Veena writes about her recent journey to China.
My young Chinese friend, Yujie, is full of surprises. I was, of course, going to see her in Beijing on my arrival in China on this, my seventh trip, but four days before I was due to leave the UK she skyped me. When I answered her urgent call she told me that the Thursday following my arrival was the mid-Autumn Full Moon Day, an event celebrated all over China. The focus of the get-togethers is the ‘moon cakes’ – small round pastry-like cakes filled with a variety of delicacies like almonds and other nuts, honey, sweetened bean paste and other things. I even had one filled with a hard boiled yolk of an egg! The cakes are baked in a mold so they have intricate designs baked into them. The designs vary all over China, each region having its own distinctive design.
Yujie wanted to spend the day with her parents so would I like to come with her to Inner Mongolia for four days? Would I ever! I knew that her family, who I had met previously in Hainan, an island in the South China Sea, was based in Hohhot, the capital of Inner Mongolia, and I had always longed to go there, so this was a mega treat for me.
Then and there we booked air tickets – we would fly together to Hohhot but at the end of the visit she would fly back to Beijing and I would fly to Zhengzhou in Henan Province where another young friend, Ibo, would meet me and take me to Song Mountain.
Flying to Hohot
Flying into Hohhot reminded me very much of Bamiyan in Afghanistan – with a barren kind of escarpment edging the city. And oh, the deep blue sky and, when we walked out of the plane, the incredibly pure, clean air. In Beijing you feel a bit like you are living in a grey soup and so to sample this extraordinary pure air – purer even than in the Swiss mountains – was quite an experience. The whole time I was there I was constantly aware of the quality of the air.
Mr Zhao, Yujie’s dad, met us at the airport and I was momentarily taken aback when he got out and namasted me with a deep bow. Most of the members of Yujie’s family are devout Buddhists who always namaste each other, accompanying the bow with the greeting ‘Amitofuo’ – with the emphasis at the beginning: ‘Aaaaa-mitofuo’. This greeting by the Buddhist sect which ‘worships’ the Amitabha Buddha means: ‘I wish you a speedy journey to the Clear Land’. Apparently, once you make it to ‘the Clear Land’, it is a very short and easy step to becoming enlightened. I am eminently happy to accept such a wish!
And then there was a further surprise…. I was expecting a family gathering but Mrs Zhao was desirous of spending the evening at her favourite temple where they were going to celebrate the full moon event and would we like to join her. I of course agreed, so soon we were leaving the city and negotiating roads full of potholes and puddles of water. We finally arrived at the very escarpment I had seen from the plane and entered the temple. It is a new temple, built only ten years ago, and is the inspiration of a wandering monk who, when he arrived at this place, decided that this was a place to build a temple. So he set about collecting funds and somehow everything happened and here was this quite magical place set into the hills and shining with an uncanny light as the sun set and the sky turned a deep indigo blue.
Mr. Zhao took Yujie and me on a tour of the temple complex and then surprised me one more time by suggesting that I might like to meet the master whose inspiration the temple was. A beautiful 84-year-old man greeted us as we entered the main hall and then we sat and had tea with him as he virtually interrogated me about meditation and my life with Osho. I think I might have been the first western person to go to this remote temple – or at least the first one who was not just a tourist but was definitely ‘spiritually inclined’. He sweetly concluded that, as I had somehow managed to get to this place, we must have a special connection. Certainly I felt a very beautiful energy there.
We missed some of the ceremonies by spending time with him but after goodbyes, namastes and lots of ‘Aaaaa-mitofuos’ we emerged into a cool soft darkness illuminated by the rising full moon with people doing a Vipassana kind of walk around fruit and moon cakes piled on a table in front of the main temple building. The same idea as the Hindi prasad – the food should be blessed before eating it. After many circuits chanting ‘Aaaaa-mitofuo’ we adjourned to the eating hall resplendent in the yellows, golds and reds of Buddhahood to partake of the evening feast. Those of you who have read my stories before know of my constant problems of having piles of food thrust upon me due to the loving hospitality of my various hosts. With a loaded plate in front of me, I quickly whispered to Yujie asking how to say ‘I am full’! I learnt a new, extremely convenient word: bau-LA. I have used it to good effect and created much amusement among my hosts ever since!
Back through, around and over the potholes and bumps we somehow made it to the Zhao’s apartment which, as I expected, was gorgeous. Mr Zhao has a construction company and knows how to build well but he also has a designer instinct and all his houses are beautifully decorated. I had a beautiful room to myself, albeit with a rock-hard bed and bean-filled pillows which give me neck and back aches. I softened the bed slightly with some cushions I found on the chairs! Surprisingly I slept like a log.
To the Mongolian grasslands
The next morning, despite the early hour, the roads were crowded and I was suddenly thrown back into the Chinese road experience! In Beijing the traffic is so heavy that normal traffic regulations have of necessity to be followed else no-one would ever get anywhere. But in lesser towns and rural areas the disregard for even elementary traffic rules is total and absolute. Signs, lights, road lines mean nothing at all; add motorbikes, scooters, bicycles and unaware pedestrians… getting into a car is the beginning of an episode of terror and my nerves were predictably shattered and my brake foot practically rigid by the time we got to the outskirts of the city.
But soon the land flattened out and I learnt from Yujie that the main ‘industry’ here is agriculture, with cows being the number-one animal – Hohhot is the dairy capital of China and certainly the only place I have tasted half-way decent milk. It is usually all UHT milk as it has to travel vast distances. Despite bringing Earl Grey and Assam tea with me to China, the cuppa just doesn’t taste as it ought – except in Hohhot. Sheep are everywhere and there are acres and acres of sunflowers.
And always that clear blue sky and the incredible pure air.
I also noticed a lot of pylons seemingly carrying electricity in the direction of Hohhot and the other two towns we passed through. Also some big power grids. This really surprised me. The main source of energy here in China is still coal and although I knew there were massive coal mines south of Inner Mongolia in Shaanxi Province, I hadn’t heard of huge amounts of coal here. And there was certainly no enormous water source for hydro-electricity. Intrigued, I asked Yujie who actually didn’t really know but her father told us the source was ‘wind farms’. Well, it seems sad to litter this pristine countryside with windmills, but to have such a huge non-polluting energy source was quite something. China is usually condemned for its environmentally damaging policies but here was a huge non-polluting electricity project we know nothing about. Solar panels are commonly used throughout China to heat water for domestic use – used on a far greater scale than in the west. The water for the shower I had this evening was heated by solar energy. Most of the houses in this little village have solar panels on the roofs.
Past the pylons the land flattened and grew more barren until the only growing thing really was grass. The feeling of non-ending space was extraordinary. So invigorating. I felt like I was plummeting back in time to a world sparsely populated, with human beings forming just a minute part of the vast whole. Huge majesty. Life-enhancing purity. Expansion.
Of course some tourism has found its way here in the form of occasional yurt-like structures in which to stay. In fact I would have liked to have spent some days here to fully savour the grassland ambience and to have been able to stay in one of these fanciful yurt-inspired structures, rather beautifully designed, would have been very fitting.
Mr and Mrs Zhao, having got up so early, said they needed a nap so they rented a yurt for 2 hours leaving me and Yujie to explore the vastness further. We found herds of sheep and cattle around – bulls these were, not cows, so I demurred when Yujie suggested I take some close-up shots.
I forgot to mention the silence – it was awesome to listen to and experience the utter silence that was there. We had had to drive on the necessary road so there were some vehicles passing through, but they were few and far between and in those long, long gaps was a kind primordial silence, unworldly, ancient, unsullied….
We found a small dam and sat and meditated at the water’s edge, slightly hypnotised by the intense silence and the twirling of the windmills in the distance, until it was time to go and pick up the parents and start on our journey home. We took a different route back, much more hilly, which provided a suitably aesthetic backdrop to the twilight descending in sunset colours. Needless to say, the sleep that night was deep and profound.
Upon waking up the next morning I found to my amazement that a man with a trowel and a bucket of what looked like cement was waiting outside my door when I opened it and, as soon as I had vacated the room, he rushed in followed closely by another guy who proceeded to move furniture and lay plastic covers everywhere. To be faced with this rather unusual activity when having just woken up and got out of bed was somewhat disconcerting, to say the least. And then I discovered, on going downstairs, that the beautiful living room was similarly covered in plastic and more men with cement-filled buckets were industriously slapping said cement on the windowsills.
Now definitely disconcerted I made my way to the kitchen to find parents and Yujie having breakfast. Seeing my face Yujie hastened to explain that today all the windowsills and frames were to be cemented. Apparently only two weeks previously the whole apartment had been fitted with super double-glazed windows but the sills and surrounding edges had to be cemented – now.
I spent a largely uneventful day and to be honest, I don’t think anything could have topped the two previous days so it was just as well. The following morning was spent in my again spotless room trying to figure out how to repack my suitcases so that the bag to be checked in was not overweight as regulations have become so strict everywhere; then we left for the airport.
As the plane took off and flew over Hohhot I thanked existence one more time for all the amazing experiences this country and the kindly people I have met here, have given me.