The WeChat message came on Wednesday: the agency was organising a mountain climb. Did the foreign teachers want to join??? What a silly question really. Not that I had spotted any mountains in the vicinity, but I would never turn down the opportunity of a bit of action and exercise. So, my reply was ‘Yes, please. Count me in and can I have all the details…..’
In the event only a few teachers turned up. Saturday morning 9.00am was clearly too much of a struggle for most of the younger teachers who had probably spent too much time in the karaoke bars and other bars or night clubs the previous night. So we set off, four teachers and the rest of the office, all twenty odd of them.
The mountain in question was tucked behind the grounds of Zejiang University, past the grand statue of ‘Mao Zedong’ dwarfing the surrounding parks and buildings, and past the small houses where colourful washing fluttered in the cool Spring breeze. We traipsed up the hill, mostly in silence and in single file as the narrow concrete steps made it difficult to move in tandem.
I cannot fathom why there should be steps in the first place as walking on the few remaining paths is so much easier on the knee joints. But, as Klaus from the office explained, the steps are useful for the runners and walkers whose pastime it is to race each other to the summit and back down again.. And they are not youngsters, mind you, but ‘old people’ of sixty and beyond… ‘Speak for yourself, Klaus,’ I argued, ‘who is old at sixty these days???’ ‘Surely,’ he carries on, ‘people in their sixties should be retired. Live a life of travelling the world, and looking after the grandchildren…’ Not in the West, they don’t.. I wonder which world he lives in… This may be true in China, but in the West, there is still a lot of living to be done at such a tender age…
We carried on uphill. Teachers upfront, the Chinese office workers already flagging, huffing and puffing and succumbing to bouts of heavy breathing. And when a welcome sign to the summit beckoned??? Only three of us headed in that direction, the office workers making a beeline for a gentle, downwards sloping track. Maybe they already knew that the views, shrouded in a stubborn mist that day, would not be worth the extra effort… or that further steep inclines were to follow…
Our hike ended at the Fortune God Temple, a Buddhist temple standing proud at the top of the mountain overlooking Hangzhou’s West Lake. Loud, reverberating chimes broadcast its presence as we neared the peak. But the tolling of the bells was not a call to prayer by the resident monks, but rather visitors and tourists paying a handsome fee to be allowed to clang the gargantuan bell with a heavy, oversized rod. It may well have disturbed the peace of the temple, but I am sure the monks will have been happy enough to accept the extra funds.
I did not dare to take photographs of the inner sanctum of the temple where an enormous golden statue of the Buddha filled the main room. Not that I am superstitious, but I thought it wise to heed Klaus’s warning that it would pile on bad luck. No point in tempting faith for the sake of a picture, I am sure to get other opportunities. In smaller side rooms, the faithful queued patiently for their turn to throw the future and fortune sticks, to burn incense or offer prayers.
It was just a shame that the temple shared its prominence with a massive telecom tower. Not a surprise, mind you, as the Chinese love to be connected at all times and mobile coverage is essential to ensure that selfies and videos do not remain locked up in the phone’s memory and are ready for live-stream without delay. But what undoubtedly was an unsightly structure in a spiritual place provided ample space for tributes to Luck as curvaceous red lanterns and red knotted squares dangled daintily and elegantly from the metal bars. Even a gigantic metal monster could not stand in the way of those wishing for a better fortune in the future.