It’s the tradition of many Chinese companies and schools to take a trip in the springtime, to boost morale and provide an opportunity to appreciate the changing season. We were to meet at the office at 7:50am, so I set my alarm for 6:30am, and stubbed my toe dashing about. I had to be on time because the colleague/flatmate accompanying me is a very punctual gentleman. He has come to Chengdu to teach IELTS and general English, and was once a monk, although now he’s divorced with four grown children.
Despite the early hour, I wanted to snag some breakfast before the journey. I got a Dongbei-style pancake—no spice!—just as the bus rolled up. I couldn’t eat spicy, boiling hot, or salty food this weekend at all, because I two holes where my wisdom teeth used to be. They had been removed the day before at Huaxi Stomatology Hospital, Chengdu’s best dentistry hospital which I wholeheartedly recommend. It’s pricy compared to other hospitals around the city, but it’s clean, has friendly staff, and is very professional. It’s sometimes incredibly busy, but if you arrive early enough (and speak Chinese), the process is as “quick and painless” as having a tooth pulled. (Which is still a little painful, even with the anaesthesia).
Soon enough we arrived at the office, where the bus was waiting. As everyone gathered, the bus driver tried to speak with me, but it was far to early for me to consider conversation with anyone at all, let alone listen to the proselytising of a transportation professional on the greatness of America. Seriously, all these drivers should put their heads together and write an anthology of analytical essays on politics…if they’re literate enough.
Once we were on our way, the tour guide began her introductions. She was a star. She told us to call her Miss Li, and was a gentle young woman with a propensity for repeating herself for clarity. She knew a lot about our destination, Yao Wang Gu (药王谷 Medicine King Valley), and gave a detailed run-down of the trip itinerary. I’ll summarise it below.
We drove from Chengdu to Jiangyou 江油, a town near Mianyang 绵阳, Sichuan’s second largest city. Jiangyou was where Li Bai, the famous poet, settled himself in the Tang Dynasty. This area of Sichuan is home to many ethnic minorities. From Jiangyou we drove to Yao Wang Gu, a mountain which was only recently opened as a tourist attraction. The area is famous for its medicines, and its inhabitants boast long lifespans. There are over 60 different types of medicine that come from the area, and hundreds of thousands of medicinal plants and trees. On top of the mountain was a large Buddha statue, carved out of white stone. White stone is very important in the culture of one of the area’s ethnic groups. The mountain is also home to a primeval forest, although I didn’t really see anything like that once we got up there.
Miss Li also warned us not to compare Jiangyou to Chengdu, as it is a small city, and the food and accommodation might not be up to our standards. She told us to mind our personal safety when going out, especially if we wanted to go out in the evening after the day’s excursion.
The mountain was worth it in the end, I say. But we only had three hours to see it, and getting there did require a lot of effort. There was traffic up to the tourist centre and traffic up the mountain to the main gate. We waited for over an hour to get a shuttle bus because organisation was non-existent. Apparently they were short on police officers because someone had said it was going to rain this weekend and they didn’t show up, but instead piles of tourist showed up anyway. The police that had shown up were incredibly surly, and seemed itching for a fight. The arguments that arose over nothing get classed under what we call “TIC moments” (This is China) and they weren’t the only ones. Our group tried to sneak around the corner and get on an idle bus, but were kicked out again. Favouritism like that might have worked if one of the police officers was a UKEC employees uncle, but since no one was, no dice. TIC.
Us two foreigners were always pushed forward for a couple of reasons: 1) the company would look bad (in the eyes of the other tourists, but perhaps also to fellow employees too) if they didn’t treat us like royalty; 2) our white faces might gain our group a little “international influence”—if the police didn’t respect us (and in turn the rest of our group) they would lose face. It’s all about appearances here in China. I explained this to Adrian as we were shoved into a private SUV with the two employees who’d brought young children. He was trying to protest and say he’d wait for the next one, it’s fine (so polite!) but this would only cause us more delay because none of the Chinese would ever agree! The reason we were in a private SUV was because the buses were having trouble coming down the mountain because of the traffic. Our driver navigated the hairpin bends as if he’d been driving these roads since birth. Seriously impressive. Sharon’s little roly-poly three-year-old whose name I can never remember was really cute on this ride. He’s incredibly talkative, and commented that if he got out of the car he would just roll right down! We taught him the English word “roll”, saying it sounded like “rou” (肉 meat or flesh), and pinching his cheek. He was the one who had said to me after we first met: “Aunty, you really look like a foreigner!” sending us all into stitches. When we related the story to other employees while waiting for the bus, he defended himself by saying, “I mean, she just really looks like it!”
Once the others all joined us at the main gate, it became a game of “Hide from Jack”, the head of the Administrative Department whom I’ve spoken of before. I know I have sung his praises in the past, but lately he’d become a bit of a little general when it came to executing orders from the Big Boss. He seemed to be enjoying his power a little too much. Most of us 20-something employees, especially the two receptionists who were under his direct command, wanted to avoid him. So we set off in the direction of the Yao Wang Buddha, and on the downhills RAN. Soon enough we’d lost sight of him (I’d lost Adrian too, but he was a curious and independent man, he’d manage!) and saw a sign for “Evading Soldiers Cave” (躲兵洞 duo bing dong). I jokingly called it “Evading Jack Huang Cave” (躲黄浩洞 duo Huang Hao dong), and that set everyone off laughing (softly and nervously, as if there was a chance he could still hear us).
The cave was rather far, but quite cool. They’d lit it up and put in a nice smooth path. Some of the boring parts they left unlit, but that made for fun exploring. It wasn’t “caving” per se, but we did see a big a** spider. I ran ahead with the boys. When the girls caught up with us, we made our way back to Promise-me Valley, the mid-point between the cave and the Buddha. We were all pretty exhausted, but since the Buddha was only 20 minutes away, we decided to go for it. There was a SWEET obstacle course set up in Promise-me Valley, totally would never have passed health-and-safety back home.
We were a little daunted by the amount of steps up to the Buddha, but I snagged a glutinous steamed bun on the way for sustenance. It was ridiculously overpriced, 5 instead of 2ish, but it was very big and quite tasty. There was a green vegetable mixed in with the flour, and its consistency was a cross between a glutinous rice dessert ball and a piece of steamed bread. We soldiered on up the steps, Brandon, the chatty and borderline flirtatious marketing intern, hot on my tail. I won though, first to the top. We walked a circle around the great Buddha, majestic against the grey sky. Echo, one of the receptionists said some prayers, and then we set off back down. We only had about half an hour before we were supposed to meet, but we made it back in time to join the queue for the buses back down. Again another hour of waiting, so we entertained ourselves by cheering uproariously every time a bus arrived.
We were down the mountain by 7pm, and ate a dinner of well-prepared Chinese favourites: fried egg & tomato, mapo tofu, kungpao chicken, etc. Once back to the hotel I was tuckered out from the hiking/running about, so once I showered I was done for the day. Echo, my roomie, went out with the other girls and boys to play some mahjong and eat barbecue.
The next day was very short. I got up at about 8am for a depressing breakfast of uninspiring Chinese-style food. Echo didn’t even take any. Then I popped out to top up my phone card. The shop wasn’t open at the hour specified on the sign outside, so I asked the motorbike-repair guy next-door when it would open. He replied “9 o’clock.” I was taken aback: no sneer? no “wow, your Chinese is so good”? no ignoring me? He acknowledged me like I was a person. I guess I hadn’t been getting that from locals lately, because it really struck me! I waited for a little longer, and was about to ask the man again when the phone shop lady pulled up on her moped. “What does she want?” she asked the man. “Ask her yourself,” he said. What. a. guy. I bought my top-up card and as I left cheerfully bid farewell to a great man.
We gathered at the hotel, took a group photo in front of the bus, and drove over to the Li Bai Memorial Museum. We only had just over an hour to look around, and I was feeling incredibly tired. I had had strange and vivid dreams all night, perhaps due in part to yesterday’s hike, the movies shown on the bus, and maybe even due to the hotel’s energy. Everything was a little outdated, and I suspected it might have some lingering anxiety from when the 2008 earthquake struck. Maybe people had used it as shelter after their homes had been destroyed. Who knows. So I just wandered around the museum/gardens, not trying to see everything. As it were, there was a small exhibit of archaeological findings from the area, including a piece of Jomon pottery.
I remembered learning about the Jomon culture in my History of Japan course. They were prehistorical inhabitants of Asia, and although they didn’t leave any written history, we can find their “rope-patterned” ( Jomon, or shengwen 绳纹 绳＝rope 纹＝pattern) pottery scattered about, so we know they existed. I also enjoyed an exhibit of Chinese paintings, done by 10+ different artists inspired by Li Bai’s poems. Although they used ancient ink painting techniques, the works were anything but traditional. You could see the poetry in each artist’s strokes. My favourite was a simple painting of a hanging flower pot. To me it represented the marriage of the wild beauty of nature juxtaposed with human handicraft, a strong theme in Chinese fine art and high culture. They love to manipulate their environment, creating false mountains and bonsai trees, but there is still an element of nature, of growth and life, something uncontrollable in each work.