China 2012 – Day 10 – Longmen Grottoes, Star Watching Observatory, Songyang Academy

Our guide had told us that many people did their morning exercise in the park across from our hotel in Luoyang, so after we were done breakfast, we wandered across the street to check that out.  What we encountered was one of those glimpses into another culture that are all too rare on these trips.  People of all ages were busy with all sorts of activities, most of them in large groups.  Some were doing traditional dances, others modern dances.  Elderly people were practicing Tai Chi, and performing routines with swords and fans.  One odd dude was even practicing his bullwhip while drawing on a cigarette. Another group was singing.  This was a neat glimpse into the social lives of people who otherwise live their lives in apartments. (photos)

Our first scheduled stop on this day was the Longmen Grottoes, a huge complex of caves and niches carved into cliff-sides along the Yi River.  The caves contain upwards of 100,000 carvings of Buddha and his disciples.  Even though we had joked that we had almost overdosed on Buddha statues, we were looking forward to this tour. (photos) All in all, it was a very impressive sight.  The one downside is that most of the portable icons have been robbed over the years (by the Japanese, the Americans, and others) and at several times in history when Buddhism fell out of favour, the images have been defaced. Still, what remained was amazing enough. On the way back, rather than re-tracing our steps we opted to take a boat ride to see the panoramic view of the caves from the river.

One of the sights I had wanted to see on this trip was the Shaolin Monastery, reputedly the home of martial arts within China (and from there spreading to much of Asia and the world).  That would take us to Dengfeng, so the tour company had scheduled a couple of stops along the way to flesh out the itinerary.  One of these was The Gaocheng Astronomical Observatory, built in 1276 by order of Kublai Khan. The Instruments employed there – one of which is still standing – were used to calculate the Chinese calendar, which has a year matching within seconds the Gregorian calendar we use today. However, the Chinese calendar was established 300 years earlier than its western counterpart. The place was a pleasant respite from other sites. It was peaceful and somewhat remote. During the time we were there only one other small group showed up. (photos)

Our experience was coloured somewhat by our good old guide, Charlie.  I suppose I will have to deal with Charlie at some point in this discussion, so I might as well do so now.  During our three days with Charlie, he began to annoy us more and more.  As we drove to the observatory and while we walked through it, he repeatedly commented how out of the way the place was, and how usually only scientists and engineers were interested in this sort of thing.  The implication was that we had somehow inconvenienced him and that he wondered what interest a couple of stooges like us could possibly have in this sort of high-falootin’ science. That wasn’t his only complaint. Later, he would complain – again repeatedly – how inconvenient our hotel at Shoalin was because it was within the Shaolin complex, and therefore, behind security.  The driver couldn’t bring up the car until after six, and so on, and so on. Usually only people who came to study Kung Fu at one of the local Kung Fu schools stayed at this hotel, and so on. Again the implication was, “What the Hell do you people want to stay here for? It’s very inconvenient for me.”

Certainly he was knowledgeable. He had his routine down pat and could spout dates and statistics like few people I know. But he seemed to forget what he’d told us, and would repeat the same stories over and over again. We couldn’t help contrasting him to Jenny and Phoebe, our two earlier guides. They both showed an interest in us and in the place we lived. They asked us questions, and in return they revealed something of themselves and their lives, information which we found invaluable in understanding Chinese culture today. That was a nice counterbalance to the main focus of the tours, which was mostly about the China of the past. We had conversations with them. We got lectures from Charlie. We grew fond of them; we grew annoyed with Charlie.

And it’s not that we didn’t try to engage him. Several times I asked him questions, but it was as if he’d turned off his listening abilities years ago. If I asked five questions, for four of them I would get answers which were totally off base. After a couple of days, we just stopped trying. Here’s a taste:

Charlie: There’s a Farmer’s Market.
Me: Oh, what vegetables and fruits are in season right now?
Charlie: We have four seasons, <insert lecture on the seasons>

Me, at breakfast: Are there any glasses or cups for tea or juice?
Charlie: No just soup bowls; we use the bowls for soup.

You get the drift. I actually tried more than once on that last one. He kept telling me to use a bowl for soup. Fuuuugggggh!

Another thing that began to drive us nuts was his uncanny ability to make the simplest things complex. He could turn meeting in the lobby at 9:30 into a five minute discussion, partly because he would change his mind three times, and partly because he would have to tell us at least five times to ensure that our feeble brains had absorbed it. When we checked out a hotel, he would ask us to pat our pockets to ensure we had our wallets and passports. Yes, Charlie, I have my passport and my frontal lobe. I’m sure in 30 years of guiding he’d had his share of disasters that fostered this patronizing behaviour, but it was painful, nonetheless.

Our last complaint about dear old Charlie is that he would march us through a given site like were missing the next train and seem very impatient if I held up the process to take a picture or two. Then he would suddenly stop when we were almost outside and say, “Take your time. No Hurry. Lots of time.”

But enough about Charlie.  Our final tour stop for the day was the Songyang Academy, a university originally built in the 5th Century A.D.  One of the key features of the Academy are two ancient Cypress trees, one over 4,000 years old, and another, the oldest tree in China, clocking in at 5,000 years or so (photos).

After that, it was off to our hotel, which lay just below the Shaolin Temple.  Since we were still quite full from lunch and since there were no restaurants in the vicinity of our hotel, we stopped by a roadside fruit vendor and picked up over a Kg of apples for just 5 rmb (less than a dollar). and ate some of those when we got to our hotel.

After supper, we had opted to watch a performance a few miles away from the hotel.  This is a relatively new spectacle, with over 600 performers and a theatre carved out of the side of a mountain. (photos) This time we were a bit more prepared for it to be more about theatre and less about kung fu, so we enjoyed it.  It was essentially musical theatre done on a grand scale.  The entire mountain side is the stage, Some of the lighting is even installed on the mountain ridges. After that we headed back to our hotel room for the night.

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