A Journey to Emeishan

Part One: Wilma, where’s Fred?

Fred wasn’t ruffled in the least. Not at all.

But, maybe I should digress.

I was on what my travel agent tends to call the “rich American” tour; that is, after my three or four weeks of what I usually refer to as “pleasantries” training at the Shaolin temple, I sometimes like to do a little exploring in various areas of China, usually areas that my travel agent, and dear friend, suggest to me. Emeishan was the suggestion for this trip, so Emeishan it was. But, since my knowledge of Chinese back in 1997 was as limited as it is now in 2000, I had decided that it would just be easier to spend the extra money to have a tour guide take care of the whole process.

It really was the wimpy way out, but it was convenient. It cost extra money, but, I had felt it was worth it. It most probably will make me less of a man in your eyes, but I really don’t care. Fred certainly didn’t. Nothing seemed to bother him. But, more on him later. First, the wimpy way of travel. I have to digress a little further.

I left Shaolin in November of 1997, after training there with my master for about a month. After we had made our adieu’s, I was off to Zengzhou (pronounced “Jung Joe” for the literati in the crowd, “zeng zoo” for the rest us), to meet tour guide number one, who’s main job was to, well, first find me, and then, second, put me on the right train to my next destination, which was going to be Xian (pronounced “Shee an”. I couldn’t find a way to screw that one up if I tried). My travel agent had thought, that a trip to Xian, on the way to Emei, would be nice, as it was “on the way”. Besides, she had said, “It will give you an opportunity to experience Chinese trains”.

“No problem”, I had thought, just as Shi De Cheng had said almost constantly as I had tried to blunder my way through one gong fu form or another. I had taken one of those death-defying car rides from Shaolin to Zengzhou, found the offices of tour guide number one, deposited a hundred and sixty pounds of my North Face duffle bags filled with all kinds of assorted crap in her office (which, no doubt, she had appreciated very much. “No problem” she had said. They all tell me that…) And with that, I threw my back pack, which contained my laptop and the “expensive” things on my back, and searched out the nearby Holiday Inn, for something which resembled real food. “Don’t get lost”, tour guide number one admonished me as I left. “No problem”, I responded, as I had just wanted to get a feel for how that would come out. It kind of came out nice.

The mass of presumed protein on my plate which was supposed to be ‘fried chicken’ wasn’t all that bad, and yes, I had gotten lost, but not so bad that it had taken me more than two hours to find my way back to tour guide number one’s office again. I picked up my hundred and sixty pounds of North Face duffle bags, and with my backpack on my back, we left to find what the Chinese call a taxicab. Tiny things they are, especially when you’ve got a lot of things to carry. I had told tour guide number one about my first experience in these tiny minivans, the last time I was in China, two years previous, when I had gotten out of one, grabbed it by the top with both hands, and had pushed it up onto two wheels, much to the consternation of the female driver inside. I had been greatly amused by these tiny vehicles, my tour guide (tour guide number zero?) at that time had been greatly amused at my amusement, tour guide number one got quite the kick out of the story, and Fred really hadn’t cared. Fred just kept sipping his tea as I had told him this story. We had gotten to the train station in Zengzhou later that night, but, for some strange reason, our cab driver had left us off way on the other side of the transportation center. No doubt she had been listening to my “tilt the taxi” story. These taxi drivers, they all stick together. I should have known; I used to be one.

It was quite the walk, with tour guide number one constantly complaining about the cab driver leaving us off so far away, and with so far to walk, and with me, carrying a hundred and sixty pounds of bright red very American looking duffle bags. Four weeks of gong fu just doesn’t prepare one for carrying all of that through what appeared to be thousands of people. Not when you’ve got one big duffle bag on your right shoulder, and tour guide number one hanging off of your left. It was then, as I stumbled and tumbled through the ever increasing and surging crowd that I really had trouble visualizing, that I had realized that the Chinese walk the same way that they drive. I lost count of how many I had bounced into that night, and I’m not really sure how many got knocked over; I really couldn’t turn my head with the hundred and twenty pound duffle on my shoulder. Quite frankly, I really didn’t want to look back. At that time, I had just wanted to get onto the pure and simple comfort of the first class accommodations on the train, and get going. That was when tour guide number one gave me my ticket, and said “Have a nice trip”.

Let’s see. Thousands of people, lots of trains, different trains, all going to very different places, all on lots of different tracks, and not a word of English. Anywhere. I looked at tour guide number one with one of those “You’ve got to be kidding” looks that only a very tired and annoyed New Yorker can summon on command. It didn’t work. The tough guy approach just wasn’t going to work. I considered getting on my knees and begging her to show me what train I was supposed to get on, but further analysis, as that hundred and twenty pounds on my right shoulder started to feel like a hundred and forty pounds, revealed that any maneuvering to my knees would probably result in my permanently residing there. So, I took the “rich American” tour approach, as my travel agent back in the US puts it, and did the wimpy approach. I offered her money to put me on the right train.

Works every time.

Fred hadn’t even trembled with the mention of money. Or a tip. Not a move. He had just sat there, sucking in some of that tea, that he had made on his own, from a variety of different herbs and tea leaves, all floating around in this large plastic container, which he picked up and swirled around from time to time. A sip here, a swallow there, a mouthful every now and then, followed by a swish, and a spit, as the entire contents of his mouth would be returned to the remaining tea in the container. “How long has that tea been in there Fred?” “Days. Want some?”

First class booths on a train are nothing like “hard seat” or “soft seat”. In “hard seat”, from what I’m told, there is a long wooden bench on most trains that the fortunate ones get to sit upon; the rest of the passengers fight for floor space. Soft seat has some sort of cushions, supposedly. Second class consists of a train car that has booths, like one would see on those fancy European trains, without the “fancy”. Supposedly, they sleep six people to a booth, three hard bunk beds on each side. First class, sleeps four people to a booth, two hard bunk beds to a side, albeit, with an inch and a half thick mattress pad upon them. Very comfy indeed. I, my backpack, and my two bright red very American (though made in China?) North Face duffle bags, all four hundred pounds of us, wiggled into this first class booth, much to the dismay of the very well-dressed passengers within. I stuffed my stuff under the bunk to the right, without much success, threw my backpack onto what was called a “bed” to use as a pillow, and wiggled my large frame onto this much too small mattress, in an attempt to stay out of the well-dressed compatriots way. All three of them.

They weren’t happy puppies. My first clue was the feeling that I had gotten when I had entered the booth, kind of the feeling one gets when one goes to a “Black tie” affair wearing sneakers, jeans, and a tie. My second clue was the look that one of the little, almost bald headed, apparently senior Chinese official types was giving me, the big, very bald headed, and not very official, American type. It was a look that a nickel whore might get in a convent. But, I had really gotten the impression when the little, almost bald headed senior official type barked some sort of order to the even littler, even more balder, and apparently less senior, other official type. He had looked at me, scowled in disgust, got up, and left the booth.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m not exactly the most perceptive male on the planet. Not that most males are. Actually, I tend to be oblivious, even more so than the common male. I tried to explain the word “oblivious” to Fred, and he just kind of looked at me with that blank, dull stare, as he sucked in yet another mouthful of tea and dribble.

“Fred, you are oblivious”.

“No problem, very nice”, and with that he offered me some more tea.

Well, Mr. Perception was definitely not my moniker, but Mr. Trouble was starting to be. And I was definitely getting a feeling that things were not going to be going my way. I started to have visions of government agents, or, Chinese assassins, coming into my first class booth, and whisking me away, so that these self-important little Chinese officials could have their self-imposed privacy back again. Visions of carrying my possibly Chinese made American duffle bags on my shoulders as I trudged in the night along mile after mile of never ending train track haunted me. Thoughts of not ever seeing my dogs again entered into my exhausted and hungry mind. Horrors. Who would tell Max that dad was lost somewhere on a train track in the middle of China?

That’s when the little bald headed assistant returned to the booth, with an official looking man, in uniform.

The conductor.

The senior almost balding man took out some sort of wallet, and showed some sort of badge or identification, which made the tired and impassive conductor demonstrate a sudden surge of energy. A government official. Tour guide number one had put me in a booth with high-ranking government officials.

The conductor started trembling as the senior official raised his voice higher and higher, and with each octave on the scale, he had pointed yet another finger at me. I told Fred, that I wasn’t really sure what this party official was telling the conductor, but I had gotten the impression it was something along the lines of “Remove this man. He smells.” Regardless of what it was, I had had to go. And me, Mr. Oblivious, was starting to understand it. All four hundred pounds of us was going to have to be moved. I started to take a little pleasure in the thought of this hundred and twenty pound conductor carrying my hundred and twenty pound duffle bag, so I just leaned back in this thing that they call a bed, put my arms behind my head, and smiled at all of them.

To this day, I’m not sure what it was; the duffle bag, the smile, or the odor. But I stayed, and they all left. Ten minutes later, some scruffy looking individuals were hastily placed into my booth. I had gotten the impression that they had just gotten out of prison; no doubt, they had the impression I was heading for one. It was a great arrangement; they didn’t bother me, I didn’t bother them, and none of us slept on that damn uncomfortable train.

Fred slurped some more tea and spittle out of his container, and didn’t seem to be at all amused at the story of my conquest over the party officials. He hadn’t said a word, yet I told him “No thanks, I’m not thirsty”. Not even a smile.

The trip to Xian was fairly uneventful, despite the fact that I was only there for essentially one day. But then again, how long do you need to see clay statues? The terra cotta warriors are a truly remarkable thing, but, after the first five minutes, I had seen enough. I was more impressed with the wall that surrounded part of the city of Xian than I was with the tourist attractions within. But, it was a worthwhile journey, one that I would most definitely recommend, if one is going to be “in the neighborhood”.

Tour guide number two got me at the hotel early the next morning in time to get me to the airport, so that I would not miss my flight to Chengdu, in southwestern China. I can’t remember his name either, but he had done something which tour guide number one had done, which, at the time, I had felt to be so ridiculous and self-serving, that I had almost found great humor in it. You see, both tour guides had given me their business cards. As if I was going to be “in the neighborhood” again. I had thought it totally ludicrous, as I had always done these trips the “wimpy” way; that is, my US travel agent had had the entire thing arranged before I left. I had taken the cards so as to not hurt anybody’s feelings, an act in itself which proved ultimately to be a very wise decision, and I proceeded with the whole process of trying to get onto the plane. Which, if you’re American, and you’ve got baggage which is “over the weight limit”, is not easy.

I tend to think of “over the weight limit” as being “over the weight of the guy who is supposed to load it onto the plane”. Forty kilograms (about ninety pounds) seems to be the limit, and the girls at the ticket counter seem to take great pleasure at weighing a hundred and sixty pounds of bags. They always seem to scowl at you, and one even looked at me with one of those puzzled looks, which basically inquired, in a non-verbal sort of way, “What do you have in there?”

“My mother”, I told her, knowing damn well that she wouldn’t understand me. The look in her eyes suggested that she might have paid attention to those few years of English classes in school, and I was hastily sent off to some other, out of the way section, to pay some huge fine, which ended up being a little more than the price of my original ticket. It was a baggage overweight payment, or something like that. They keep all of your tickets while you pay this fine, which made me wonder what would have happened had I not had enough cash at the time. The girl at the ticket counter smiled at me when I returned with evidence of the payment, issued me my boarding pass, and sent my luggage, and mom, merrily on its way, to the x-ray machine and its subsequent loading onto the plane.

I didn’t get very far. Not far at all, Fred still wasn’t curious. Still sipped that damn disgusting tea. So, I continued.

Apparently, my bags had made quite the impression in the x-ray machine. Some official had run through the terminal towards the boarding area, had gotten me, and had brought me back to the boarding pass area. There had been a group of them there, all taking turns irradiating my pour North Face duffle bag. They showed me the images on the screen and started jabbering to me, first, pointing to the screen, and then, pointing to me. The three-dollar locks I had placed upon the zippers had foiled all attempts at their investigating these mystical yet apparently deadly things inside my bag, so, they needed me to open it up so they could explore it. I looked at the x ray and immediately deduced what their concern was. Swords. Chain whips. Benign little martial arts weapons. In Xian. The big bald American had weapons. There was no way he was going to be allowed on the plane with weapons. Even though he had paid a huge fine because of the extra weight. A group of them watched nervously as I slowly and deliberately opened my duffle. I started to wonder if they had actually thought my mother was hidden inside this bag….

The swords were lying on the bottom. I took the Chinese broadsword from the very bottom of the bag, grabbed it by the handle, and swiftly, took it out, and thrust it towards the largest, and nearest, and most inquisitive, Chinese official. I hit him squarely in the chest with it, with form and precision and a stance that Shi De Cheng would have been proud of. The group of officials were aghast; the crowd of people behind the counter were aghast; the official with the sword to his chest looked like he was going to die. I damn near wet my pants with laughter. Fred hadn’t flinched.

Of course, the sword was one of those flimsy demonstration things, which the crowd, and the x-ray group soon realized, once they saw that the blade had bent completely in half, was completely harmless, worse than a toy. The crowd had roared with laughter, as did some members of the x-ray group. One point for the big bald guy. Fred wasn’t impressed. “Want some tea?”

But the guy with the sword to his chest just wasn’t going to back down. He wanted to know about the other ones. Problem was, Shi De Cheng had given me a real one, after my discipleship ceremony, one which was engraved with something that I couldn’t read. Thrusting that one into this guy’s chest would not have been a good move, and most definitely, would not have brought on the same effect. I was going to have some trouble with that one.

But the group was curious, and they read the inscription on the sword. And they were impressed. With the sword, and with the inscription. And, with the chain whips. All four of them. And then they started to talk about “Shao Lin Tse”. And “gong fu”. A few patted me on the back, the guy who had suffered the fake sword to the chest had smiled, and eventually, I was on my way. Finally off to Emeishan.

My troubles were just about to begin.

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