Kong Tong Shan 崆峒山
The smog hung thick on Gansu’s eastern city of Pingliang as I headed out of the Jin Chuan hotel for some morning noodles. Cranes have already begun their daily hoisting of bricks, and even in this far off oasis of desolation, China’s construction crews clamber up the ever increasing pile of tetris blocks that stake out the skyline. All the breakfast options consist of la mien, ‘hand pulled noodles” that follow halal standards. The Hui minority group has been deemed a strange breed in China as they do not eat pork, which is the normal staple meat on lazy suzans all across dinner tables in the eastern half of the country. This difference in diet has been driven home by The Party to create a greater sense of otherness and distance towards a group that is in most cases genetically identical to the Han majority. Gansu’s hand pulled noodles are the most famous wheat noodles in all of China, and watching the masters transform a log of dough into perfectly even noodle threads that are as long as the man’s wingspan is quite a sight, usually the metamorphosis takes place in under 30 seconds.
After a very filling bowl, we made our way over to the west bus station and caught a minivan to Kong Tong Shan for 35 kuai. The entrance fee was steep at 120 a ticket, but easily brought down to 60 with proof of an Iowa drivers license. Any foreign ID can usually get a 20 something the student entrance rate across China with a few polite words of Mandarin and a batting of the eyes. I also have friends who play the ‘awkward foreigner that you can’t communicate with or reprimand card’ with style and success.
As with many holy mountain climbs in China the uphill is a set of stairs that clings to the straightest most vertical ascent line possible. Pilgrimages up to these temples on the tops of mountains are intended to be treacherous. The pain and suffering is seen as tribute to the temples and spirits residing there and it also serves as a cleansing process. Kong Tong Shan (2,123m, 6,965ft) is a very holy mountain for Daoists and considered to be one of the birthplaces of the practice. It is rumored that Qinshihuangdi, the first emperor to unite China under one kingdom around 221 BC, sought knowledge at the top of the mountain from the Daoist immortal Guangchengzi. Some believe Kong Tong Shan to be the first mountain of Daoism, with hermits studying there well before Daoism had become organized into a doctrine.
Perhaps the most pertinent history for my exploration was that the mountain was that locals successfully defended the mountain against the Red Army during the Cultural Revolution. The lack of a communist invasion has left the mountain temples alive and well. Another surviving relic was a 2,000 year old tree that still had the scars around its base where the Red Army had hacked away at it. The locals defended the tree as it is the home of a mountain spirit and was the last large tree left for the spirit to reside. We met a very kind Daoist who enthusiastically showed us the scars etched in the ancient ridges and told of the triumphant saving of the tree. He lives on the mountain and is the tree’s primary caretaker.
I have never seen a temple complex like this anywhere else in China, the craftsmanship was stunning. Most temples were restored in a stylized, new age, over the top makeover, but Kong Tong Shan was brimming with exquisite design that made me stop and stare. From the various array of Daoist Gods, Cheshire cat capped roof tiles, woodwork awnings that expounded with heads of elephants, tigers, and phoenixes, to the commanding Dragons that slinked around the temple joists with claws and fangs ready, all the way to the clay and stone carvings of large mouthed fish and mystical creatures that crested the rooftops, I was enthralled with more awe than any previously visited temple complex could hope to deliver. The view from far away was just as hard to wrap your mind around, as temples appeared and vanished through rising fog, revealing a precipice of cliffs where the holy structures cling. Truly a rare and magical place.
I conversed with many on monk on the top of the cliffs, finding out little tidbits of Daoist ideas and history of the area. However informative these interactions were, by far the most memorable chat was at the highest temple on the mountain. A monk clad in all black with a jade rectangle sown into the forehead of the cap serving as the only sign of color in his attire, inquired of my origins. Upon hearing that I was an American he launched into some political opinion about the U.S., mostly negative and having to do with our love of war. We stood at the doorway to the temple and two other monks sat in congregation at the foot of the stairs, eager to see where this international relations conference was heading. I tried to change the subject, addressing the monk with large glasses that reached past his nostrils and magnified his small eyes and creases created by years of smiling, and a beard that makes my four months of growth look like a five o’clock shadow, “how long have you lived up here?” “Over 20 years.” Un-phased he asked who my leader was, I sounded out Obama’s Chinese name with three drawn out but very separated words in their tonal chorus, Au-Ba-Ma (奥巴马). He repeated back Au-Ba-Ma a few times, and I chimed back in response. Once he felt confident in the establishment of the pronunciation and chord progression, he shouted it down the stairs to the sets of waiting ears. All three monks boisterously called back and forth to one another Au-Ba-Ma, Au-Ba-Ma, Au-Ba-Ma. This went on until I was grinning from ear to ear nodding with confirmation, approval, and at the unexpected and hilarious nature of our political exchange in front of the birthplace of the Dao. I can’t believe I am talking about the president right now, of all the things. I began to chuckle as the three continued to blast the name off the mountain top. Then, the older sage at the bottom of the staircase trumped the present ridiculousness by composing a song using only the words Au, Ba, and Ma. He sung to the scale of a traditionally tuned Chinese ear, leaping pitches of large intervals. I laughed uncontrollably as the monk blasted out the ballad from the back of his throat.
The singing subsided and the sun began to close the curtain behind the western peaks. The monks slowly filtered into the back temple for their nightly ritual. A few beats from the monk who had watched the clouds turn from this peak for 20 years, summoned the others to the call. I wandered around to watch, but kept out of the temple as to not be invasive. I leaned on the wooden window frame and put my senses to work, consciously attempting to imprint the rhythmic banter of drum and chanting. I inhaled the smell from the forest of incense burning beneath my chin, and took photos with my eyelids of the crawling dragons and bright red silk that filled the chamber. A Daoist nun turned to look at me and size me up, then old 20 years said without stopping his preparations, “from America, president Au-Ba-Ma.” Drums, burning of fake money, chimes, and the singing of verses giving thanks to the day filled the hall. Their praises gave gratitude to natural elements and landscapes, such as the sun, moon, planets, rivers, and trees. I stood as a smiling sponge, absorbing the sanctuary, and shedding shackles of stress.