The last week of June marked the end of the first summer term. We had about 6 days break before the start of our next term on the 5th of August. I had planned to travel to the small island of Putuoshan; a holy small piece of land riddled with Buddhist temples, broken off from the larger island of Zuoshan, which was placed just off the coast of Ningbo south of Shanghai. My birthday was on Aug 4th, and I had a habit of going to the beach for each of my birthdays, so the small island could still afford me to keep my small tradition. The first day I had hung out with Helen, Yong and Xin, they told me they were applying for a game for Television. They then found some pictures online of a classic Asian game show that involved people jumping over water through padded platforms and moving obstacles. This was a popular show in America, not so much for the sport but because of the great hilarity of watching uncoordinated Chinese get massacred in various ways and the odd enthusiasm of the hosts. They asked if I would like to apply with them and I replied with an enthusiastic yes! After we all applied, we asked when it was supposed to be held and they didn’t know, maybe a week or two. They would call us soon. That’s China. Everything last minute. But then we found out that it was to be on the 3rd. So I decided that two nights on the island was enough and I could be back on the night of the 2nd, and we would leave early the next morning, and it would then allow me to celebrate my birthday with everyone in Yongkang.
I was to take a taxi to the bus station to buy my ticket and a then find a boat to the island and then find my hotel. In a country where I hardly spoke the language, I knew that much could go wrong between those many connections, but I only thought of how easily everything would flow together, how I would find easily all that I needed. According to one of our schools helpful assistants, my 6 hour bus ride to Zhuoshan was to leave around 8:30. I awoke very early and walked to the nearest crosstreet, which happened to be between two hotels caddy corner from each other, where one was likely to find a taxi coming from any direction. However, early in the morning taxi’s were scarce. I was standing outside of the Bentley hotel and saw a man who was also waiting. After some time I was becoming anxious, and I asked the man if he also was going to the bus station. He replied no, and I continued waiting. Perhaps I should have the hotel call a taxi, I thought. I went inside to find no reception at not so aptly named desk. I then asked the man if he was waiting for a taxi, as well. He then replied in English “No, I wait for a friend.” I nodded in understanding and continued to wait as the man was on the phone. He then approached me with “My friend comes soon, she will drive you to bus station.” I then thanked the man with much appreciation. When she came I found that he was from very far away and visiting only for a few days, not for business but just to visit her. I found it very touching. Once at the bus station, I showed the ticket clerk my translated destination sent by my one of our schools wonderful assistants and paid my 130RMB. A whole $17 American. I only waited about 20 or 30 minutes before departing. So far so good. My first time traveling alone in China and as of yet, things were going pretty smoothly.
I only knew from there I was supposed to find a boat to the smaller island, however according to my phone’s GPS, I wasn’t very near to the shore. I went inside the small terminal and realized that it was more of a smaller hub to take passengers to various locations. The counter women were all dressed in airline travel fashion and while waiting in queue before I had the chance to try my luck in Chinese and iPhone translator language, a woman asked in English how she may help me. I said Putuoshan, and she escorted me to the front of the desk and I paid for a bus and boat ticket and she then ushered me onto another bus which then took me to the ferry terminal. I was greeted by a large mountain of white buildings stacked atop each other in Greek fashion. It was very impressive and it seemed like a mini-city. I wondered if this was for the business offices of the ferry, or if people lived here. I had the feeling that it wasn’t authentic Chinese architecture and seemed like its purpose was somewhat of an attraction, built for tourists. I continued through an enormous archway, which seemed fit for a stronghold’s portcullis. I soon found my way to the small boat and within a half hour we were at Putuoshan. I tried walking out of the terminal to the street but apparently I didn’t have a ticket to exit! I went to the desk and saw many deals for tour guides and different temples. I told them I didn’t want any of that, I just want to go to my hotel. I was still charged an entry fee. The holy island had become just another paid tourist attraction. I asked about my hotel, showing her the reservation on my phone, and she pointed the the street and motioned left. When referring to a map pamphlet she pointed in an unmarked generalized area.
I crossed the threshold into paid holiness, and was heckled by different tour guides. I shook my head and told them “Bu yao,” and continued on my way passed them down the street. Like most island life, the locals all rode a bike and I made a note to try to rent one. I wandered around a beautiful garden park and then continued to find my hotel. I asked several people for directions, trying to enunciate the hotels name. And people pointed in different directions as per usual in China. I was then walking through a very long tunnel and a local stopped me to ask why I was taking a picture of a napping man on his bike-cart. I then asked him about my hotel, showing him my phone. He pointed back the way I had come. I saw a young girl on bike talking to an older man near the entrance of the tunnel so I then elicited her help, as most young Chinese were more familiar with English and usually made more of an effort to help. She then told me she was visiting her uncle for vacation and wasn’t very familiar with the island. I asked how she got a bike, and she told me that it was her uncle’s and tourists weren’t allowed to ride them because the roads were dangerous. She then took me around to some shop owners, showing them my phone and asking where it was. Finally, a cell phone dealer had the bright idea of calling the hotel and she then translated to me that they were coming to pick me up. How convenient!
The hotel that my assistant Jing Jing had helped me book online seemed to have a very impressive reception, whose elaborate interior far surpassed that of the pictures shown of the room. After checking in, he then took me down from the top of the hill and through a small neighborhood area of compounded apartments, which seemed to more appropriately match what I had paid. He then showed me into a small apartment with a kitchen, small eating table and 3 different rooms, each with a number and a lock. He gave me 2 keys, one for entry into the apartment and another for the room. Each key had to be turned several rotations. After dropping off my backpack I wandered aimlessly about.
I commenced by heading into the nearest hill after first seeing what was behind a great man-built mound to find a small reservoir with hundreds of dragonflies swarming the atmosphere. I then followed a small path upwards to an abandoned building which was not entirely so, as it was still being used for some sort of communications as I could see many antennae on top of the roof and some wires leading inside to a system of sorts with blinking lights and I then sauntered back downwards. In my perambulations I came upon the nearest temple grounds chock full of tourists teeming throughout otherwise beautiful grounds inlaid with a large pond pregnant with coy and turtle. Beautifully crafted stone bridges transcended colorful reflections and pink lotus sprouting from a sea of green. The occasional monk donning flowing cloths of orange would cut through the crowd, and I was even surprised to see a few on their cell phones. I suppose the western ideal of monks made a large generalisation concerning their acquittal of all possessions. But surely in today’s world, if you could speak to your family instantly, then letters were still of little use. There were carts toting small snacks and cold drinks much needed in such a hot and humid air. And carts with traditional Chinese garb for tourists to don and take silly pictures with the ancient backdrop. I high stepped over the threshold curb onto the temple grounds and was greeted by what seemed to be a very large and elaborate oak tree whose presence appeared as magnificent as the building it grew up with. Many were carrying incense to the black iron pot belly vases full of fire and after having them lit, would directly go to their place of choice and mutter prayers under their breath as they placed their palms together in front of their chests, with incense between them, fingers pointing heavenwards. They sometimes would bow intermittently to four directions and others would kneel in the familiar orthodox fashion. I noticed immediately that monks did not appreciate having their picture taken, and even seemed to sense when they were in frame. So I would simply look ahead of where a monk was walking and set my picture and wait for him to walk into frame. Sometimes this took much patience.
I wandered around well past nightfall, but strayed not too far so that I might get a bearing on my nearby whereabouts. While thinking of finding a place to eat, I noticed to my left, 2 foreign girls sitting at a table at an eatery and they waved and smiled. I returned the salutation and went inside to introduce myself. It had been quite awhile since I had happened upon other foreigners and on this island, it was the first time I had seen any. They spoke some English and I instantly knew they were European, probably German. They were from Austria, and going around China for holiday. They said they had only seen one other foreigner on the island so far. I ordered the same vegetable soup they were enjoying and we talked of our adventures. We then walked around together and bought some beers to bring to a beach. We sat and drank and talked of many things and of nothing while staring into the blank abyss that offered nothing but the soft rhythmic lapping of the sea. We somehow came to a point in the conversation where one girl knew of a Scandinavian song that required a type of chorus and we decided to try it out. One person started with a low vocal rhythm, and the second then joined in with a higher faster tempo bee-bop and then she finally joined in with the fast paced song that sounded like a funny pop song that might not have an end. It was so silly that we could hardly keep from laughing. She then told us that she had once done it with a group of people for hours. We ended the night early knowing that we would have to awake early to see the most we possibly could, and I in the one full day I had on the 3km long island. I wasn’t planning on taking the tour bus; I had brought my Vibram 5 toe shoes and my water pouch Camelbak, I was going jogging for the day, around the island and up some of the hills and mountains.
I arose with the sun and found some small foods vendor to break my fast. I soon found another temple and had a photographers field day with the picturesque sights to behold; orange walls, monks in matching colors, red doors, dark wooden architectural ornaments, cherry wood furniture, circular portholes instead of archways and plants in divers patterns of Chinese vases with brooms nearby made of sticks and straw bound together. One such temple had a very high walled pond almost in well fashion to look down into, and its building sheltered several large deities making ferocious faces to warn those who dared to have impious thoughts. It’s courtyard enclosed a beautiful garden. I then found a path less traveled (by tourists at least) and found myself witnessing the reconstruction of older temples, which had an exoskeleton of bamboo jutting out in varying lengths. I ventured past this construction site and the workers didn’t question my lonely prodding. I found, a little higher up, another temple completely placid in the serene absence of people. It had a balcony which offered a view of the nearby coast. I encountered a very large obelisk stone with many characters chiseled onto its facade and I found behind the temple a charming water feature with 3 deity statues making some fanciful and ludicrous stances. I then soon discovered an opening in the large boulderous mountainside under yet another temple atop a winding path of stone steps. My curious speculation sighted some light deep inside and I soon found myself inside a cool shrine with red candles melting all around and incense burning around small figurines. I then took a small tour of some local dwellings hidden by the thick trees. Most of their living areas seemed to be self built, but with gardens at every corner and crevice none went without food. However I was quite disturbed, when perusing said gardens to find a bucket full of human feces. This was no “outhouse.” It was being used for fertilizer. I made my way to the road which encircled the environs of the island, and continued north on the South Eastern coastal length. I came upon a clustered neighborhood of locals living atop each other, with lines in all directions sporting the multi colored clothing flying in the air like flags of strange territories. They had a small street, or rather a gauntlet of shops and restaurants all with plastic bins full of water and some strange sea creatures for eating. I made my way down the bazaar of strange items with tents, umbrellas and awnings of various fibers and color just overhead. After purchasing some interesting tassels with wooden carvings for hanging decoration, I lunched and asked for some vegetables and rice. Soon after, they were setting out many foods on a large table and then came in several guys my age and older and they greeted the owner with a warm welcome. From what I could sense by body language, it seemed the owner was family to one of the men and he was traveling there with a group of friends and possibly workmates or university colleagues. I took the opportunity to make a drawing of them at dinner in my small sketchbook, to give my feet further rest before continuing onward. The road was abetted by an adjacent walkway made of wooden planks, that flowed like a river along the curving road. I came upon some more houses and spotted a little girl by herself, who seemed to be looking for something. She then bent down and pulled her pants down. She had found what she was looking for; an ideal spot to pee. Directly in front of the middle opening of an alleyway in perfect view of the street. I had heard many a story of how the Chinese allowed their children to urinate and defecate in any location necessary, but had never witnessed it until now. And here it was happening solely for my viewing entertainment. I had seen many baby butts hanging out of split pants. I had never been so excited to see anyone pee. I laughed and took a picture. Classic.
After some time, I had come to a crest in the hill atop of which sat a lonely bus stop awning. I paused to look around at the view and sit in the shade a moment. There were some local men there and they were very intrigued by my foreign mug. I then smiled and took some pictures of them and they started laughing. I could see that there was not much close by along the road from my map, and there was a juncture which led inland so I decided to continue my jog up into the island. I would randomly pick a direction if it spoke to me, such as a set of stairs leading off the road, and would find myself at some type of facility, and from there a small path in the grass which then led me back to the road, which was now traveling downhill. I could see the other shore far ahead, and at one turn of the road, just at its pinnacle I spied a path leading up the valley into the forest and decided it was time for a change of scenery. I made my way up a series of rocks which were really steps in the hillside made by putting some stones together by working hands long long ago. I enjoyed the foreign hum of wildlife all around me, and it seemed as though I were in an enchanted forest. Grasshoppers flicked the grass all around me, and butterflies played in the air before me. I saw what was probably the largest hairy caterpillar I had ever seen, which was longer and thicker than my finder, and a couple large spiders. I then came upon some stone built houses, with some low walls. I realized that they were more shrines, and I peered inside to see the burning of those familiar smelly sticks near unknown deities without a person in sight as if they had lit themselves. One of the buildings seemed to be a home and I noticed a very narrow wall with steps made into it which then led to another similar level. I then found my a pathway again, and it seemed the island was riddled with them used by the locals as shortcuts, so I was confident that they would lead somewhere of interest. I even came upon stone markings with red lettering and arrows. I followed different paths and came upon what used to be a very short tunnel that was now closed off with stones for some reason, and could see the light on the other side, so I simply climbed over and continued on my way and noticed the path to be much less traveled if at all. It was deep with leaves and seemed now to be more of small ravine for the rainy season. I was starting to become doubtful when the brush became thicker but soon found myself on a wide path which then poured onto a perpendicular pavement. I had returned to society, or rather the constant flow of tourciety.