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A Taoist Adventure

Lizzy, a Chinese university student, was employed at the school I taught English. She had become my voice and my travel companion while living in Wuhan, Central China.  Her pursuit for travel and adventure became as obsessive as my fascination for Chinese history and culture.

No shortage of adventures, Monday’s our only day off, Lizzy took charge of planning our outing this particular day.

“I think maybe we go to XianYing,” Lizzy decided. “We take the train…is about one hour. You want to go?”

“Let’s do it,” I replied.

The train departed at 9:20 a.m. from the main train station, which meant both of us catching a bus to the station to meet before. The driver dropped me off directly across from the train station. As I stepped off the bus and stood waiting to cross the street, but couldn’t believe my eyes! The huge station was insanely overflowing with Chinese people coming and going in every direction. How on earth would I ever find Lizzy? Before crossing the street, I stood watching, pondering what to do next, when suddenly I heard, “Sharon, Sharon!” from behind. Lizzy’s bus had just arrived when she spotted me, walking toward me. Wow, how bizarre. What were the odds?

“Do you know where we need to go to get tickets? I asked.

“No, maybe I ask,” she replied.

Before shoving our way through the mobs of people to find the ticket counter, Lizzy commanded, “Give me your hand!” She grabbed hold with a grip so tight I couldn’t get free even if I wanted to. The ticket lineups were absurd. Two men ahead of us were also trying to purchase tickets for the same train and suddenly Lizzy’s expression distorted.

“There are no seats,” she announced.

“No seats, what do you mean no seats?

“This man, he say there are no more seat for this train.”

“So we can’t get a ticket?”

“No, we must stand,” she says.

Lizzy purchased our tickets for the hour-long ride, perhaps to be the longest ride in history. If trains were anything like the buses it could prove nothing short of interesting.

Train departures platforms were at the opposite end of the building and Lizzy still had a grip on my hand, but for good reason. If one should get separated in such a mob, forget ever finding each other or your train, as we no idea where we were even going. We shoved our way to a gate, our bags x-rayed before proceeding. People forced their way through, all to get to the same place first. After finding the platform, we boarded the train, people crammed in, still shoving each other to find their place whether it be standing or sitting.  Those with seats didn’t give it up for anything.

Our train wasn’t scheduled for departure for another half hour, so Lizzy motioned me to sit in a seat until its occupant arrived. A woman made her way down the aisle yelling something in Chinese before making her way into the next car. Lizzy made another obscure facial expression as she listened over the noise.

“What is it?” I asked.

“She say we pay twenty yuan for seat in food car.”

“Let’s go,” I replied with no hesitation.

People were jammed like sardines everywhere; I was glad to pay the extra money for both of us. We followed the woman through several cars to the dining car. The woman escorted us, and two others, to a bench table covered with fine linen, and our window displayed lovely lace curtains. For breakfast Lizzy had packed some snacks for us, and spread them out on the table. Riding in style for coach fare, now this is the life, I thought.

At XianYing terminal Lizzy noticed a map of the town on the side of the building outlining the points of interest as we exited the gates. Lizzy drew a replica map of were Hua Zhon Di Yi Quan Hot Springs, Yaiy Bamboo Forest, Yaiy Taoist Temple, and underground caves of stalagmites and stalactites her book.

We made our way to a nearby street and small local outdoor restaurant establishment, were Lizzy asked someone how to get to the caves and the temple. From what I could gather, it was quite a ways out of town. One of the local taxi drivers offered to take us for a price, three hundred yuan.

As Lizzy bartered, I observed the most peculiar-looking modes of transportation, coming and going; motorcycle taxis enclosed with a canvas canopy. Behind the driver was a wooden compartment and seating for two, similar to a horse-drawn wagon, only on three wheels. I couldn’t help thinking they resembled Flintstone vehicles that could be reduced to a pile of rubble in no time flat during windstorm or hailstorm. Intrigued, I suggest we hire one to take us around.

“It too far!” she bellowed. “I not ride in them!”

She grabbed her cell phone and began calling numbers she had written down, becoming uptight when the phone wouldn’t work. It was obvious she was becoming frustrated by her body language and facial expressions. After all, she spent so much time preparing and planning our excursion and suddenly everything was falling apart.

She was a Leo like it was, so I instinctively knew to back off and let her make the next move.

“Three hundred yuan!” she exclaimed. “That man is crazy. I think maybe we walk.” Who was I to argue? Along the street was a tiny establishment with telephones.  For a minimal fee, Lizzy called a travel service for information and within minutes had the information she needed to get to the points of interest and a smile had returned to her face.

“We catch a bus,” she said. “Um, the number two bus go there.”

After walking five minutes, we intercepted the main street, where a number two bus was parked in full view directly in front of us.

While on route, Lizzy began chatting up the ticket collector, gathering information, conversing with a few of the locals at the same time.

Within half an hour we got off the bus, still needing transportation to the caves located in the mountains on the outer edge of town. Parked everywhere along the street were more motorcycle taxis, some resembling small mini cars, others were so old and dilapidated it was doubtful they would make it up the street, let alone a mountain. A motorcycle taxi driver parked along the curb yelled to Lizzy. She approached him, speaking briefly in Chinese before translating to me.

“It cost eight yuan to take this taxi to the Yaiy temple,” she said, seeming less than enthused about our choice of transportation.

“Come on, Lizzy, it’s an adventure,” I pointed out.

“What is adventure?” she questioned, inquisitively.

“Never mind,” I answered, at a loss for an explanation.

“You want to ride this taxi?” she asked.

“Sure, why not, it’s only eight yuan.”

The caves were quite a distance out of town, but she gave in to going by taxi.  Leaving the city limits, the scenery began to transform into miles of green lush mountains boasting with trees and huge ferns. The further away we got, the more poverty became prevalent, more real, and something one would rarely get to see unless venturing off the beaten track.

Sharon and Lizzy on motorbike taxis

Touch and go as to whether the taxi would make it up the hills, the unhurried ride it gave us an opportunity to observe some yaks and cows close-up along the roadside. Chickens of various assortments ran loose everywhere, darted out in front of us to cross the roads. Chinese wearing peaked hats to shade themselves from the already scorching hot sun were up to their knees in fields of long green shoots of grass, harvesting crops. It was absolutely amazing.

Arriving at the caves, in the middle of nowhere, we where the only tourists around, except for a group of ten tourists arriving by van shortly to join us. Our guide was Chinese, so Lizzy translated the best she could. Inside, the caves were extremely cold, more so the deeper we went. Seemingly massive, stalactite and stalagmites dripping with water and moisture at every turn, they had some very impressive and unique rock formations. Leaving one section of the caves to enter another, an eerie sound of bats could be detected from above us. The roar of small waterfalls echoed through the walls of the caves and running water could be heard everywhere. Near the exit was a bow and arrow target practice area. Lizzy and I opted to try a little fifty-foot target practice while the remainder of the group lingered impatiently. 

Beyond the archery area was what the Chinese referred to as the Ghost of the Wishing Well. Each person throws a coin, trying to hit the well. When a coin enters the well, the ghost begins to churn the bucket in a full circle. Theory has it that once a full turn is completed, a wish is made and the ghost of the well will grant it. Lizzy was the only one who had success with the toss. OK Lizzy! Let the wishing begin!

At the exit of the caves was the steep climb up the mountain to an ancient Buddhist temple over a thousand years old. The base of the steps consisted of a stone fence and continuing upward stretched a dragon’s body, extending to the top of the mountain to the dragon’s head.

Some monks in the main building had cylinders containing long sticks for sale.  Each stick matched an appropriate fortune card and for twenty yuan more a monk in a separate building interprets your fortune. Our entire group, including Lizzy lined up for their reading. However, I chose to wander the awe-inspiring grounds instead.

When our tour came to an end, Lizzy and I decided to take the back way out, a path we discovered down the side of the mountain to the main highway. At first glance, the path didn’t look that steep; however, I almost lost Lizzy when she slid for a ways on her heels and buttocks to keep from falling.

I couldn’t help wonder how we were going to get back town.  There was no bus service, no taxis and unless you had pre-booked a tour you were simply out of luck. Nothing looked familiar, and we were both unsure as to which direction we should take at the road. Lost, we picked a direction and began walking and within fifteen we landed in a small village near the entrance of the Taoist temple where our tour guide was tending to some chickens. Puzzled to see us, Lizzy spoke with him briefly before translating our options. We could either climb back up the mountain the way we came down or backtrack and continue on the same road in the opposite direction.

transport in central china

Ninety-nine degree sweltering heat we walked a ways before a man riding a motorcycle slowed down to converse with us. Lizzy turned her head, ignoring him.  He slowly rode alongside us before stopping; attempting to engage in conversation a second time.

“What did he say?” I asked.

“He want to give us ride,” she replied.

“Maybe he could give us a ride to the main road,” I suggested.

“No,” she said sternly, “Three people is too dangerous.”

Knowing we had a long walk ahead of us, I was convinced his attempts to help were sincere, I watched him ride past, disappearing in the distance.

Sometime later we arrived at the main road were the same man and another man sat on their motorcycles waiting for our arrival. Both tried conversing with Lizzy, only she continued walking, ignoring them.

“Talk to them Lizzy, maybe they can help. Look around. Do you see any buses, any taxis, anything? There is nothing! Do you know how we are going to get to town? Talk to them.  See what they can do.”

Hesitating momentarily, Lizzy took my advice, talking to them for a few minutes.

“They will give us a ride to town. They also say if we want to see um, these things (pointing to her drawing) they will take us; forty yuan each and take us to hot springs. What you think?” she asked.

“OK, let’s do it,” I blurted.

They not only made us an offer we couldn’t refuse, we had no other options. Getting on a motorcycle with total strangers in a foreign country wasn’t something I’d consider in a million years, yet I couldn’t think of a single reason not to trust them. Their driving was impeccable, nothing less than careful and courteous as they took us everywhere. This was the only way to tour China, I thought. The countryside, filled with lush green mountains overflowed with rich green foliage. Trees and massive ferns were absolutely breathtaking as we made our way to the Stone Forest.

Three tour buses from the caves were parked outside the entrance. Our chauffeurs waited with their bikes while we ventured in. The price was right; it was free. The trail was so narrow we had to join the group tour. Several from the cave tour began talking to Lizzy as we walked. The points of interest were all translated in Chinese, so I just tagged along, fascinated by the stone formations, waiting for the spectacular view of the famous limestone pillars I had seen pictures of. As the tour ended, I realized this was not that famous stone forest of Shilin. Several stone forests exist throughout China; the pillars of Shilin located in Yunnan Province, southwestern China.

Our chauffeurs were waiting for us at the entrance when we returned and we continued up the mountain, toward the Bamboo Forest Hotel. Once a luxury resort miles away from civilization, the now dilapidated hotel sits perched on the mountain, abandoned, closed up tighter than a drum. Overlooking the most incredible deep ravine, huge winged eagle like birds soared high above the cliffs overhead, their cries echoing through the canyons.

Winding our way back down the mountain toward town, we dodged several truckloads of bamboo strewn along the roadside about every two or three miles; one man working diligently to stack them into neat piles off to the side of the road. We rode through many small villages evading every farm animal known to man, yet our drivers didn’t seem to mind. In a nearby village, Bamboo scaffolds secured with rope supported several men while doing some form of ancient bricklaying. Perhaps this was where the story of the Three Little Pigs was derived, I thought.

Our journey ended near the entrance of the Hua Zhong Di Yi Quan Hot Springs, the perfect end to a perfect day. The price of forty yuan was worth every penny for the sheer enjoyment of riding through the wide-open countryside, the wind blowing through your hair on a hot, humid day. Lizzy glanced at me, her face beaming and I laughed. “Now that was an adventure,” I said. It was a day we would not soon forget.

Both exhausted and starving, the hotel offered a discounted rate to eat and swim. The menu prices were very reasonable, so Lizzy ordered before we were escorted to a private dining room on the second floor overlooking a spectacular view of the river. The special – Bamboo shoots with pork. It was quite tasty, not chewy and gross, as I had imagined.

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