I could see the Yongxing monastery crawling up the side of Beishan Mountain from my hotel window. I wanted to go there. Too far to walk, I thought, but how I would get there was a mystery to me. The sum total of my Chinese Mandarin vocabulary was limited to xiè xiè (thank you) and nǐ hǎo (hello). I had to find someone who could help me navigate the city. I decided to try my luck with Wu, the twenty-something desk clerk who had tried so hard to communicate when I arrived.
Apparently, it was an easy walk from the hotel, but that part got lost in translation. Because I suffer from acquired topographical disorientation, or directional dyslexia—I’m always getting lost—a cab was a better option.
The ride didn’t take long, but I was too busy looking at people and storefronts, architecture and back window vistas, to really pay attention to the route. I remember that the cab turned into a long narrow road to the entrance to the temples, which stretched up the mountainside to its very top. A few people wandered around the lower temples and gardens. A monk, sitting and eating an apple, barred my entrance into the large sanctuary on the first level; so I strolled through the bonsai garden and then started up the stone stairs to the next level. Before I had climbed the second step, the monk tapped me on the shoulder . . . and handed me an apple. He sauntered down a different path, and I continued up. The temple on that level was closed, so I had to decide whether to continue climbing or return to the bottom of the mountain and try to figure out my way back to the hotel.
It was then that I spied a small man, dressed all in the blue—the uniform of the people who serve the monks and take care of the shrines and grounds. He beckoned me over, but as I followed him, compelled by my curiosity, he disappeared up the next flight of stairs. I climbed after him but didn’t see him at the top. Since I had entered the back of the sanctuary, I rolled the prayers wheels lining the outer walls while I made my way to the front. He wasn’t there . . . and then he was. Again, he gestured for me to follow him, and again he disappeared up the steps. I climbed up five more levels, finding him and then losing sight of him, until I finally saw him waiting in front of an open temple. He summoned me inside.
“I don’t know how to pray in a Vajrayana style. I learned Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia.” The words tumbled out of my mouth before I could even ascertain whether he understood English. A smile broke across his heavily lined face and, saying nothing, he took my hands and put them together in a sort of clasp; then he pushed them up to touch my forehead before placing them on my chest. He let go of my hands, clasped his own hands, and put them on his forehead, then his chest; then he knelt and placed his forehead on the floor, his clasped hands out in front of his head. I copied his movements, although it took me several times to get the sequence right.
As I got to my feet, the sensation that something strange had just happened washed over me. He was smiling and nodding his head in approval. I started to ask him who he was and why he had taught me how to pray; but before I could utter anything more than thanks, he was gone, and I was left to wonder.
I was light-headed and a little dizzy as I found my way back down to the monastery entrance and walked past the fortune tellers and souvenir sellers out through the front gates to the narrow road that my morning cab had taken. I was in an old industrial area, rusty and unwelcoming. I quickened my pace and walked until I got to a large street, heavy with traffic. If only I had a better sense of direction and geography, I would have realized that I was a mile at most from my hotel. If only. I showed a passerby my hotel card and, true to the angels of Xining, he pointed to a bus bench across the road and said “98.”
*This story is excerpted from The Wanderer
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