Sat., July 13 – A tropical Buddhist paradise

I have just showered off most of the grime and opened a cold beer after 12 hours of glorious outdoor adventures in improbably gorgeous weather.

We started off with a street food, seaside breakfast of doughnuts and chive crepes filled with fried noodles, eggs and hot sauce. As we ate, a line of monks and pilgrims slowly filed past us, every few steps lying down in oblation.

Then, we took a pleasant 20 minute seaside walk past lush flora to the first of many temples we would visit. This little island has two monasteries and over 200 temples. We explored as many as we could, spending most of the day surrounded by monks, nuns, pilgrims, incense, icons and altars. So much beautiful art and architecture. For hours, we alternated our attention between temples and nature. We saw massive waves crashing against towering cliffs, lush bamboo and palm forests, birds, fish, turtles and insects as brightly coloured as jewels. We had many long, hot, sweaty climbs – sometimes to a shrine, sometimes to a natural vista. Then, there’d be cold water and cool ocean breezes as we caught our breath. We saw – and heard! – a pilgrim playing beautiful traditional flute music, monks chanting mantra, pilgrims dancing ecstatically before the giant golden statue of Guanyin.

A giant golden statue of Guanyin Boddhisattva

We had lunch at the monastery – a simple meal of rice with a savoury stew of tofu, mushrooms, cabbage, turnip, bean thread noodles, carrots and more (10 RMB, or about $1.70) each).

A bowl of vegetarian stew

Then more climbing, sweating, gawking… more moments of stunned silence. After lunch, we took advantage of the island’s excellent network of shuttles to explore the further reaches of the island. We got the best views – panoramic views of forests, cliffs, ocean, fishing vessels, temples, villages, pagodas and the stunning Baotuo Temple – from the cable car ride to the top of the sacred Mount Putuo.

View from a cable car to a temple and shoreline below.

And then, despite being “templed out,” we explored the indescribably exquisite Baotuo Temple. It is without a doubt the most exquisite place of worship I have ever seen. It may be the most beautiful, impressive complex of buildings I’ve ever seen. Neither the Forbidden Kingdom nor the Temple of Heaven hold a candle to it. It is utterly astonishing in every respect. And yet, it’s empty. No tourists besides us. Just monks and a couple of workers. We’re the oddballs here. The monks take *our* pictures.

the intersecting perimeters of several brightly coloured temple roofs

Exhausted, we bus back to the hotel and cool off in the lobby with cold beer before heading for dinner at a little seaside stand. We have hand pulled noodles in broth with bok choy, mushrooms and fried eggs. Cab, the historian, has three kinds of cold marinated tofu with stir-fried beans and rice. Alice, the art historian, supplements her soup with razor clams stir-fried with garlic and chillis.

Afterwards, we buy ice cream and popsicles (watermelon popsicle for me, coconut for the Kid) and walk back along the beach. Cab and Alice head back to the hotel. The Kid and I head toward the water one last time. It’s low tide and we want to look at the tide pools before it gets dark. We see tiny crabs, and huge skittering bugs that look like crustaceans. We chat with the locals and admire the sand castles. It’s not until we get back to our room that we discover how tired, dirty, blistered and sunburned (despite multiple sunscreen applications) we are. It was a tremendous day, and one with nary any sign of the typhoon, now a mere tropical storm. A really good day… few better.

Sun., July 14 – The journey home… eventually

Heading back to Nanjing today. Looks like we’ll meet what remains of Soulik there. A bit nervous about the boat ride back to the coast, but otherwise feeling fine.


Well, *that* was a day! I woke up this morning listening to see if the typhoon had struck. (Our hotel room had many merits, but a view wasn’t one of them; so, looking out the window wasn’t a weather-checking option.) I decided to make myself a cup of coffee, pack up, and then head outside to look. Before I could execute step three, one of our travelling companions knocked on the door to tell us about a hitch in our day’s plans. “All of the boats off the island have been canceled because of the typhoon,” she reported, “but we might want to get the Kid [now our usual translator] to talk to them.” We did. And yes, all boats – the only way off the island – had been canceled. Just to be sure, we phoned a Chinese colleague so that she could speak to the front desk. Same story. We made hasty arrangements to cover our Monday classes and rebooked our rooms for another night. Although the boats were canceled, the weather was fine – windy, but warm and rainless, with a blue sky and radiant sun overhead. I reflected that being stranded in good weather on a tropical island has never numbered among my worst nightmares.

Hungry, we headed toward the dock to buy breakfast – the local doughnuts, and Guanyin pastry (flat bread filled with vegetables, in this case seaweed, a Putuoshan specialty and often eaten by pilgrims to the island). Breakfast in hand, we decided to walk to the ferry station to see what time the first Monday ferry would depart. When we arrived, we saw many travellers with heaps of luggage waiting to depart. Why were they at the dock? Didn’t they know the boats were canceled? At first, we thought they were just planning on spending the night at the ferry station to avoid paying for another night’s hotel and to get an early start the next day. But, inside the building, there were long line-ups of people who seemed ready to embark. A quick conversation with a staffer with smatterings of English informed us that the previously canceled boats had been uncanceled when the typhoon failed to hit the area as hard as feared.

By this time, we were hours later than our intended departure time. We had originally planned to take an early boat from the island and spend a few hours in Ningbo in time for our 5:24 train to Nanjing. It was no longer clear that we’d be able to make a 5:24 train. Would we be able to unbook our extra night at the Putuoshan hotel? Would we make it to the train on time? We worked out that if everything went seamlessly it would take four or 4.5 hours to get to the train station. Once there, we’d have to find our platform and go through security. And, it was already after noon. …and nothing ever goes seamlessly in China.

Cab and I were much inclined to stay on the island an extra day as planned and leave on the first Monday boat rather than spend the day racing around in the heat among other travelers displaced by the typhoon only to be stuck overnight somewhere between Putuoshan and Nanjing, as seemed most likely. But Alice – possibly because she is the only pre-tenure one among us and feels a tad less professional entitlement than we do – was anxious about missing her classes and encouraged us to venture home. So, we did.

And then, astonishingly, almost everything went smoothly. We got a refund from the hotel and smoothly checked out. At the ferry station, we tried to buy tickets for the port we’d come from. No, they told us, that one’s not running today. After 15 minutes of fractured cross-linguistic discussion, we purchased passage on another boat that seemed, from what we could tell, to be heading in the same general direction. And, it was a faster, more comfortable boat than the one we’d arrived on. From there, we found a different shuttle bus route than the one we’d arrived on, but it seemed to be going in the right general direction. And, it was cheaper and more comfortable than the one we’d taken on Friday. From there, it was an easy matter to buy the next set of tickets. And so on. At each step, even when we had to deviate from our previous route, things worked out swimmingly. And every time we showed up anywhere with a ticket, the mode of conveyance had room for us and was just about to depart. One walk, one boat, two buses, one cab, one bullet train, one subway and tons of good luck and helpful people later, we were back in Nanjing, refuelling with dumplings and cold beer. Over the whole trip, we never encountered a drop of rain or made a single disastrous misstep.

And the people were lovely!

The shaggy Swedish youth on the first bus who is on his way to North Korea, then Thailand. His goal is to visit every country in the world for at least 24 hours. He’s come to Putuoshan following a rail journey from Sweden to Beijing and travels around China. He is going to North Korea because he hasn’t been there yet and wants to check it off his life list. There, he will visit the border with South Korea, and the world’s tallest arch and the world’s tallest flagpole. He tells us that South Korea has a very high flagpole and when North Korea saw it, it couldn’t abide the thought of South Korea flying the higher flag. So, up went the higher pole. He seems wealthy but frugal. He complains about the price of food on Putuoshan but doesn’t balk at the $4000 he spent getting from Moscow to Beijing. “It was a fair price,” he tells us, “It included everything but liquor.” He launches into a well-informed, articulate, ideological tirade about the U.S. Federal Reserve. I ask him whether he’s an economist, a political scientist or an amateur. He’s a political activist back in Sweden, he tells us. He and his Chinese companion help to get us to the next step on our journey; then, he’s gone before we can say goodbye.

The Ningbo cab driver who insists to us that Canadians and Americans are great and that China and the Chinese suck. “China is good!” I insist. “Not good, not good,” he replies, hurling invective at his countrymen, and in particular casting aspersions at their sanity and good judgment (from what we can make out). “Putuoshan is beautiful,” we say. “Ah, Putuoshan…  Guanyin,” he replies, “Yes, it’s good, but China is not good.” “Tell him we saw many temples,” I tell the Kid. “I don’t know how to say ‘many’, she replies.” So I try: “We saw temple and temple and temple and temple and temple,” I tell him. He laughs, a warm belly laugh. “Do you understand?” I ask. “I understand,” he replies.

Later, on the train, we sit beside a driving instructor from Nanjing who asks the Kid where we are from, what we do, how old we are, and tells us the same about himself. We are beautiful, he tells us. “Bu shi, bu shi (we’re not, we’re not),” I reply, having learned last trip the Chinese game of giving high compliments and energetically denying them when you are the recipient.

At the Nanjing dumpling joint at last, starving, we order four dozen dumplings for the three of us. It’s easy now. The Kid’s Chinese is good and the staff knows us well. Later, as we’re waiting for our food, a staff member comes over and asks the Kid to come and help at the cash. There’s a foreign couple and they need the Kid to translate. The couple is African. The Kid translates. The sight of the blue-eyed boygirl with the facial piercings translating for the very dark skinned couple is one of considerable fascination for the locals, who circle around the spectacle to watch, broad smiles all round. The Kid looks at home. She is warm, confident, and expressive, nimbly mediating between the staff and the couple, who are grumpy about the menu. Afterwards, the original staff member comes to the table several times to chat and express her appreciation.

We emerge from the restaurant, which is in a metro stop, onto the steamy Nanjing streets and are, as usual, surrounded by beautiful women in fancy dresses, e-bikes, cars, and hawkers of lotusfruit and panty hose. On the corner, a ponytailed man in a yellow track suit is singing passionately into a mike, his feet planted wide apart, to stabilize him (it seems) during the song’s more passionate moments (of which there are several). It’s a crowded, hot, noisy, overwhelming city. And, as much as I would have loved another day on the seashore, I’m immediately delighted to be back in Nanjing. I love it here. It feels like home.