to the mountain temple complex. We enter a small restaurant and mime-order noodles and rice. A woman at the next table talks in a really loud voice, something I'd grown used to during travels in China, but hadn't yet seen in the more refined Taiwan. A boy sits in the kitchen doing his homework on a day so sunny it is shame to waste it indoors. A poster above him shows us a picture of Bigfoot on the moon, appearing from behind a rock in that familiar stride.

Next door is a small shop where we decide to stock up on snacks for the hike. The woman behind the counter is busy making betel. She is dressed much more conservatively than those binlang girls decades younger selling their wares in the glass booths in the cities, their skirts shorter than the odds of the KMT retaking the mainland. The woman seems determined that I try some of the betelnut, which she is spreading inside some sort of shell with a butterknife. I pop some in my mouth, spitting a massive blob of red out onto the road outside. The woman laughs. Miki asks for some, and the woman suddenly stops laughing, seemingly annoyed. We never find out why. Is it because Miki's a woman, and they don't do betel? Or is it because she's Japanese? The latter is doubtful, since most people think she's local, continuing to speak to her in Mandarin even after it's obvious she doesn't understand anything. On the final climb up the stone stairs to the temple, another betel seller on a landing chooses to speak with her in English, asking her how she can be so beautiful. Miki smiles, vindicated. Perhaps this man is the betel seller's husband?

We find our room at the temple, the key handed over by a woman happy to use her rusty English. It is a plush room, with a big bed and balcony. Not bad for 64 NT (1800 yen) a person. We do fell slightly disappointed at not being able to do "A Day in the Life" of the monks here. We'd expected bland common meals, tepid baths, austere sleeping quarters, crack of dawn chanting. Which is why we came. But the room pleases.

Time to explore. In the main hall, Buddha, Confucious, and Lao Tzu all sit together. Upstairs, they each have their own section, but down here, they intermingle. In front of them is Matsu, Goddess of the Sea. I know her better as Tien Hau from my time in Hong Kong. She mysteriously gets the place of honor in this, the Hall of Earth. The grounds have the usual Chinese 'look,' of lattice gates, three-legged iron incense pots, tea pavilions, phoenixes and dragons guarding every eave. A trail leads us away, where a man is playing a bamboo flute. It is similar to the shakuhachi, but with a differently carved mouthpiece. I pick one up and begin to play, and the man begins to instruct me in Japanese. We'd heard that many of the old timers can speak it, but he's the first we've come across. He plays a few songs--a couple classics, some Misora Hibari. As he plays, Miki sings along, as does a Chinese man strolling by. Later, when we meet this latter man again, we try to ask him how he knows these songs, but outside the lyrics, we don't share a common language.

The trail brings us to a Taoist temple. A nun clad in maroon is chanting, a trio kneeling behind her, their voices harmonizing beautifully. I step around back to look into the grotto itself, which contains a single statue of an immortal, its expression both soft and tough simultaneously. Coming back around again, I find that one of the chanters is now sobbing. I'm assuming that this is a memorial service of some kind. A man comes over and speaks to her kindly yet sternly, warning her perhaps that the crying may confuse the spirit, bringing it back to this world rather than allowing to pass into the next where it has already found immortality.

Further up the mountain is a temple dedicated to Kuan Yin. The statue outside looks similar to Kannon over in Japan, but with its long face and large hands it has the androgynous look of a drag queen Beside the temple is a small grotto with a small red-faced figure with bulging eyes and wild frizzy hair. His red face is that of a drunk. I wish there was an explanation somewhere, but I wouldn't be able to read it anyway. We follow the trail around, other figures looming up in the forest. One Kuan Yin sits in meditation before a high rock wall, a heart locket around her neck.

Back at the room, we read for a few hours on the balcony, eating ice cream, drinking coffee. It is peaceful here, and we decide to stay another day, rather than rush north to Wulai. Below us, someone is playing er hu, singing boisterously. Around five o'clock, the day trippers go, the shutters of the shops shut. The mountains beyond disappear into the mist and fading light, the pagoda before us blending into the trees.

In the dining hall, we have a simple dinner of tofu disguised as meat. There are no monks here. Due to the absence of these fingers, we go look at the moon. The halls are empty and we have the gold statues to ourselves. A caretaker comes up and despite our making it obvious that we don't speak Chinese, proceed to explain. We listen but don't understand. Except for the words Kung Si, Lao Si, Ami Tamo.
Confucious, Lao Tzu, Buddha...

On the turntable: Rodney Crowell, "Sex and Gasoline"