Putuo Shan, China

Trip Start Mar 13, 2007
Trip End Aug 10, 2007

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Flag of China  , Zhejiang,
Friday, July 27, 2007

Putuo Shan, China, July 25 - 27

Putuo Shan is a small island south of Shanghai that is considered to be one of the four Buddhist holy mountains and is dotted with temples, monasteries, and nunneries. It is also an idyllic land of secluded beaches and seabreezes, stone walkways through luxuriant subtropical vegetation and teahouses standing on rocky promontories above the crashing waves, pilgrims prostrating themselves on the ground and red-robed monks at prayer.  Reached from a harbor just south of Shanghai by a three hour ride on a high speed hover craft, Putuo Shan is also a popular resort.  With few motor vehicles, little pollution, and an almost Disneyesque perfection where everything looks freshly painted and nothing is out of place, it felt like a true paradise. 

For me Putuo Shan came not only as a welcome respite from the frenetic pace of the big Chinese cities I had recently visited but also from the months of travel through mountains, plains, and desert in land-locked countries.  There are many people I know who don't consider it a vacation unless they're on a beach, but I realized on Putuo Shan that in my two trips across Asia totalling almost nines months of travel over the last two years this was the first real beach I was on.  (The frigid Baltic beaches I walked on briefly in April hardly count).

If you've glanced at some of my latest pictures you might be wondering what happened to me.  No, I did not decide to become a Buddhist monk.  I went to a barber shop in the village on Putuo Shan where things all went horribly wrong, resulting in my head getting shaved.  I don't know; maybe it's just the only haircut they know how to give on this island of monks.  I always wondered how I'd look with a crewcut and how I'll look if or when my hair all falls out.  At least it will grow back.

I spent my days at Putuo Shan hiking along jungle trails to some magnificent sea view overlooks, climbing stone staircases in the mountains to some seriously holy temples, and relaxing on secluded beaches.  One morning I was on 10,000 Step Beach, a wide sandy beach with bath tub warm water and no one else within a couple hundred yards of me, when I smiley monk of perhaps 30 years old, in a golden robe and a haircut like mine, wandered by and sat down beside me.  The monk spoke no English, so I could understand none of his chatter, and as far as I could tell he little of mine.  He seemed very friendly, drew some characters in the sand with his toes, and wrote some characters down on the pad I was writing on, which were all, of course, also meaningless to me.  I thought it was quite an interesting experience to be chatting with a Buddhist monk on a quiet beach on a holy island off the Chinese coast, so I thought I'd record the moment.  My monk refused, however, when I motioned toward my camera to ask for his photo.

As the attempted conversation continued, I realized that through his gestures towards his heart, my genitals, his genitals, his hands folded beside his tilted head, and his motions toward the thick shrubbery behind the beach that the monk was trying to speak the universal language of love, and I was being propositioned for sex.  "Look dude, no photo, no lovin'," I told him, but he seemed to understand neither my joke nor the "No" message I was trying to convey through such means as vigorous right-left head shake.  I thought it best to get up and continue on my way when the lustful monk started stroking my furry leg the way one might pet a cat.  I noticed as I wandered away that the forlorn monk went down to the waterside; I hope the poor thing wasn't so distraught over my rejection that he'd try to drown himself in the sea.

I guess I didn't learn my lesson about talking to mirthful monks.  About two hours later I was wandering around Fayu Temple Complex when another smiley young monk, this time dressed in a maroon robe but also with the same haircut as me, said "Ni Hao" (rhymes with a cat's "MEOW") and started showing me around.  The monk named the gods and goddesses as we wandered around the temple, and I followed his lead, folded my hands, and kow-towed before the statues where appropriate, even putting a few yuan in the collection box while I waited patiently for him during his prayers.  After touring three buildings this way, my new monk friend seemed quite upset when I wouldn't accompany him into the next stop on his temple tour - the mens' restroom.  I tell you, those monks aren't all as innocent as they look!

I don't seek casual encounters when I travel any more than I do at home, but these two incidents raise the following rhetorical question:  Would having sex with a Buddhist monk be a very big sin or an especially holy thing?  Please discuss it amongst yourselves and let me know what you conclude.

Probably the most spectacular sight on Putuo Shan is the 100 foot gold-plated statue of Guanyin, the goddess of mercy who protects fisherman and other seafarers, situated on a headland at the southern tip of the island.  Putuo Shan is the center of the cult of Guanyin and the spot where the goddess is believed to have attained enlightenment.

However interesting the temples are with their statues of gods and monsters, scent of burning joss sticks, and pilgrims bobbing back and forth in prayer in front of representations of the Buddha, it's during ceremonies that the temples really come to life, especially on Putuo Shan where there are a couple thousand resident monks and nuns.  The solemn procession and ceremony I attended at Huji Temple, located on the highest peak on the mountain, involved at least 100 buzz-headed monks in long maroon robes, some old and some young (and perhaps some not as innocent as they looked), chanting and banging discordantly on drums and gongs.  It sounded to me more like they were trying to wake the gods from their slumber than to worship them.

I ate a couple of my meals on Putuo Shan in the restaurant at my hotel where I was waited on by a friendly college student from Henan Province named Han who was working on the island for the summer.  Han gave me many pointers on which menu items were best and freshest each day and had a myriad of questions for me each time he returned to my table, to the point that he twice got yelled at in front of me by his supervisor to get back to work.  I guess it must be more fun to talk to the rare foreigner on the island than serve soup to rich Chinese people at a banquet.  Unfortunately, however, I was unable to give Han any tips on what he'd need to do to immigrate to America.

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