It’s the third day in China and I wake up pretty early to go for a walk before breakfast. I really can’t properly convey how hilly the city is, and how even the relatively flat looking stretches can still be exhausting given the heat and humidity. I just learned to accept it and knew by the time we left for Shanghai I’d have the calves of a Greek god.
I came back and joined the group for breakfast. Another great breakfast and a few cups of coffee and grapefruit juice. I drank a lot of grapefruit juice on the trip to keep my immune system up and it worked out pretty well.
Today we’re headed to Lantau Island to see the Giant Buddha at Ngongping Peak. We make the usual walk to the MTR station and pass a big fuss at the Occupy protests as we pass under the HSBC building. We take probably the longest ride possible on the MTR and a few people have to add a few credits to their MTR cards to make the long trip. We all make small talk for a bit, and then most people try to catch up in the journals we are supposed to be keeping. I do the same.
When we reach our stop, it’s a bit of a hike to get to the cable car station, and once we get there, we encounter a line that is probably best quantified in the very scientific terms “really friggin’ long”. There’s only so much for us to talk about, and a lot of time is spent observing other people in line. There are two lines heading different places but the aisleways wind against each other and it takes a careful eye to see where our incredibly long line is actually going. Also, it’s incredibly hot.
Finally we make it to the end of the line just to get into another line, which thankfully was much shorter. We jump in our cable cars and off we go, and while all you an see at first is the first ascent, it’s probably a half hour long ride or so with many long ascents over Hong Kong Bay. You really get a feeling of rising to the top of the world as you pass over the bay and into the mountain range, and after you crest one of the higher peaks in vision, you finally see it: the giant gold Buddha. It’s a wondrous thing to see and it reminds me of all my own personal studies of Buddhism and after a lot of the day spent bored, waiting, and hot, I was excited to touch down. It begins as this faint speck in the distances and then before you know it becomes this gigantic feat of construction and we ride past it. We touch down in a tiny tourist village with teahouses and restaurants and gift shops and a Buddhist monastery.
The plan is to stop through the monastery and then have a vegetarian meal provided by the bhikkus and bhikkuni (monks and nuns in Buddhism). As we walk into the courtyard of the crowded monastery, we see people burning incense, burning spirit money, and praying at the statues of different prominent figures in the Buddhist mythos. I’ve taken a couple courses on Eastern religions, and specifically my course on Buddhist culture in southeast Asia sprang to mind in this whole scene. To the outsider this is just pure craziness. What’s really going on here is that people lighting the incense and burning the spirit money and praying to accrue a store of good karma to improve their lot in the next life. The spirit money is big ornately designed fake money that you burn symbolically to represent your ability to let material wealth and possessions go. This practice is very common in Theravada Buddhism, and the relationship between the commoners or laypeople and the monastery is very symbiotic. The laypeople purchase the incense or spirit money from stands occasionally owned by the monastery, and they accrue their karma and the money helps support the monastery. Personal religious opinions aside, everyone benefits.
I burned a little spirit money and Adam and I lit a few sticks of incense to the statue of Avalokitesvara, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. For the interested, a Bodhisattva is someone who is enlightened but puts off becoming a Buddha so that they might help everyone else in the world become enlightened first. It’s one of the noblest prerogatives in the Buddhist tradition.
Once we’ve all had our fill in the courtyard, we make our way into the dining hall for a vegetarian lunch. It was very interesting and flavorful and I ate as much as my already huge breakfast would allow. We had everything from fried rice with steamed veggies, to different kinds of bean curd and tofu and cooked mushrooms. It was a hardy meal and it was funny then as it was most of the trip watching the less adventurous folks look at the food with a more confused look than anything.
After lunch we made our way up to the Giant Buddha. It’s an incredible spectacle, and the stairs leading up to it are very steep. Almost as nice as reaching the summit and seeing the Buddha is just looking out and seeing all over the mountains and the sea. The terrain in Hong Kong is just unreal.
After a bit Adam and I have had our fill and head back down the base of the stairs and into the plaza where there are many shops. One of the problems we kept encountering throughout China is that shop owners FREAK OUT when you try to take pictures of their wares. To that, I say stop having such funny and weird wares. I don’t have a picture of any of the bumperstickers or magnets that were there but they were such gems as “More girlfriend is not as good as more money” or “2 cool bad guy” and lots of weird English language oddities. I can’t even remember any of the funniest which is sad because they were priceless.
The other problem that we’d occasionally run into is that we probably drew more of the shopkeepers’ attention than if a local had started stuffing the entire stock into a garbage bag and sang merrily while doing so. When we were in this shop, the lady literally followed us around only a step or two behind us. Adam would go to try on a pair of sunglasses and she’d snatch them out of his hands and put them back on the rack and he’d just stare back confused. We left because it got too abrasive to be funny. I’ll probably talk about how the shopping process is totally different in China in a later post.
Next time I’ll cover our trip to Victoria Peak on the trams and I’ll even have a short video for the next post!