MT SONG — 1 November 2012 — I had originally planned to stay only one night at Shaolin Temple, but now I have plans to stay a second night. After touring the monastery and Pagoda Forest in the morning, I hurried up the hill for a four-hour hike that would take the rest of the afternoon, which meant that I would miss any bus leaving the temple for my next destination. The lady running the hostel where I was staying promised that it was a not-to-be-missed expedition with eye-popping views.
First, you take the longest cable car ride in China:Trees were turning red and golden butter. The sky was a clear pale blue. The sun was white and warm. It was around noon. And the wind was blowing quite a bit, as wind tends to do in high places. I quickly etched it all in my mind because it was a long way down, and I had a bad, sinking feeling that it was the last I’ll see of this beautiful world and I wanted to remember it forever. My cable car, hanging by a tiny fist to a thread, was SWINGING WILDLY.
Any second I could be smashed to smithereens on the rocks below.
When you die in a foreign country, I think they send your body back in a body bag.
That is, if they find your body.
Or your bones (tigers and vultures normally leave ’em).
So you can imagine my relief when I landed safely, miles into the sky, somewhere near the sun: I followed the signs and soon faced this:and this:A hanging footpath? Yikes! I thought I’d be hiking on terra firma, not hanging on to dear life on a man-made disaster-waiting-to-happen!
I tried to keep my eyes on the Zen view:but there was just no ignoring the I-hope-they-find-my-corpse view:Here and there, a reminder that the end could be quick and painful:or a windy step away:Or a step away, period.Was this dried blood?This was called the Cave Hanging in the Sky:I was the Hiker Hanging in the Sky! Can you imagine four hours of this? I was climbing one of China’s most sacred mountains and all I could think about was survival. These weren’t even the scariest places on the trail. The real cliff hangers I couldn’t photograph at all — I couldn’t manage it — I needed both hands for hanging on to dear life! The trail finally ended here: It was a temple under construction. From a distance, where I was hanging on to dear life on the side of the cliff, it had looked like a beautiful hallucination. Now up close, it was beautiful, period. But yikes! A pagoda! Could that be for the bones of … hikers???!!!I didn’t stay to find out. It had taken me two hours to get here, and now it was going to take me two hours to retrace my steps.
The sun was beginning to set.
My bones were dead tired.
There was a little tremble to my knees.
I hurried away. I had no time to lose.
So back down I went:By the time I hopped back on a cable car that was swinging wildly by a thread and could plunge me to my death, it was getting dark and I could hardly care whether my teeny car carrying too much weight (two men speaking Henan hua had slipped in after me) was going to be the last ride of my life. All I could think of was getting back to that tiny village store and ordering a plate of the hot chow mein that had looked so delicious the night before.
Did you notice that I’ve made no mention of food until now? Normally, I mention food all day long. That’s because I eat all day long. But this was not normal. I had FORGOTTEN TO PACK A LUNCH! And I was STARVED!!!
The good news was that I made it back to the village store before I fell over dead.
I ordered my chow mein.
Then I sat and waited.
Village stores are very slow in service. I don’t know why. But the food is very good.
The bad news was that at the table next to mine, I saw another dish even more mouth-watering than the chow mein I had just ordered.
Worse, I had no idea what it was.
The thing about ordering in a village store is that you have to say what you want. If you don’t know what it is, or you don’t know how to say it in Chinese, you’re out of luck.
And my luck was running out. The three dudes at that table were eating and drinking and having such a good time cracking seeds with their teeth that I knew if I didn’t say something soon, that dish would be gone and I’ll never know what it was.
The waitress went back and forth.
I eyed that dish.
Then I eyed the television.
I tried to look like I didn’t care.
But I did.
When the waitress reappeared, I asked her, “Jr shr shemma?” pointing to the plate on the next table.
The seed cracking stopped.
The dudes looked up.
“Nai ge?” Which one, asked the waitress, looking annoyed. There were three different dishes on their table.
“Ne ge,” that one, I said, not as loudly as before, and pointing again, though not as directly as before. I suddenly had a bad, sinking feeling that my asking and pointing was foreign and incredibly rude.
“Nai ge?” The waitress asked again. She looked confused. Maybe it was my thick accent.
She pointed at each of the other dishes, but not at the one I had pointed at. I shook my head no.
Then my Mandarin caught in my throat like a bunch of fish bones.
I couldn’t ask again. I was tired and hungry and I hadn’t intended on creating a scene.
“Je ge?” One of the dudes asked, pointing at the right dish and narrowing his eyes at me.
It was such-and-such, he said in Chinese.
I nodded. Whatever it was, it wasn’t in my vocabulary, but nodding makes it look like it is.
“Yo may yo rou?” I asked. Does it have meat?
“Yo ji,” he said. It has chicken.
“Oh,” I said, disappointed that after all the fuss, it wasn’t vegetarian.
“Come eat with us,” he said in Chinese. The other guys cleared a place for me at their table.
I couldn’t, I said.
I really couldn’t. He looked like the village gang leader. And the older dude at the end of the table looked oddly suspicious too. Would you dine with the village warlords??? No way!
Worse, I think he read my mind.
“It’s okay,” he said. “There’s a lot of food.”
“I’m vegetarian,” I said.
He narrowed his eyes again.
“Try the seeds then,” he said.
I didn’t want to be rude, so I reached over and put a seed between my teeth.
Then before I knew it, I had a plastic communion cup of baijiu, in my hands. Baijiu is the white liquor that Chinese dudes drink for male bonding. If you want to be friends with someone, you give him a cup of baijiu. If you want to be better friends with someone, you give him a cup of baijiu. If your host says “ganbei” you must drain your cup with him — to show you are friends — or you will be considered very extremely rude.
TGHDSGB. Thank God he didn’t say ganbei.
The drink was a stick of blazing white dynamite sliding down into my belly.
The stuff is 500-proof alcohol, I had no idea. You can take the paint off your car with it.
After that, we were friends, just like that.
I ate my chow mein at his table.
I cracked a few more seeds between my teeth.
“I’m a Kung Fu monk,” he said. They were all Kung Fu monks. They were wearing civilian clothes on top and monk clothes and Kung Fu shoes on the bottom, which I hadn’t seen at first because they were sitting at the table, and thus, had mistaken them for thugs.
“I can give you a Kung Fu lesson tomorrow,” he said.
“I can see with my eyes that you would be good at it,” he said.
Me, good at Kung Fu???
“Come to the temple in the morning,” he said.
I could hardly believe it. When you’re an author and something like this comes up, you say YESSSS!
I felt like dancing!
I mean, I felt like Kung Fuing!!!