Two Roads to China

First published in Dreamscapes magazine, 2012

climbing the wall sA Chinese woman strokes my face with a delicate finger and says something. I glance curiously at my guide. “She says she thinks you are beautiful,” says Hong, our guide. We smile and I say, “Xie xie,” thank you. But a moment later the connection is lost as the crowds of people, all anxious to see the Forbidden City, push us apart.

There are two roads by which to approach China, a vast country with a dauntingly large population. One could stay aloof from the teeming throng surging along the avenues and pressing around everywhere one goes. Or one can embrace the experience of simply being in a country where being alone for long is not an option.

One could smile and discover that the smiles readily come back, surmounting language barriers (impossible to get beyond the basics of Mandarin for Western tongues). Ni Hao (nee haow); Zai Xian (pronounced dzai djee-en); and Xie Xie (pronounced she-ay she-ay) become critical communicators. But everyone understands the Western equivalents – hello, bye and thank you. For both sides, these become key words, used with pride at their mastery.

ladies s

China encompasses both ancient and modern. After all, this is a country where magnificent modern buildings are carefully constructed according to ancient Feng Shui principles – no building goes up without reference to a Feng Shui Master. This is the country which invented dynamite, then used it first to create fireworks, not weapons. And this is the country that discovered paper so that the enormous complexity of dynasties and their achievements could be carefully recorded.

The Great Wall is a metaphor for China. Chinese house builders like to place a wall around their home and garden. “It makes us feel safe,” explains Hong. “We built walls around our cities too.” The remnants of Beijing’s wall are all but gone, but three of the gates remain, magnificent pagoda structures with drum and bell to sound the start and end of day. And then there’s the Great Wall – around the entire country – built to defend against invaders. Maybe this is why this non-aggressive country that discovered the compass chose to use it not for exploration, but for Feng Shui.

A full moon rises over The Great Wall.

A full moon rises over The Great Wall of China.

An extraordinary achievement, the Great Wall of China meanders up one side of the hill and down again. My pragmatic brain asks, “Why not cut across the brow of the mountain and save time and effort?” But time and effort have always been in plentiful supply, and this wall, begun in 220 BC as earthen fortifications hardened with egg whites (really, I’m not joking), and later built higher with bricks and stone, makes a formidable line of defense. Climbing up even two small sections of its 6,400- kilometer length, is exhausting. The steps are unevenly spaced – some as much as two feet high – and very steep. (I’m beginning to wonder just how tall – and fit – Ming Dynasty soldiers really were).

I join the dozens ascending its steps despite a warning sign in Chinglish, “Heart cerebral disease sufferer, ascend the Great Wall to please watch for.” I’m not clear what a cerebral disease might be but I am fairly confident I don’t have one. The view is well worth the effort. And at the first watch tower, one can obtain a “hero” certificate for having got there. Hooray for me!

Walls abound in China. There is not one wall but several surrounding Beijing’s Forbidden City. Once home to royalty, their servants and guards, it was completely verboten to the rest of the population. Now open to the public, they come by the thousands to walk its courtyards and examine its opulence.

Crowds at Forbidden City

How unfair, I think, that they should have once been denied this beauty. Then I enter the magnificent palace gardens, last walked by the lonely little last emperor, Pu Yi. It is teeming with people but I can see that the carefully placed giant stones, the magnificent trees – many more than 300 years old – and the decoratively pebbled pathways must have been an oasis of peace for rulers who rarely spent a moment alone. I wish I could, just for a moment, bask in that solitude. But this is China and solitude is rare.

garden Forbidden City s

To find some measure of isolation, we go to Zhengzhou in Henan Province, home of the ShaolinTemple, the birthplace of Kung Fu. David Carradine is nowhere in sight; nor is solitude as it turns out.

I pictured a peaceful monastery, but 27,000 children (mostly boys though there are a few girls) attend school here and the martial art of Kung Fu is the primary subject. It’s typical of Chinese contradiction that the arts of combat are combined with the peace of the Buddha’s way. The concept of warrior monks apparently does not trouble them, probably because, like the Great Wall, Kung Fu is regarded as defensive.

students 2 shaolin temple s


Set among magnificent peaks on the north face of Mount Song – one of the sacred mountains of China – it was here that Bodhidharma first came from India, bringing the tenets of what would grow into Zen Buddhism. The grunts and shouts of combat are all around us as we stroll (viewing with amusement as we pass by, telephone booths with surmounted Buddhas). But, in a place where the testosterone levels are off the charts, a large part of the learning of Kung Fu, they stress, entails finding inner peace. Is it this or simply wushu (martial arts) that brings thousands here to stay and learn?

phone booth s

Young and old come from all over the world to spend anywhere from a few days to more than a year in order to learn from Masters like Shen Jia, one of four English-speaking teachers. Indeed, Zhengzhou is known as “Wushu City” (Martial Arts City) and has become a Mecca for those wanting to master these.

Gary Donnely, a 24-year-old from Teeside, England is one such. After six months, his Chinese is still halting but his kick is formidably precise. Maya Mare, a Ukrainian, has been coming here for six years (she’s only 20!) and this time she is staying for a full year. The two agree, “This is the best place in the world to really get challenged, to grow in Kung Fu.” What have they found the hardest thing to master?

“Chinese!” Donnely replies promptly. “It’s impossible!” Inner peace isn’t even mentioned.

Fengxian Temple s

Nonetheless, the quest for inner peace and the path of the Buddha are integral to Chinese history. The Buddhist temple caves of the Longmen Grottoes began to be carved into the sandstone hillside in nearby Luoyang around 490 AD, and were continuously added to until the early 12th century. Nearly all the 2300 caves are man-made and feature more than 15,000 statues of the Buddha – from miniatures as small as a couple of centimetres to the largest – more than 17 metres high!

giant buddha s

This largest one, completed more than 1300 years ago, took 30 years to carve. His eyes benignly follow me as I move around the temple. But some of his guardians are frankly scary characters with bulging eyes and threatening martial arts poses – to my western mind, they seem inappropriate in this peaceful spot. But approaching them is like approaching the waking giant that is China today. It’s awesome and exciting, but perhaps a little frightening too.