Today morning dawned…well, no different from the other yesterdays. Chengdu seems to be almost always dreary. I haven’t seen a blue sky yet. Dark. Grey. A hint of rain. Damp. That is about it for the weather. I wonder what job a weather forecaster would have here. Weather forecast for tomorrow? Wet, cold and chance of a drizzle. Rain later in the evening. Yet, it’s hard to believe that just 2 hours away lies Chongqing – one of the four furnaces of China. And another 2 hours away lies Emei Shan – the mountain I have been waiting to visit. Xiling Snow Mountain too just another bus ride away. I can’t wait to see them all.
For today though, there was Wenshu Yuan Monastery. Unlike my previous two stays in China, we are virtually on our own here. There are no helpful students to guide us. No foreign teachers’ officer just to help us. Nah. You have to get out there and do it yourself. The International Students’ Office helps you to a point. In as much as saying, look here, go out of the gate and find it yourself. Wenshu Yuan Monastery has quite the description in Frommers. It didn’t disappoint. Getting there involved moving out of said gate, and finding Bus Number 5. That was the easy part. We rushed in with a horde of people, not at the entrance but the exit door. Birdy found a seat easily enough. We stood there, waiting for the ‘conductor’ to come. Except that there was none. The buses here are all ‘self-service.’ I spot the little box near the driver a bit too late. The bus is already too full, and trying to make my way through a sea of jackets is not an appealing prospect. I clutch the 5 Yuan in my pocket. Google Maps had told us that it takes approximately 9 stops to reach the monastery. We start counting. Chengdu is huge. The roads are appealingly wide. I marvel at the lack of honking. There is disorganization here as well, but not chaos. The bus I travel in has a TV, is air conditioned and the driver has a camera. I glance worriedly at the camera. Being ticketless in China is not something I wish for. A woman is fascinated by me. That’s pretty rare here. Most of the Chinese here seem pretty used to seeing a laowai or foreigner. Heads rarely turn when we walk, which is a bit of a dampener. You would love being a celebrity at some point, wouldn’t you? The woman still continues to stare at me. I turn away, a bit discomfited. We count down to the stops. 8 stops, and we decide to ask around for the monastery. I get the tone wrong, and I am immediately met with blank stares. Finally, a guy in a faux leather jacket understands me. He talks in rapidfire Chinese – I understand we are to wait. And wait we do till he beckons us to get down at the right stop. We jump out. And grin to ourselves…we saved 2 Yuan, traveling ticketless. And for a change, I don’t feel guilty at all. I wonder why. Maybe life has a checking point too where you cannot feel your soul any more because it simply ceases to exist. Or maybe your soul wants to have fun too.
Walk a little here. Turn to the left. Renmin Lu is a sprawling avenue. We ask around again for directions to the monastery. A quaint street lined with shops selling souvenirs, knick knacks, and many restaurants. It takes a while to find the entrance to the monastery. I am beginning to understand that often the best things in life come after a wait. And two, after a long walk. Pay the 5 Yuan entrance fee, and immediately it is a different world. Incense clouds the air. Wenshu Yuan temple is dedicated to Manjushri – a Bodhisattva. There are apparently a number of cultural relics inside the temple, all of which we missed. There is something to taking a photo. You miss the moment. But you win eternity. Monks in yellow robes walk around. It is half past noon, and I am already hungry. An apple and a banana don’t go far. I glance at the Chinese worshipers. It seems odd to me, it always does to see such worship in a Communist country. Freedom to worship is not lacking in China. And really, you don’t need a temple for that. All you need is some soul, no?
We move past the various temples, and reach a tea house. Chengdu has more than a 1000 tea houses and we have stumbled upon the first one. Wooden tables all set close together in the open air. The air is freezing but the atmosphere is not. Lively chatter. Empty peanut shells crackle under my foot. Tea cups on tables. We walk around, trying to find the vegetarian restaurant. We find it. And leave. Vegetarian it may be. But expensive vegetables are not worth the poor student’s money. Outside, we have si mian or vegetable noodles. I am sure the broth is animal fat. And I pick out little pieces of meat that have popped into a fiery death in the broth. Birdy and I laugh. This is China. Not pieces of insects and snakes, but just pieces of meat. And as with life, you throw the pieces you don’t like, and just have what you like. Fussy? Not here.
Stepping out, we take the Metro, a marvelously clean station. We are not s
ure how, but we reach Tianfu Square, a landmark center in the city with a huge statue of Mao in his trademark pose. For some reason, the center or square is crawling with cops. It’s scary looking at them, these cops instill fear in you. Somehow, I don’t think those terrorists who ran amok in Mumbai would have it so easy here.We scurry past them, and try to find our way to what promises to be an ‘ancient’ street. Except that it was built in 2005. We give up after several rather futile calorie-burning walks round and round. Of course, the police still swarm all around. A small accident happens in front of our eyes, but everything is quickly taken care of. Birdy spots the the Number 5 bus. This time we pay the fare. And as I find a seat and sit down, I think just how fast China has changed. And, strangely so have I.