Previously in Atlantic Abroad
India's Road Cool (Mike Youngblood, India, July 7, 2000).
Manhood and Bureaucracy in Ozyory (Jeffrey Tayler, Russia, June 1, 2000).
Soccer in the City (Erik Barmack, Italy, May 10, 2000).
This Goat Goes to Market (Joshua Kurlantzick, Oman, March 29, 2000).
Monsoon Time (Rahul Goswami, Dubai, March 1, 2000).
Rank Strangers (Jeff Biggers, Italy, February 9, 2000).
Midnight Express (Akash Kapur, Romania, January 5, 2000).
The Price of Devotion (Jeffrey Tayler, India, December 22, 1999).
Israeli Forms of Identity (Miriam Udel Lambert, Israel, December 1, 1999).
New Year's and Nothingness (William Tyree, Indonesia, October 27, 1999).
Searching for El Chapareke (Jeff Biggers, Mexico, September 29, 1999).
Opium in the Naga Hills (Rahul Goswami, India, September 1, 1999).
For more, see the complete Atlantic Abroad index.
Share your tales of life abroad in Post & Riposte.
August 2, 2000
The old monk unlocked the heavy oak door and opened it a sliver to see who could be knocking on a day like this. From our side, the crack showed a pair of black eyes, narrowed against the blowing snow. "Please," we begged in Chinese. "Let us in. We need help." The monk registered the sight of two shivering, poorly dressed snowmen, and the door flew wide open.
"Come in, come in!" The holy man's smile flashed white from the tangle of brown robes that shrouded his head. My girlfriend, Feng Dan, and I smiled back. Tears and melting snow dripped from our faces. The monk reached for our arms and pulled us inside. A freak midday blizzard had blown us to the door of his monastery, Jin Ge Si (Golden Loft Temple), atop central China's 10,000-foot Wu Tai Shan, the most isolated of the country's four sacred Buddhist mountains. A two-hour hike uphill from our broken-down Jeep had brought us to the nearest of the peak's forty-two monasteries. Our goal was to continue down the other side of the mountain to the village of Taihuai, the site of our hotel and connections out. But that desire was extinguished by the unrelenting snow.
The monk pointed us to some stools and offered cigarettes, two worn metal cups, a thermos of hot water, and two pinches of tea. Like anyone in the People's Republic, he knew the Communist-penned script, and asked for our identification. As he studied my American passport and Feng Dan's identity card, we sat beside the lone steam radiator in the temple complex, noisily slurping down cup after cup of steaming jasmine-flower tea and puffing the cigarettes. We knew smoking was a terrible thing to do when our bodies were starved of heat and oxygen, but the desire to inhale flame was too strong to resist. In the courtyard outside, snowflakes gently erased our footprints. No one else on the planet knew we were there.
The room was so still that talking felt wrong. Instead, Feng Dan and I exchanged smiles and sighs of relief. Making it to shelter chased away the earlier boy-did-we-screw-up panic unique to being lost in bad weather. I thought back to the only other people we had seen on our ascent up the mountain: four farmers holding black umbrellas, piled on a riding lawnmower and puttering uphill at around three miles per hour. Their faces had been rubbed out by frost and flakes; they were simply four statues ascending to the summit. Where did they go? Maybe I'd imagined them; hallucinations could be a symptom of hypothermia.
The wind whipped against the windows, and the monk's slow movements pressed on the pine floor from behind the curtain that separated the rooms. No sounds but the wind and a holy man's footsteps. An idea thawed within me: being stranded at a mountain monastery famed for its fifty-foot statue honoring Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, might be nice. Especially in China, where peace and quiet is as hard to find as Nirvana itself. The calves of my jeans defrosted, and the sensation came back into Feng Dan's feet. Things were looking up.
The monk floated back into the room, smiling and explaining that since we weren't married, Feng Dan and I would have to sleep in separate rooms; me sharing a bed with the abbot and she alone in a foyer. A framed picture of the abbot, an ancient man, stared sternly down at me from the wall. I asked Feng Dan if she wouldn't mind switching places, but she glared at me. "What if the monk understands English?" she blurted.
"I can't," he answered reflexively.
"Sleeping with the abbot would be fine," I lied.
I quickly changed the subject. Did the monk think the snow would stop in the next few days? It was possible, he replied. Would the road snaking down to Taihuai be plowed? Impossible. Could we use a phone? There was no phone. The monastery's thin pine roof sagged under the snowfall. I looked at the brown robes hanging loosely on the monk's coat-hanger body. Did the monastery have enough food?
Something thumped on the door, cutting off his reply. We froze in surprise at the sound, and realized why the monk had taken so long to answer our knocks; in the stillness of the snowstorm, the echo was terrifying. The monk moved to unbolt the portal, and stuck his head out. Flakes flew into the room. Muffled Chinese words passed between the warm interior and the cold outside, and steam filled the open doorway.
The monk turned to us, waited a beat, and with the calm that comes from having oneness with all things, announced, "It's for you."
A jacket with legs stepped into the room. Fumbling with the space that should have held its head, it unzipped itself, revealing a man. He announced that he was a taxi driver and that his front-wheel-drive Volkswagen Santana was parked out front. The driver's breath suggested that baijiu -- clear 140-proof rice wine -- had fueled his courage driving up the mountain through the foot of snow on the icy road. "There are about twenty cars stuck at the base of the mountain. They told me a foreigner and Chinese tried walking up." We stared. "Well, do you want to go or not?" he asked, motioning down the opposite cliff face to Taihuai.
An indefinite stay at an isolated, cold, blizzard-lashed monastery, or a blood-curdling descent down the mountain with a drunk driver? Feng Dan and I, wet to the bone, starving, and giddy from the caffeine-and-nicotine buzz, looked at each other and decided without words. She pressed 100 yuan -- what an average worker would normally make in a week -- into the driver's cold, red hand.
I repeated pleas to Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, as the VW fishtailed through the first turns past bits of guardrail that marked the line between road and whited-out abyss. The driver leaned out of his window to see past the iced windshield, driving with one hand. A Hong Kong pop cassette moaned love songs. "Wode xin tai ruan, xin tai ruan." My heart's too soft, my heart's too soft.
Four other passengers, in on the trip from the start, were wedged into the backseat with my girlfriend, laughing and talking loudly about money and how much they had. The driver leaned down, found his half-empty bottle of rice wine, and took a long swig. "Wode xin tai ruan, xin tai ruan." I turned around in the front seat and met Feng Dan's stoic stare as she dodged the backseaters' questions about how much money she made, how old was she, and was the foreign devil a good lover. She saw me and winked. "Wode xin tai ruan, xin tai ruan." I leaned out my window for a last glimpse of the monk and Jin Ge monastery's towering wooden gate and ancient prayer hall. But the snow blew hard, revealing only a milky sheet.
"Hey," the driver elbowed me, his face pink and smeared with melting snowflakes. "Wanna drink?" The car rolled faster.
Mike Meyer recently returned to the United States for graduate studies at the University of California-Berkeley. He is currently writing a memoir of his four years traveling in China. He and Feng Dan were married in June, under a brilliant sun, at sea level.
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