Cristo Redentor and Amtul’s Gift

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My first thought was that Ammi, my mother, would have liked to have done this. She had an appreciation of iconic places. Coming from a small village on the opposite side of the world, as a young girl she had read about the River Thames and Big Ben. Then in her twenties, as a married woman, she made seeing them her goal and did.She would have liked this. She understood the power of symbols.

Then, like a heavy mist clouding my vision, my eyes filled with fat tears and fell, in a silent stream down both cheeks. I was wholly unprepared to be so moved. I had stepped off the rickety train to the summit and stepped out to see the 90 foot high statue from behind. I did not feel any hint of the emotional wave that was about to catch me unaware in just a few moments

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First sight

With more than 200 other tourists, I took the escalator to the base of the statue and quite suddenly, I was there. I was looking up at the figure which famously looks down on Rio from it’s highest peak and my first thought was of Ammi.

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Cristo Redentor

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A very human face

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Hands inspired by the sculptor’s mistress

It is hard to describe how one can feel alone with ones thoughts and feelings in a place as busy with tourists as this. On Babel’s advice we had set off early to avoid the 24,000 additional sightseers due in on the 8 cruise ships that day and this had been a wise move. There was space to reflect, to take in the views which were at once familiar and yet new to my eyes, to grasp the meaning of being here.

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Sugar Loaf, which had given me my first sight of where I now stood

As I walked around in my own silence, now more composed than I had been earlier, taking in new perspectives with each turn of my head, I reviewed a belief I had long held about the plans my mother had had for me. I had known, with the kind of certainty that only I could challenge, what she expected of her only daughter: to have a sufficient education to marry well, have children, educate them and make them the primary focus of my life. Then there would be grand children and community responsibilities and the various duties that come with those roles. I assumed that my upbringing had been designed to equip me for just this outcome. But something made me question this for the first time. I had been startled by the presence of my mother, so suddenly, arriving in my thoughts.

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Amtul’s Daughter

She never taught me to cook; she taught me to read. She never taught me to launder or sew; she taught me to empathise and feel. She never taught me to clean; she taught me to think . She never taught me to be submissive; instead she taught me to reason and articulate. She gave me a strong moral code but gave me no religious instruction. The family stories she told were all about being different, taking up the challenge and cutting one’s own individual path through life’s jungle.

Perhaps being here, seeing the world in all it’s multifaceted glory was exactly what she dreamed for me. She taught me all I needed to get here. I have long felt that I stand on the shoulders of giants . No matter how far I go or what I achieve, it compares almost nothing to the steps my parents took in leaving a small village speaking virtually no English , travelling to the other side of the world without any money and building a new , strong and good life for themselves, my bother and I. They built the “better life” of which she so often spoke. I realised then that this is exactly where I should be this day; that this was her gift.

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Mountains on the horizon

With that, a kind of peace settled upon me. Like an overused computer de fragging then finding there is space to take in more than was thought possible, I was now hungry to absorb every last piece of what Corcovado, the peak on which I stood, had to give me.

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Rio below

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The heaving metropolis

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City and forest embrace

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Somehow it seemed even more fitting that the monument which had moved me so much this morning was an entirely publicly funded, secular endeavour borne of great civic pride. The statue was the result of a public campaign where the sculptor had not even taken his fee for his work. Neither owned nor funded by any church, the choice of Christ the Redeemer seems more spiritual than religious, with arms wide open welcoming all people. It acknowledges but is not beholden to the country’s main religion.

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Last look

So it was with a light heart and uplifted spirit that I returned to the base of Corcovado, savouring a few last backward glances on the way down and taking with me Amtul’s Gift which I found there but had never been without.

Cathedrals of Victory. Temples of Faith

Apparently there are over 800 churches in Moscow. More if you count the buildings that were once churches but now house museums and on my only full day in Moscow, I spent a lot of time in quite a few of them.

St Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square is rightly famous but there are at least two more (the Kazan Cathedral and the tiny chapel in the Iberian Gate) on the square which share space with Lenin’s Mausoleum.

The Kazan Cathedral

Bells still rung by hand daily in the Kazan Cathedral

Tiny Chapel at the Iberian Gate. Standing room for only 10 people inside

Then there are the seven cathedrals inside the Kremlin – the Cathedral of the Annunciation, the Cathedral of the Assumption, the Cathedral of the Archangel, the Church of the Disposition of the Robes, the Ivan the Great Bell Tower (once attached to a church) , the Cathedral of the Twelve Apostles in the Patriarchs Palace and the Church of the Nativity – all virtually within sight of each other.

Elena, my guide for the day, is highly informed about churches. She also knows a lot about religion, specifically the Russian Orthodox faith but for all her information, she is somehow distant. There is something steely, reserved and long suffering in her eyes. Given my current view of Muscovites, I brush away this thought. We have a busy day ahead. As we enter each church , she covers her head and crosses herself. I have not been this close to religious faith since I started my sabbatical and I find its juxtaposition with statues of Lenin and intensely secular Stalin era buildings unexpectedly discordant.

She explains that most of the churches were built by Tsars to mark significant military victories and it was the practice of the Russian Orthodox church to canonise prominent military and other leaders of the day, for example,St Basils was built to commemorate the capture of the Mongol stronghold of Kazan. With such vast borders and a compelling need to keep access to the sea, Russia has a long history of wars waged.

The Cathedral of Christ the Redeemer

As we step in to the Cathedral of Christ The Redeemer, Moscow’s most recent Cathedral built in 2000 at colossal expense (over $200M) borne by private donors and the state during a time of food shortages in Russia, I comment that there have been no pews in any of the churches not even this modern one. Through Elena’s matter of fact answer I learn something that begins to unlock something of the Russian psyche.

The whole congregation stands throughout all church services. Even the Tsars and Tsarinas stood for two hours , or more for a special service, when attending church, Elena explains.

“We believe in salvation through suffering” she says, in the present tense. With these six words , she has revealed something of herself as well as her nation. The look I see in her eyes is the weight of carrying some heavy burden, suffering some inner injury but it is attached to her route to salvation. So she continues, supported by her conviction that through this suffering will come salvation. I discover later that there has been a huge rise in religious observance in Russia since the breakup of the Soviet Union with more than 65% of Russians regularly attending services in chapels and cathedrals which have been returned to the church in the last 20 years. Elena seems representative of her people.

View of The Kremlin and The Armoury from the embankment

I may have read too much into her but throughout the rest of the day including visits to lighter places like Tolstoy’s house, a fur hat shop, a coffee shop lunch and The Armoury in the Kremlin with its Faberge eggs, coronation gowns and sumptuous jewels, despite many gentle attempts to engage her in wider conversation, I learn only one thing about Elena’s life. She used to love ice skating as a child, was good enough to compete but stopped at age 12. I could not discover why.

Tolstoy’s House where he raised 13 children

Inside The Kremlin, main gate in the distance

The Arbat, old shopping street. The place to buy a fur hat!

After she and driver Alexander drop me at my hotel that evening, I do not see her again.

The next morning, Svetlana is back as is Alexander. The plan is to visit the Novodevichiy Convent to which rich ladies of the court retired once widowed or out of favour and the adjacent Novodevichiy Cemetery where may famous Russians are buried. I feel I have had my fill of religious places and explain I would like to travel on the Metro and go to the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts for the few hours I have left before departing for St Petersburg.

Svetlana smiles. It is a real smile and it is for me. I am arrested by the realisation that this is the first real smile I have been given since I arrived in Moscow and it begins a thaw in my heart. She explains that it really is worth seeing the convent and cemetery but is confident that we can fit all this in with the Metro and Museum.
“Is there anything in particular you want to see at Pushkin? It is a very big place” she asks.
“Yes. The collection of 19th and 20th century European Impressionist art”.
“Excellent!” she replies still smiling, “it is in a separate new building so very easy to get to and look round.”

With that an animated discussion with Alexander begins about routes and timing and all manner of changes to the logistics. I do not understand a word but it is clear this is what they are doing.

We begin with the Metro and I am mesmerised by what I see.

Larger than life statues of honoured Soviet workers and Dog ( far left)

Empty between frequent trains

Commemorating defeating the Germans in the Second World War

Stained glass but this is not a window. Why bother? To honour Riga’s glass making skill

Stained glass throughout

These are spectacular, secular temples. Ironically  utterly in keeping with Russia’s religious tradition of building Cathedrals of victory, these rich, underground palaces speak of national and regional pride, of triumph in war and the righteous abundance of the Soviet way. Just like their counterparts above ground, the truth which lies behind the images and the arches is less clear cut and more tortured but there is still something awe inspiring about this enormous and ornate civic endeavour. Svetlana explains the images and themes and I am glad she is my guide today.

A different style altogether, more classical. Svetlana in the foreground

We travel to 8 stations built during the Stalin era and each is completely different. Mosaics and statues and stained glass and paint and intricate plasterwork decorate these extravagant spaces just as if they were places for religious worship. The modern extensions to the original metro are less ornate but the cathedral arches and sense of space have been honoured and reproduced. Over 9 million Muscovites pay homage at these underground temples daily. Trains arrive every two minutes and platforms fill then empty with a surge of passengers as rhythmically as waves crashing on a beach then just as quickly pulling back into the sea leaving only a trace of what went before.

Propaganda in Mosaic. Celebrating the rise of science above superstition

Just to prove trains really do run here…even the walkways are extravagant

Secular temples for daily devotions…but these have pews!

Like an underground art gallery

Something inside me has been restored. I glance at Svetlana as we take our last ride before meeting Alexander and I see she is genuinely proud to show me this part of her city. But that isn’t all. As I travelled with her on the Metro, I was largely ignored. I could not have asked for more. I felt like a regular commuter on the London Underground;anonymous and unremarkable even though the colour of all the other commuters was universally not the same as mine! I am warming to Moscow, or perhaps it is warming to me.

Like a Tsar’s Palace, and why not?

Whilst the visit to the convent is vaguely interesting, I am surprised by how much I am taken by the cemetery. I don’t usually seek out places where people have been buried so my expectations are low. But I have to confess, this place has character. Svetlana misjudges my interest and guides me to some of the famous graves;Chekhov, Prokofiev, Shostakovich , Yeltsin, Khrushchev, Razia Gorbachev and others. But I am more taken by the space and the sounds and the almost eerie calm.Tall pine trees accent a place which is about what lies beneath. There are many monumental gravestones and some graves without any distinguishing marks at all.

Strangely compelling

Icarus

The one which moves me the most is Icarus. Before Svetlana tells me, I know it must be a famous astronaut. He died young in a test flight in service to his country. Icarus is falling, the wax in his wings having melted from flying too close to the sun and the gravestone captures this perfectly. It is heavy and unco ordinated and tragic.

As I return to the car, Alexander holds open the door for me as he has done on every occasion possible during this trip. I thank him, in Russian and by name, “Spaciba Alexander” as I have done on each such occasion. This time he reveals a faint smile. A slow thought starts to form. Perhaps it just takes time with Muscovites; glacial speed not sun light speed. I suppose Alexander has reserved his judgement on me till now. That seems fair and I find myself valuing highly this small smile, which has taken me two days to earn.

The Pushkin Museum and an hour or more spent with Renoir, Degas, Matisse, Monet, Cezanne, Gauguin, Van Gogh and Picasso revives me more than I could have imagined. There are famous works I have only seen in books and postcards. The scale of the rooms in which they are hung is intimate and the Museum is not busy. I have time to pause and reflect before heading for the train station for my 5 hour journey to St Petersburg.

In its own way, the Pushkin Museum is also a cathedral of sorts where pilgrims such as I come to pay homage. We all have a need for faith in something, I ponder, whether it is a god or the state or love or the sheer beauty in so much of what exists in this world and we will continue to build cathedrals to honour our victories, our faiths and our longings.

I step out of my car at the train station and hand Alexander a modest tip for his attentive driving. Suddenly his face is transformed by a dazzling smile. My driver, who is smoke aged and wiry, with hooded eyes that take in much and give away little, has a megawatt smile! I learn later that a gratuity is not customary but I also know that his smile is more than just about the money.

Alexander has warmed to me just as I have warmed to Moscow. I needed to give it time for Moscow is not easily impressed…..and nor am I.

The Glacial Cool of Muscovites

“They sound angry all the time – your challenge will be to see through that. Good luck !”

This was the advice Moscow veteran and dear friend N gave to help me adopt the right mindset for tackling what was already feeling like a cold city. I had only been in Moscow three hours and the weather wasn’t the issue.

I had felt out of place since boarding my flight in London. It was a large plane with every seat occupied . 90% of the passengers were men and 99% were white. In my line of work whilst I am now less often the only woman in a room, I still mostly look out on a sea of white faces. None of that is a problem for me or my colleagues and clients. So why was I so aware of my fellow travellers’ gender and colour today? I think it was the collective look of intense , impenetrable, cold reserve they all seemed to be wearing. It made me feel on edge as if everyone thought I was somewhere I shouldn’t be and I was naively unaware. It had echoes of what I experienced in the early days of my career usually being the only woman in a room and invariably the only one who wasn’t Anglo Saxon.

Arriving at Moscow Airport didn’t alter my perspective except in one sense. I was now not the only Asian! A plane full of Chinese tourists had arrived and provided an entirely different collective buzz. Cheery, energetically disorganised, quite unable to queue but full of broad smiles and fast chatter, they swept through a cold, aloof and humourless muddled mess that was forming in the arrivals hall. A delayed departure from London had meant our arrival collided – quite literally at immigration – with two other plane loads. The airport guards and officials made no attempt at order and we were left to figure things out for ourselves. Immigration is a serious part of any airport and, of all my travels, the Moscow immigration officials had the most intimidating and stern demeanour. An arctic wind blew through the arrivals hall for the hour we queued.

It would take me nearly a whole day to start learning how to read Muscovite faces and body language. Searching for a ready smile and large , generous gestures as expressions of pleasant accommodation was a futile exercise. Just like looking at the surface of a glacier gives no clue that there is earth moving power taking place before your very eyes far below, the signs of warmth were more subtle and required being earned. In time, I would discover this thanks to my driver, Alexander.

However, on this Monday afternoon on my first day, as I stepped out of the airport to be met by my Moscow guide slim, blond Svetlana, my normally open, curiosity filled, rapport building attitude to meeting new people was stuck like a lock frozen solid by the sub-zero temperatures of my journey so far.

The view from my hotel window

The hour long drive to my hotel through a sun lit but severe, grey , concrete city didn’t make me feel any warmer. My room was pleasant enough, nothing particularly remarkable except the view. That did bring something of a smile to my face. It has been my long held ambition to see St Basil’s Cathedral and there it was, framed by my hotel window.

Since I like to explore my environs as soon as I can after arriving in a new place, I decided to do this next and hoped it would improve my mood. A short walk over the bridge brought me to Red Square and face to face with St Basil’s Cathedral. It is the iconic image of Moscow and profoundly Russian but, with all due respect, it is also a hilarious riot of mad colours and almost surreal, Disney like design. It actually made me laugh out loud. Perhaps the ice in my emotional response to Moscow was starting to thaw.

St Basil’s Cathedral

Officially titled The Church of the Intercession

Along the south side of Red Square is Moscow’s largest department store, Gum. Svetlana had suggested that if I wanted something to eat which is authentically Russian and relatively quick, cheap and cheerful, I should head for Canteen No.57 in Gum. So I did. The sun was starting to disappear behind the red walls of the Kremlin and a quick bite to eat before drawing a line on this unsettling day seemed the right thing to do.

Gum

Sunset over The Kremlin

In a bid to understand Moscow a little better, I chose some of its flavours:

Caviar and boiled egg
Cream cheese with salmon
Pelmini (Meat dumplings) with soured cream sauce
Soviet classic cake “pigeon milk” ( as translated on the label)
Rye bread

Caviare from Salmon not Sturgeon!

Like ravioli

Very odd chocolate cake

Whilst the food was unremarkable – the dumplings were much better than they looked and the cake a little odd (pigeons don’t have milk by the way) – I was drawn back into that feeling of being visibly different. Other diners looked, stared sometimes, a little longer than is comfortable. The temperature in the canteen seemed distinctly cool.

As I finished my meal, I looked right back, a little longer than is comfortable, and noticed something I had not seen before. These Muscovites were pretty well dressed. Not in a high class chic sort of way but in the way that shows deliberate intent; nothing looked like it had been thrown together without care or thought. I noticed the shoes first. Very few trainers and those I did see were dark colours and understated. Women of all ages mostly wore stylish boots; men wore mostly leather shoes. Jackets and coats were well teamed with smart jeans and trousers or a skirt and dress. Even the group of 5 middle aged women gossiping animatedly over coffee, who Beryl Cook would have painted so well in all their raucous roundness, looked better turned out than their counterparts in London. Conscious that I was visiting one of the more expensive areas of Moscow , I calibrated this against a walk through Harvey Nichols or Selfridges in central London and, generally speaking, Muscovites definitely had the edge as a group. Quite cool.

Then I looked down at my shoes. Comfortable but, quite frankly , deeply unstylish, old trainers. I hadn’t done myself any favours wearing them with my skinny jeans and long duvet like coat. And worst crime of all……a cardigan! Perhaps they weren’t staring at me because of my colour after all, just the criminal offence of how I was dressed! I realised that what had made me fit in like a native in China clearly didn’t work here and decided to do better for the rest of the trip.

With these thoughts and more turning over in my head, I headed back for the hotel crossing an old bridge over the River Moskva which now felt familiar and safe.

A city with a river makes me feel better

I was still stared at and I still had seen nothing other than white faces since stepping off the plane but I decided NOT to do exactly what I was in danger of accusing Muscovites of doing to me: prejudging. Had my encounter with Sara and her Dancing Tattoos taught me nothing? We all have hidden depths. I would need to try a bit harder to see beyond the glacial coolness Muscovites seem to present en masse.

Whether they sounded angry all the time was yet to be discovered. They certainly looked on me with icey coolness. Time would tell if I could rise to N’s challenge ” to see through that” and find something warmer.

Night view at the end of the first day

Shanghai: Scenes from the Cutting Room Floor

Shanghai is the lead character in a movie, the scenes of which I have not yet pieced together. Glorious, technicolor images of rich, gorgeous Shanghai still run through my mind’s eye like rushes from a day of intense filming but the story line isn’t clear. Perhaps I have caught Shanghai partway through her own tale and only time will reveal the meaning of what I have seen. Even so, I am not troubled because somewhere deep in my soul I already know Shanghai. I understand her sound; I recognise her face. Like pieces from different jigsaw puzzles, I have seen fragments of Shanghai before. London is here and New York and Paris but take a moment to pause and look below her western clothes. You will find there beats an Asian heart full of complex relationships and a fierce determination to make the future hers. Though we met only briefly, I already know Shanghai and the rhythm of that beating heart.

 
 
Scene One: Laundry
 
As I approach the city centre heading towards my hotel, the size of the sky scrapers is matched by the hight of the designer heels. Familiar symbols of modern, western sophistication and wealth are unashamedly flaunted and displayed……. right alongside that mornings laundry. It takes me a few moments to realise what I am looking at. There, covering the metal railings edging the footpaths, the balconies of every residential building, regardless of whether its neighbour is an office block, and on washing poles jutting out over roads are duvets, blankets, sheets, pillow cases and,occasionally, clothing basking in a warm, very sunny day. No Victorian sense of privacy inhibits this collective display of domestic bunting. It reminds me a little of Hong Kong but even there the washing stayed off street level. I am thrilled and amused.
 

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My Shanghai guide, Melody, explains quite matter-of-factly.

” It has been raining almost non stop since January and this is the first time this year we have had a few warm, dry days. That is why everyone is doing their big washing.” Seems fair but why is the washing out on the streets and on public railings? My question reveals both my naivety and how much I have forgotten about the life I lived as a child.

“How else would they dry their things? They don’t have tumble dryers and also the electricity would be far too expensive. No one will steal them. Who would want someone else’s sheets?” she states, slightly puzzled as to my intrigue. These few short sentences reveal much about Melody, Shanghai and China itself.

Scene Two: River

I am staying at the devestatingly luxurious Peninsula Hotel on The Bund in a room that overlooks the Huangpu River with a jaw dropping view of the famous Pudong skyline. This is a proper, high octane , fully caffienated, mega watt city and it buzzes with an energy more visceral than that of New York. The busy river makes me feel comfortable. It echoes what I love about The Thames.

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To the epic sound of Khachaturian’s Adaggio for Spartacus played from my iPod, through the Suite’s magnificent sound system, into every room, I take stock of my accommodation. It is good. Very good.

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There are three Mood Lighting Settings but I like the Privacy Please setting. I want one at home!

I have the usual hair dryer, of course, but today, I even have a nail dryer!

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As the sound of Khachaturian’s Spartacus rises with gladiatorial strength to claim freedom from Roman enslavement, an equally strong and profound feeling of happiness surges through me as powerfully as the Huangpu flows outside my window. So I go for a walk.

Scene Three: Flute

I am visiting the water village of Xitang just outside Shanghai’s city limits. The day is clear, the sun is high and Melody is excited. She explains that it is wonderful taking someone so young and fit to Xitang. Usually she has a tour bus of “seniors” who need a lot of looking after and can’t do most of the things Xitang has to offer. I am touched that a 26 year old regards me as young.

The water village is as authentic as it can be given the relentless march of time. It is far less commercialised than other water villages and has an indigenous population which makes its living through village industry. Not fishing anymore but tourism. Catching a different kind of fish, I suppose.

Surprisingly quiet, the waterways that snake between land banks and under beautiful bridges cast a calming spell on visitors and locals alike.

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More Laundry

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The courtyard of a private house

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Interior

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Laughter at lunchtime

Having walked to the far end of the village, we return on a gondola style boat propelled by one Chinese water boatman and his oar. Impossibly, the pace slows even further and there is time to listen rather than talk.

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The breeze is soft; more a caress than a call for attention. It carries messages from the riverbank; the sweet smell of stir fried food, snippets of conversations, shafts of sunlight dropped like silver leaf on the water. Then just as we approach the final bridge, we are are hypnotised by her finest gift: sounds of the flute player.

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The sound of flute playing from beyond the bridge

Unaware of our approach, a water boatman is sitting in his boat playing for his own pleasure. Business is slow. It is early in the season so he plays his flute. The other water boatmen are further away on a different boat playing cards. The music is tender and full of pathos. Yet it is the melancholy, a deep, pensive sadness that the breeze has carried to my boat.

As I disembark, I follow the sound to his boat and listen for a while longer. When he finishes, I applaud him, much to the amusement of his colleagues and, endearingly, slightly to his own embarrassment. Although no one else was nearby to hear the exquisite sound of this water boatmen and his flute, it is a precious memory but not a fragile one.

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Scene Four: Lunch

Sitting on a small plastic stool in a tiny back room of a street stall, I am wearing thin plastic gloves , pealing the shells off river prawns and crayfish dripping the sauce in which they have been cooked all over myself. This is lunch.

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Before

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During

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After

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Fellow diners

The garlic loaded, butter drenched scallops are amongst the best I have ever eaten. The thinly sliced grilled potatoes on skewers are a nod towards balancing this meal but it is all about the shellfish…..and getting my hands dirty. My nephew, who is responsible for feeding me this “street food” is smiling . And so am I.

Scene Five: Picture

It is early evening. The sun will soon be setting and I decide to walk along The Bund. Stepping out of The Peninsula to cross the road towards the embankment, I am approached by two young, Chinese girls. Wearing skinny jeans, short jackets and scarves against the cold, they can’t be more than 18 years old.

” Hello”, the taller one smiles, “please can you take picture?” She is offering me her mobile phone and indicating that she would like a picture taken of her with her friend. I have realised this is not unusual in China so am happy to oblige. As a lone traveller I have asked the same question myself on this trip.

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The Peninsula

After the shot, I hand back the mobile.
“Can I take picture of you?” she says still smiling. I wasn’t expecting that and look surprised. “You got beautiful eyes. We got no foreigners at home. We from Szechuan. I wanna show my family you big eyes.” I am still slightly thrown but agree in the spirit of friendliness.
As the shorter girl, who has been silent, prepares to take the shot, the taller one continues. “Where you from? London?” I nod. She doesn’t miss a beat.
“First time in Shanghai? My first time too. You alone?” She makes a sad face just as my city instincts start to kick in at her line of questioning.
“You wanna join us?We going to party, have fun. Come and join us. Not be alone.” And there it is. I am not sure what the scam is but these are no innocent tourists from Szechuan. I say no politely but firmly and walk away.

Moments later I turn to see if they have left, hoping I misread the situation and they really are off to have fun somewhere else but I am not wrong. They are hovering by the crossing, looking for who else is stepping out of the hotel.

On turning back to continue my walk, less than 60 seconds after leaving the “Szechuan Twins”, I hear another female voice. “You got beautiful eyes. Where you from? You alone?” This time I am wise and do not engage. This happens twice more in very quick succession. It is like a patch being worked. Each time I turn round to look back on what I have left behind, it is the same scene. Two young girls, dressed like tourists, speaking to foreigners walking alone.

Within the hour, the sun has set. I have taken some photographs and been perfectly content to “have fun” on my own.

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Scene Six: View

In a bar at the top of the world’s third tallest building waiting to be seated for dinner, I am sipping a martini with a handsome man nearly half my age. Earlier we were in another bar across the river at the top of another building looking at where we would be going next. We went there for the iconic view.

We have spent the day together in the Yu Gardens, the Art District and Nanjing Road and though he has tried not to let it affect our day, he is troubled. A business issue has kept him on the phone for parts of the afternoon and is still on his mind as he sips his beer.

He is in Shanghai to make his fortune. Half Asian, half Dutch, he lives here but is not of here. One thing is for sure, he is in the right city at the right time and my migrant ancestry applauds him for taking up the challenge. He is also charming and very good company so the evening flows easily.

I am taken by his view of Shanghai, the view across my table and the view across the river. A perfect way to spend my last night in China.

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Scene Seven: Skyroads

A shiny black car is taking me to the airport. It is early but traffic is building.

Looking out of my window, There are roads below me. I am on a flyover, on the fourth level with another above me. Five layers of roads from ground to top. Shanghai is on the move and I am on my way home.

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China Closing Credits

BA is flying me back to London. It’s a long flight and I have much to think about. China has been at once a revelation and an enigma; complex and complicated.

On the flight, the adjacent seat is occupied by P. P breaks the ice and effects an introduction with a broad smile, a light Liverpudlian accent and some humour. I am charmed. Before the plane even leaves the ground we have begun what becomes a long, intense, personal and, for P, emotional conversation. P’s soft speech and easy manner belies a long hard career in the male dominated, macho, automobile industry. We talk about our work, managing teams, hiring, firing, diversity and unconscious bias. We talk about China, of speaking sympathetic English, the excitement and the challenge of working with a society where labour is cheap but technology expensive and the importance of gender, status and formality.

We talk of our upbringings, our parents’ values and how that shapes us. We talk of our children. P’s are much younger than mine. P tells me stories that reveal their characters, P’s as well as the children’s. A casual observation from me reaches deeper than I could have known and P is moved to tears. The struggle of a single parent stretched to the limit is revealed. I share the story of the big stones in the glass jar and P generously says this is reassuring.

It seems no part of P’s life is without complication. Emotionally involved with someone who is still married and someone else who is seriously ill, P is spinning many plates all the time. As we prepare to land, I reflect that P too is complex and complicated and like China, has given me the privilege of seeing a little of what lies below the surface; a glimpse at the hidden depths of a life being fully lived. It is an honour I do not take lightly.

I have travelled a long way East and am now ready for home, secure in the knowledge that in a few short days everything home means to me will be in my arms.

War and Peace in Xi’an

Terracotta Warriors

War

Despite two thousand years and over 16 feet deep of reddish, sandy soil covering the evidence, the character and priorities of Qin Shi Huang, the First Emperor of China, were clearly visible in every aspect of The Terracotta Army. Over 8000 life-size clay soldiers, 130 chariots, 520 horses and 130 cavalry horses each one unique and hand-made by 700,000 workers over nearly 40 years guarded his city sized mausoleum just outside Xi’an. Still only partially excavated but already occupying museums the size of aircraft hangers, this colossal endeavour spoke of an obsessive, conquering drive to remain as dominant in the afterlife as he had been in this.

Protecting a dead Emperor

An army in waiting

The first pit to be excavated

Bronze Horses and Chariot

My naive and rather innocent desire to see the largest, life-size, pottery figurine group ever found in China and probably the world was soon put in a somewhat unsettling frame as my Xi’an guide, Tracey, told me the story of its making and its maker. Calling himself the First Emperor having unified China after winning against all opponents at the end of the Warring States Period (221 BC), Qin Shi Huang is a pivotal figure in Chinese history, beginning nearly two millennia of imperial rule.

A Regular Soldier. Each face is unique

As Emperor, he undertook gigantic projects, including building and unifying various sections of the Great Wall of China, establishing his burial site guarded by the Terracotta Army, and creating a massive national road system, all at great financial and human cost. To ensure stability, Qin Shi Huang outlawed and burned many books and buried some scholars alive. Once his Terracotta Army was made, Tracey explained soberly, all those who had worked on the tomb were killed so that its location could not be found by his enemies after the Emperor’s death.

Cavalryman and horse

A General,wearing no armour. Others would fight

Life size horse

In a sense, here lay exposed a three dimensional, carefully crafted “Will and Testament” for the life beyond. Based on a belief that whatever is buried with you is carried into that life, much like Egyptian Pharaohs in their pyramids, these were the things of greatest value, necessity and importance to Qin Shi Huang. Of all that this life has to offer, in selecting what he wanted most in the afterlife, he sought to take with him an army and weapons to protect him and to wage war.

As they were found with remnants of colour

A broken army

Not one single female figure is included in the vast collection. Not an Empress. Not a concubine. Not even a female slave. No musical instruments or books or artists materials would be taken into the new world. Only weapons, soldiers, generals, horses and all that is necessary to feed and fuel an immense fighting force. As impressive as the figures themselves were, I have to confess, a heaviness fell on me as I considered the coldness in the dark heart that conceived such a world.

And yet and yet. Like an archeologist, one is wise not to stop at the first layer of a story as big as this. Small fragments can reveal much. My patience was rewarded when I met The Kneeling Archer.

The Kneeling Archer

He is one of the very few figures to have been excavated intact whilst still retaining some of the colour which decorated all the soldiers but which has generally faded since being exposed to sunlight. The Kneeling Archer is not only very precious but also the subject of great fondness in China not least because of the story of his shoes!

Some colour still visible on the archer's back

Tracey explained. “At the time of Qin Shi Huang, all soldiers were given identical uniforms by the army including head-gear and weapons but they were allowed to wear their own shoes. Have you noticed what is special about The Kneeling Archer’s shoes?” she asked excitedly. I said I had not

Patterned soles

.
” Well, in those days, all shoes were hand-made. When a man was unmarried , he wore simple shoes which had a plain sole because he didn’t have the time to make himself ones with any pattern. A patterned shoe was always better because you could tell which one was yours. Once he was married, his wife would make his shoes and spend time making a pattern especially on the sole , to make it stronger.” Tracey paused, partly for effect and partly to give me time to figure it out for myself. I didn’t so she continued.
“So, look at the sole of The Kneeling Archer’s shoe. It is patterned”. Another slight pause then with a triumphant flourish she delivered the verdict.
“The Kneeling Archer is a married man!”

Bow and arrows missing but still clearly an archer

I was struck by the warmth with which Tracey told me this story. It brought some humanity into an otherwise exhilarating but disturbing exploration of a warrior king’s vision of this world and the next. We both smiled at her joy in the telling of a tale she must have recounted many, many times. As we turned to leave our Kneeling Archer, I shared a thought with Tracey, another layer of the story excavated.
” Of course, he isn’t really married”, I said casually. She stopped, physically arrested by my comment.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, he isn’t a man. He is a statue. So, in a way, what is even more wonderful is that the worker who made this statue put in the extra effort to represent his Kneeling Archer as a married man.” I smiled but was met with an expression one does not often see in the face of adults: a profound change of perspective taking place. Tracey, along with her nation, had personified the statue of The Kneeling Archer, giving him a life and an existence beyond the burial mound and the army. My comment, quite unintentionally, sliced into that warmly held picture.
Tracey was silent for quite a while as we walked to the next building. Then in a thoughtful tone that revealed she too had been looking for the next layer of the story below the one I had uncovered, she said, “The workers were told to copy the faces of the person working opposite them which is why each face is unique. They were shown the uniforms to copy which is why they are all the same. I expect that when it came to the shoes, they just looked at their own. So perhaps it was the worker who made the statue who was a married man.” I agreed that this was very probably the case and smiled. With that the warmth of feeling, pride and goodwill which had surrounded The Kneeling Archer, and had been momentarily tugged away by my comment, now came to include the worker behind the statue.

For a brief moment, one real human being behind the clay human figure had been acknowledged and a massive army, borne out of the darkness in a conquering emperor’s heart which spoke of war and conflict and forced domination, was softened by the story of a married man looking at his shoe while shaping terracotta.

The work of a warrior king

Peace

It is fair to say that my only reason for traveling to Xi’an was to see the Terracotta Army. I had no other knowledge of Xi’an which Tracey described as a “second tier city” because it only has a population of around 8 million unlike Beijing and Shanghai which have over 20 million. I knew nothing of its long history as the capital of China and the starting point for the Silk Road less still that at the heart of the city lies The Muslim Quarter and the Great Mosque of Xi’an . Founded in 742, it is the oldest and one of the most renowned mosques in China. So, after a morning spent with a clay army built by a man anticipating an afterlife in which war would need to be waged, my afternoon was spent walking through The Great Mosque of Xi’an and, quite unexpectedly, uncovering a new understanding about a peaceful man who had made an entirely different deal with the hereafter.

Entrance to The Muslim Quarter

The Muslim Quarter

The Great Mosque is surrounded by the narrow lanes of the heaving and thriving market which defines The Muslim Quarter. It hustles and bustles like the souks in Marrakech and the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul, sharing a history and people connected by two ends of the Silk Road. Food and drink, clothes and souvenirs, household goods and trinkets all jostle for attention under covered walkways saturated with enticing smells and rich colours.

Fried Eggs on a skewer.

Unlike th rest of China, no pork is sold here

Acres of covered market

As we walked briskly through, taking a sudden, sharp right we were standing at the entrance to The Great Mosque. Discharging her duties as a guide, Tracey began to tell me some of the basics of Islamic beliefs: the five pillars of Islam, the call to pray 5 times a day, the specific rituals for washing before prayer, the segregation of the sexes and facing West in the direction of Mecca. I listened with half an ear before telling her that my upbringing meant I was already familiar with this background information so perhaps she could tell me a bit about the building and its history.

Tower from which the Azan, the call to prayer is sounded daily

Even as she spoke, however, I knew my attention had wandered to a different time and a different place

Peaceful grounds in which to think and remember

I am 19 years old, telling my father that the man who has asked me to marry him is not of the faith of my up bringing. Without uttering a word of rebuke, my father, a proud but immensely gentle man, turns and lays himself down on the sofa on which we are sitting and, for the next three days, fails to speak a single word. Believing my soul would be condemned to eternal damnation in the afterlife for committing a mortal sin by this marriage, his distress is sincere, profound and overwhelming. A powerful struggle is taking place in his heart and his soul; a struggle between belief and love.

The prayer room of The Great Mosque itself. Only men may pray here

From the prayer room, a view of tranquil grounds in which old memories rise and are replaced by a new understanding

Standing in the grounds of that ancient chinese mosque, I understood with clarity the simple truth which had so long eluded me about what had taken place on the third day when my father finally rejoined our family. He had chosen peace not war. His love and respect for me were stronger than his fears for my soul. In accepting this truth, he also chose to walk with me along the path I was taking rather than wage an unwinnable war to dominate my will. I have no doubt he prays for me every day, making some kind of peace with his god for my error, paying the insurance premium of faith that I stopped doing some time ago but through all this, and the last 30 years, his love for me has been uncompromised. Of that I have always been certain.

Final view

As we left the Great Mosque, I reflected on my journeys so far. My mother had accompanied me through Rio and it was now apparent that my father was with me in China. Today more than ever, having started the day in the long shadow cast by the dark heart of a warrior king and his obsession to build a massive war machine for the life beyond, I was grateful for the company of a peaceful man who, whilst he will leave little in the way of visible marks on this earth, had resolved that his love for me was all he would carry to protect him in his afterlife.

A Perfect Day: The Great Wall and The Summer Palace (Part 2)

The Summer Palace

I had absolutely no idea what to expect that afternoon. My complete focus had been on my dream of walking along The Great Wall of China and the morning had already given me so much more than that.

In an uncharacteristic act of faith, without research or background reading, I had taken the advice of my London travel agent to spend my final night in Beijing in a different hotel. He said it was in the grounds of The Summer Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and would be worth the aggravation of moving hotels just for one night before leaving for Xi’an. So, as we set off for The Wall that morning, I had checked out of my ultra modern , deeply cool , cube shaped hotel in central Beijing. Quite frankly, having had such a moving and exhilarating time on The Wall, all I really wanted to do after the 2 hour drive back was retire to a familiar room and quietly reflect on the day. That was not the plan, however, and I was off to stay at The Aman in The Summer Palace. Before I booked the trip, I hadn’t even heard of The Summer Palace and what little reading I had done since did not prepare me for what I would find.

Driving through the large but understated, carved, wooden gates of The Aman Hotel, the sounds of the city became muffled, as if someone had turned the volume down especially for my arrival. An almost visible calm pervaded the wide, sweeping, sand coloured, gravel driveway. At first I didn’t realise this was my hotel. Its low rise, wooden buildings in muted, earth colours and authentic Chinese design fooled me into thinking this was yet another historic site we were visiting. Then, with silent discretion, bell boys appeared, opened the door of my car and ushered Amy and I into the reception area.

For a brief moment, I felt utterly out of place. My Canadian snow boots, heavy jeans, multiple layers, down filled padded jacket and wind swept (that is being kind) hair were completely at odds with the refined, old world, Chinese elegance into which I had stepped. I was still carrying the wild beauty and ancient sounds of The Wall in my heart and didn’t yet have room for the quiet, undisturbed tranquility this place and The Summer Palace were already offering me.

The Aman Hotel reception and carp pond

The scent of jasmine

On reflection, I cannot have been the first guest to arrive here full to the brim with energies from other journeys. The staff, with their well rehearsed and effortless registration rituals, were a perfect bridge to help me alter my perspective, learn a new rhythm and step into an old and staggeringly peaceful world. They knew already what I did not, yet. A warm drink of apple juice, star fruit and something magical was offered. I took it with out realising quite how perfect it was for this moment. It must have happened, after all it is a hotel, but I have no memory of forms being filled or passport and credit card details being taken. All I can remember is that as I was wafted to my Courtyard Suite, I could smell jasmine and hear unseen children laughing in the distance.

According to the guest relations manager, my suite was in a building and courtyard which had been part of the original Summer Palace complex. I was advised that although The Summer Palace is closed to the public after 7pm, Aman guests can gain entry at anytime through the private doorway which is just to the right of my suite. This information and the times for sunset and sun rise turned out to be the most significant things I needed to know.

My Courtyard with a secret door at the end to The Summer Palace

My suite, yes, all of it!

My suite was exquisite and set the tone for the next 24 hours. Endeavouring to be as authentic to the Imperial past as possible but providing all modern amenities, I felt transported into the best bits of another world whilst subtly keeping the best bits of this one: bamboo blinds, carved wooden screens and soft yellow lighting with wifi, an iPod dock and power shower. My bed was fit for an Empress and the rich coffee and cream colours of the lounge hypnotised me into believing I had slipped back in time.

Imperial luxury

Soothing and tranquil

Bamboo blinds softened the afternoon light from a private courtyard

Fragrant and sweet welcome gifts

By now it was late afternoon. In an hour the sun would be setting on this precious day. Heading for Kunming Lake, which forms the centre of The Summer Palace, seemed like just the right way to draw this day to a gentle close. The Summer Palace is in fact the name for a vast expanse of landscaped ground covering nearly 3 square kilometres , two thirds of which is the lake and contains a series of buildings and spaces rather than one specific “palace”. As I stepped through my private doorway, I noticed that the pace at which visitors were proceeding was slower and more reflective than it had been in the Forbidden City. The calm I had felt entering the hotel seemed to have seeped into the palace grounds, or perhaps it was the other way round.Something about The Summer Palace caused one to pause, to take in each exquisite view and still a noisy mind. At the water’s edge, two breathtaking sights greeted me: to the south,The Tower of Buddhist Incense on Longevity Hill and to the north, The Bridge of Seventeen Arches .

Longevity Hill

The elegant Bridge of Seventeen Arches

Through the liquid light that a slowly setting sun left in its wake, the intimacy and romance of Kunming Lake cast itself like a powerful spell on my heart. A sense of mystery lingered like the evening mist. In this moment, the call to head for the bridge was strong and by choosing it, I was rewarded with a spectacular display of honey yellow light through its arches.

Stories of secret lovers meeting on the bridge at sunset caressed my imagination. The aching intensity of the first touch, the bliss of stolen kisses, the soaring joy of love requited, the depth of longing with every parting.This was a place for a heart to lay itself bare, to tell its truths and shed its burdens in the warm embrace of a lover’s arms and the dying light of a winter sun. A place of agony and ecstasy, romance and regret entwined. Old memories rose like an incoming tide and I was swept away.

Now virtually alone, I sat to watch the sun slowly disappear behind silhouettes of distant mountains.The setting sun threw golden reflections on a lake whose still water was only disturbed by occasional wild fowl for whom this is home. Thoughts of those I love and have loved, those who have loved me and those who still do joined me by the water’s edge.

The day was ending, the light fading and a deep quiet was falling on my soul. The expansive wildness of The Great Wall and the mountains it rides had filled my spirit with a gigantic sense of the earth and of time and me and my kind and all that we seek to conquer and claim; the audacity of our ambitions and dreams to be and do more than we are. The end of this perfect day had brought me to a place just as intense and complex as the place of my morning but this one spoke to an inner landscape in soft tones that soothed an aching heart. An intimate space created for love and romance to be gambled in the shadow of longing and despair. The Wall saught to conquer in war; the Summer Palace conquered in love.

In a lifetime where such things are rare, it was a perfect day.

POST SCRIPT

The next morning I rose before dawn and entered The Summer Palace before the world came to claim it. The moon was setting and the sun was about to rise. Palace workers silently swept leaves with brooms and brushes as old as the Palace itself.

Before the crowds, sweeping the flagstones

Stretching outside the Temple

This time I headed for the temple. Expecting to be alone, I was surprised but delighted to find a few Chinese elders quietly exercising by the lakeside or taking a remarkably brisk walk as their morning constitutional. Like China itself, they were momentarily curious about my presence but quickly continued , undistracted, on their mission.

Monochrome light gradually turned to pale yellow before unleashing its full spectrum of colours on a waking world. In this brief moment before the moon conceded that the day belongs to a returning sun, the Summer Palace was mine. The long corridor to The Buddhist Tower of Incense heard only my footsteps. The small bridge saw only my smile of appreciation. Each corner I turned gifted me with a precious vision now embossed forever on my memory.

A setting moon as dawn approaches

Longevity Hill in the morning

Rich sunrise chasing away a cold moon

The Long Corridor

If I had any doubts about the emotional power of this place, they were utterly dissolved that morning. The romantic mystery of The Summer Palace was as compelling on this crisp winter morning as it had been at sunset the night before. How fitting, I thought as I turned to leave, to have fallen so quickly and deeply in love with this Palace only to find myself departing a few hours later. The Summer Palace left me with its most enduring gift, a longing to return.

A Perfect Day:The Great Wall and The Summer Palace (Part 1)

The Great Wall

The day started early so we could get ahead of the Friday morning Beijing traffic for the two hour drive to The Great Wall. The sky was promisingly clear with only the slightest tinge of the ever present yellow smog that veils this city as if it’s secrets need concealing. Once out of the thick of central Beijing’s multistory housing and highways, the land seems remarkably untouched and I see again the terracotta mountains I first saw on my flight here. This morning they look like they have been painted on a misty canvass using the finest brushes. As we drive , I start to realise that the monochrome Chinese paintings of weeping boughs stripped winter bare with pale grey, liquid mountains in the background are not a romanticised impression of what an artist has seen but very close to the reality of what is here. The land ripples like endless folds in swathes of iridescent velvet growing pale with distance until the vast sky and the monumental mountains join in an endless lovers embrace.

Shades of Grey

The modernity of Beijing has yielded to this ancient earth and, as we drive along the highways which are China’s new Silk Roads, smooth and built for commerce, I feel almost overwhelmed by a surge of emotions. Is it that I am about to fulfil a life long ambition to see The Great Wall of China? Perhaps it is the sheer scale of these mountains and my realisiation that I am small in the shadow of such giants. I am a long way from home. The terrain, so profoundly different from what is familiar, only echoes my sense of having travelled a very great distance

Then just as I am about to slip into self reflection, I have my first sight of The Wall. It is punctuated with watch towers and a surge of almost child like excitement rises. I see it. It is there. I almost cannot believe it.

First Glimpse. Watch Towers

The stretch of Wall I am visiting is called Jingling Park. It is 9:45am and, but for some villagers who act as local guides, the place is deserted. I am the first and so far the only visitor today. Although there is a cable car that takes visitors directly to The Wall itself , this only operates in peak season and I am two weeks early. So we climb the well made road to the watch tower. I can see The Wall and it acts as a beacon calling me to pay my dues by making the ascent on foot.

Entrance to Jingling Park

Amy and I are accompanied by a local villager. She tells Amy she is 63 years old. Like the other villagers, she makes a living selling bottled water, books and souvenirs to visiting tourists, all of which she is carrying in a cloth sack on her back. She is tiny, no more than 4’9″ tall, rosy cheeked and without a wrinkle in sight. She climbs with us even though I have a guide. It is the way. She does this walk several times a day in peak season and it shows. On one occasions, faced with steep steps and breathing heavily, I pause to ” take in the scenery”. She offers me a hand with no trace of irony or judgement. I am 15 years her junior and she is offering me HER hand. I suddenly realise that even in this remote place where no one would know that an elderly woman helped me climb a moderate slope, my pride is too strong to accept her offer. So I make a joke of it and we three women laugh. It is a good laugh, at no one’s expense. The woman smiles, a smile that says, “Thank you for noticing me as a person” then startles me with an unexpected English phrase “You beautiful! Very beautiful”.

Before I realise it, I am on The Wall and facing my Watch Tower. I have so many words and yet none come. I am rendered mute. I am here. All I can do is look and listen and feel.

My Watch Tower. A steep climb but conquered unaided!

It sounds like silence to a city girl. No human noise, no traffic, no talking, no slamming of doors, no music, no rush. And then the sounds of The Wall step forward. First I hear the wind. It is an adult wind not a girlish breeze flirting with my ears. This wind is old and wise. It whispers then it calls. It’s voice is strong, strong enough to bend trees and move the earth . Inside the wind , I hear the birds. I haven’t seen them yet but I can hear them, not one but many. It is a rallying call, a command to pay attention. And I do. Finally there is the sound of my boots on the gravely surface of this ancient place. I have been far away and have returned to the sound of my steps taking me forward. It makes me look down as if to check that the noise is mine.

When I look up , I see the mountains. They were there before , of course, but I hadn’t seen them with my heart, only my eyes. They are an ocean of peaks and troughs, giant waves caught in a moment and frozen. Green and brown and yellow and red, the morning sun draws out their many colours. I am mesmerised.

Then on the ridges of these monumental beasts – they seem alive to me- I notice the saddle. The Great Wall of China mounts the backs of these wild giants, placing itself like a harness on their razor back ridges and I feel huge and small at the same time; huge riding on the shoulders of Titans and yet a flea on the surface of this massive earth.

As I walk the distance between two Watch Towers, I have time to reflect on the sheer audacity of The Wall and it’s many makers. Intended to keep out invaders, particularly the Mongols, it ultimately failed its purpose. They did invade and the faces of Chinese people are testament to the blend of races that now remains as a living legacy of that invasion. So was it really just a stupendously arrogant human folly, building a wall for thousands of miles over hundreds of years to keep out what could never be resisted? Perhaps but at the same time it is also a glorious act of supreme human confidence and ingenuity. A folly maybe but a magnificent one.

It is time to leave. I notice my village guide speaking animatedly to Amy. Without understanding the words, I know I am the subject of debate. Amy explains that our companion wants to show me the books she has of The Wall in her sack. To Amy’s surprise , I say yes. I remember a promise to a very dear friend, to bring back a book about the place that has moved me the most. I already know it is this wall. Christo Redentor opened my heart but The Great Wall has filled it. It was my dream and this day, I claimed it. To my tiny saleswoman’s even greater surprise, I purchase two of the same book, one for my friend and one for me, without negotiating the price and indeed rounding the money up to the nearest 10 yuan.
Amy cautions me,” You do not need to feel pressured or sorry for her. It is OK to negotiate”.
“I know,” I say. ” In my world yesterday was International Women’s Day. I don’t suppose she even knows what that is. Compared to her I am a millionaire and today one woman is going to make it a little easier for another woman to make a living. I am not going to negotiate over a few pounds today.” Amy looks at me half bemused and half impressed. I later discoverd that Amy had asked the village guide if she knew it had been International Women’s Day. She hadn’t even heard of such a thing.

I take a final look at this spectacular place as we make an easy decent to where we had entered Jingling Park. Until now , I have not seen another soul besides the three of us but there , below, I notice two groups of of four making the ascent to what is now my Watch Tower. The spell is breaking and the world is entering my head again. Amy and my new friend walk on while I pause and stand for a few minutes, taking in my last sights and sounds. It is unlikely I will return and if I do it will not be alone. Today, I had The Great Wall of China to myself and our conversation was deep and true. Some missing piece has been found, or perhaps, a colour filled in the drawing book of my life . I turn before the water filling my eyes obscures my view.

But the tears that fall turn into tears of laughter when I see what Amy and the wiley old woman are up to. Turns out, Amy has been asked for her mobile phone number by my tiny Wiley Coyote! In the middle of nowhere, here in the back of beyond where I have spent 2 hours on an ancient wall with no one but them, Amy is calling Wiley on her mobile phone so that Wiley can add her number to her contacts. Wiley has liked the cut of Amy’s jib but, more importantly, the colour of her tourist’s money and wants Amy to call her next time she is bringing anyone. I am amused and dragged back to the 21st century in one jolt. Who knew that Wiley had a mobile? More astonishingly, who knew there was any signal out here? I can’t get proper coverage at the top of the hill I live on in London and yet here they are calling each other conducting business in the wilds of mountainous China.

Human beings are the same the world over!Somehow the distance from home I felt on the journey here has disappeared and the world is a manageable size again.

I did not think it would be possible to do anything more that day which could possibly compete with my morning on The Great Wall of China ….but I hadn’t arrived at The Summer Palace yet and did not yet know the riches it would yield later that same day.

to be continued…..

The Lama Temple

Perhaps it was the fragrance of the incense being burned in acts of private devotion that made me pause. Or the yellow flames of the incense burners themselves which danced like yards of golden silk on a clothes line playing with the breeze . Something caught my breath and made me want to give to rather than take from this place.

Fragrant Flames

I had read that the Lama Temple is beautiful and although it wasn’t on my original itinerary, I added it to my last day in the city. What I hadn’t known , however, is that it is a working temple, a buddhist lamastry, where people come daily to pray and where monks still attend to the needs of the devotees and the Temple itself.

Daily Work

Daily Work

Quiet Devotion

Quiet Devotion

It is a place with quiet purpose. A respectful hush pervades each space, open or enclosed and whether you are visitor or worshiper, you know you are somewhere special. Photography of the buildings is permitted but is forbidden within the temples containing the statues of Buddha itself. On the whole visitors abide by this call to respect the dignity of the place and it’s people.

Amy, who has been my highly informative but constant audio guide caught my mood and walked noiselessly with me only occasionally whispering a specially selected fact or two which would enhance my quiet passage through the Temple.
” Do you know why there are three Buddhas? They represent the three lives buddhists believe we all have. Our past life, our present life and our future life.” With that she fell silent.

As I considered the depth of this truth, I noticed that those who had come to pray were burning long incense sticks in threes. Perhaps this was for those three lives we carry with us all the time. I considered my threes:

The three most important people in my life
The three most important female friends
The three most important male friends

The three most important things I have done
The three most important things I do
The three most important things I want to do

Three things I value most about myself
Three things I value most in others
Three things I can offer to my community to make life a little better.

The answers came more easily than I expected as I finally considered my three lives. This sabbatical has made me more aware than ever of these distinct parts of our existence but standing in the fragrant hush of the Lama Temple, I realised they are not separate lives but each exists at the same time. I have been joined on this journey by my past and can already feel the future changing and forming as I travel.

Standing in the shadow of the towering Buddha carved from an immense sandalwood tree, whose roots reach 30 feet deep into the earth from which it has come and whose head towers 60 feet high into the future, I knew I had learned something important about myself and left feeling much calmer and a little wiser.

Final View