Three days after I got back from Burma, physically and emotionally exhausted, suffering from lack of sleep and the remnants of sunstroke, I decided it would be a great idea to go travelling again!
One of the classes I’m taking this semester is Introduction to Buddhist Studies, and as part of it, we had the opportunity to go to Mainland China for a field trip. I thought it was too good an opportunity to miss, so at 5am I dragged my weary body onto campus. We took a variety of coaches and then a bullet train (300km/h! Very exciting!) and finally arrived in Shaoguan, northern Guangdong province.
We spent a pleasant afternoon wandering the grounds of Nanhua temple, with the hoards of Chinese tourists in matching baseball caps, following a guide with a flag. Our guide was the monk who teaches our class in HKU, and he got us some admiring stares! The temple was beautiful as always, although it was a modern reconstruction of an ancient holy site, thanks to the Cultural Revolution. There was an extremely terse sign on the wall, mentioning that the original temple, which had been built in 502 A.D., no longer stood on the site because Mao Zedong had deemed that a “redesigned” temple would be better. Yeah right.
In the late afternoon, we hopped back on the bus and were taken to the monastery, where we were to stay the night. We dined with the monks (back to vegetarian food for a while!) and then took a walk around the beautiful monastery grounds. When the sun set, we had an audience with the abbot of the monastery, who shared his fine green tea and his pearls of wisdom with us (translated from Mandarin, through Cantonese and into English by some impressively trilingual people) and educated us in the Buddhist values that we had learnt in class, but now seemed to make far more sense, as we were in the context of people who put them into practice daily.
At 3.30am we awoke to the harsh fluorescent light in the dormitory. We dragged ourselves into the freezing air, and shuffled to the back of a temple filled monks in dark robes. The two-hour-long ceremony began, and the monks started their chants in Mandarin. After the sleep deprivation and the lack of breakfast, I started feeling dizzy after standing up for an hour. I sat down on the stool we had in front of us for kneeling to pray- and promptly fell asleep with my head in my hands. Hopefully I looked sufficiently reverent?! Someone kicked me awake as we began to file out of the temple- dawn was yet to break, and we ate hot congee and noodles in the dark canteen.
No rest for the wicked- despite our disgustingly early start we had a full day of exploring ahead of us, and the coach whisked us off to Danxia mountains, for the last portion of the trip. The beautiful red sandstone hills were all but hidden in the mist and rain- only the trees on the top were visible through the gloom, looking like they were floating in the grey air. It was beautiful and mystical. We climbed up and up, to a monastery cut into an underhang in the rock. The view from the top down on to the free river below reminded me of Switzerland- but the distinct smell of the incense and the sound of the monks softly singing reminded me that I was somewhere very different, somewhere a long way from home.