I like to explore. I spied a pagoda on top of a hill and was determined to make my way through the village to find it. I weaved through the allies and narrow streets, bypassing vendor calls for my attention. It was misty. The moisture combine with the smooth polished stone and oil from eateries pouring their cleanings onto the street made the walkways extra slippery.
I walked around the base of the hill asking people how I could get to the top. The dense houses made a wall that kept me from getting up to the hill. I went up one ally and ended up in a back yard of an old couple who gave me strange looks. In another alley I ended up next to a mangy barking dog that convinced me I was on the wrong path. Finally, two old men pointed me in a direction.
I ended up in the front of a concession gate. I pointed up and made a prying symbol. A lady spoke to me in Mandarin. “I think she said you can go all the way up if you are fit,” said a nice gentlemen who magically appeared behind me. “You need to buy tickets there.” He stepped up to the counter and bought a ticket after showing his passports. “I’m sixty two, and I’m always getting a discount by showing this thing.” I didn’t have mine, but he said something in Mandarin, and she gave me the discount price. “I told her you forgot yours. I think you owe me a beer for getting you a discount.”
Peter was quite talkative and explained that he lives in China with his wife. As she worked and he didn’t, he spent a lot of time travelling. “I like to wander a bit, I find all sorts of great places. Who knows, maybe this will turn out to be a winner.”
We started the steep ascent. Recordings played informational pieces in Mandarin about the different sections as we climbed. We just kept going up. “If you walk far enough in this country, the crowds disappear. They love convenience.” Sure enough, as we went up we saw less and less people.
We appeared at a swinging bridge decorated with red ribbons. Birdsong filled the air. Upon closer inspection, the bird nests were constructed by people, and the birdsong was recordings.
We found ourselves at the gate of the Phoenix Palace. The informational placards explained that Feng was Male and Huang meant Female. Together they made Fenghuang or the Phoenix, one of the mythical creatures of China. Placard after placard gave information about Phoenix culture. One explained how the ancient Chu culture worshiped the Phoenix, another explained how this very fountain was where the Phoenix would drink. If you drank from the fountain, you too would have luck and long life. Another placard explained: “By walking this winding plank way was like touching the wind and flying like a phoenix.” Yes some of it was corny, but there was a museum at top with relics bearing the phoenix culture dating back centuries.
After the museums and walkways, there was a “Jungle Slide” made out of glass that we could have gone down. Peter asked where the temple was and the operator pointed up. Just after the slide there was a monument to a fallen hero of the revolution.
We kept going up into the Nanhua National Forest area. A small map had Nanhua Temple at the top, so we kept going. It started to rain lightly, but we kept going up. Eventually, at the top there was a park horse for people who wanted more exercise after climbing nearly a kilometer of stairs. The maps at this point were vague and it started to rain more. We picked a direction and kept going.
We descended into a parking lot of what looking like a military building. There was a basketball court, a ping pong table, and some informational placards with the communist logos everywhere, and a topographical map of the area and forest fire information.
I motioned to a person walking on the third floor of the four story building: “Nanhua Temple?” with my hand gesturing “where”? The man smiled and pointed to the building.
It was not a pagoda and did not look like a temple. “Come drink!”
By now it was pretty hot, and the rain was really starting to fall. We walked up the steps and they motioned Peter and I to a big room with a couch. A desk was in the corner with a computer.
“The tea may be free, but pretty soon the sign up papers will come out!” I joked with Peter. Peter made small talk with them. I don’t know the words that were being used, but I knew what was being said. The conversation most likely about Peter, his wife, where she worked, how old he was versus how old she was and so on. Our host asked us if we wanted to pray, and Peter explained we were just sightseeing.
The tea came and was delicious. We chatted a bit more. The rain really started to pour. Peter explained to me that they offered to drive us back down so we would not have to walk. I enjoy walking in the rain. Aside from the solitude, I find it cooling. I explained that I would walk back. Peter said: “In all my years I’ve learned not to turn down acts of kindness. It’s never ended poorly.”
We parted ways after a group selfie. I walked back, along the winding stairs back down the mountain, through the Phoenix cultural center, through the winding streets. All the while rain poured down soaking through my shirt and shorts. Every time I passed by some people, they were huddled under a awning or a roofed platform and looked at me like I was some foreign confused beast. I was OK with that.
My thoughts were full. I had not found the pagoda, but finding and experiencing the kindness of strangers was just as fulfilling. Sometimes the best part about getting lost is getting found.