Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Wild Goose Pagodas, Big and Small

I’ve already confided that Xi’an is loaded with iconic cultural relics, right? Two of the more prominent ones are the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and the Small Wild Goose Pagoda. From pictures I knew that they were monumental and magnificent edifices but I had yet to see them with my own eyes.

The first time I visited Xi’an, as a part of the Scholar Laureate Program in 2008, visiting the Big Wild Goose Pagoda was actually on our tour agenda. However, because of the massive earthquake in nearby Chengdu that claimed over 5,000 lives, it was decided that the pagoda might pose a physical danger – bricks falling and the like, because of possible aftershocks. So, we went to the Shaanxi (pronounced Shawn-she) provincial museum instead. (NOTE: Xi’an is the capital of Shaanxi province.)

During subsequent visits to Xi’an, I somehow never made it to either pagoda. I know, big surprise: I’ve been to Xi’an more than once –tee hee. This visit, I was determined to behold both Big and Small Pagodas.

Much as I would have liked to have had Ken’s company on these outings, the fact is that he lives and works in this wonderful city. He is not a tourist and certainly not at my disposal. However, he gallantly provided his cousin MaoMao, who was freshly back from 2 years of military duty as my escort for the day.

MaoMao speaks very limited English. Much more limited than my Chinese. But, what he lacks in language skills he makes up for in charm, wisdom and gallantry. He is a very centered and self-possessed young man, radiating wisdom and a calm rare in one so young (he’s 23 years old). What an absolutely precious person he is. At one point, after a long silence in which we walked side by side, I confided to him that I wish is spoke better Chinese so that we could have good conversation together, whereupon he confessed his shame at not knowing more English. We resolved to help each other learn each other’s language. From there on, it was mostly all giggles and stilted conversation. Fortunately our cell phones have dictionaries on them!

I had originally intended to set out for the Big Pagoda somewhere around 2:00PM. However, when Ken informed me that MaoMao wanted to go with me, I waited for him, visiting with Ken at work. Until 5:00PM.

Well, now: wait a minute! All the light will be gone from the day, and I won’t be able to take any good pictures! As it turns out, that was no big problem at all. The pagoda is well illuminated and somehow rendered even more breathtaking than I imagine it would be during the day. The park around the pagoda is equally photo-friendly, with its street vendors and various bronze statues illuminated. And, because this is New Year, extra pains have been given to celebratory lighting. Lanterns, strings of lights and spotlights rendered my fears about camera light sensitivity obsolete.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

While still on the bus, I played a nice joke on MaoMao. Seats are as hard to come by on Xi’an buses as they are on Wuhan buses, so that when a seat came available, he ushered me into it. One stop down the road, another seat came open toward the front of the bus, and I ushered him toward it. The next stop, the seat behind him came open and I slid into it, and then tapped him on the shoulder and asked him in Chinese: “Excuse me, could you please tell me how to get to the Big Wild Goose Pagoda?” He turned, an earnest look on his face, ready to help… and saw it was me! We giggled yet again. We were having so much fun!

The bus turned the corner and there it was! Seemingly smack in the middle of the road, this magnificent structure that has stood for centuries! I am finally seeing it with my own eyes! Poor MaoMao, he didn’t know I turn into a child when I’m excited. Here I am, bouncing in my seat, pointing, eyes as big as dinner plates, exclaiming – but not too loud; I don’t wish to make a spectacle of myself. MaoMao was enchanted. He suddenly appreciated Ken’s invitation to accompany me in a whole different way.

We got off the bus and had to go through an underground passage to cross the boulevard. As I climbed the steps, wild with anticipation, the first thing my eyes lit on was… Baskin Robbins! I kid you not.

I forgive the Chinese their need and greed for Western experiences because there wasn’t a McDonald’s in sight. Baskin Robbins was the only Western establishment in the whole park. Had there been a McDonald’s though… well, I probably still would have been forgiving, so awe-inspiring is this Pagoda.

Unfortunately we were too late to enter the enclosure and, at 30Yuan per ticket, I’m not sure I would have wanted to anyway. Besides, the Pagoda was highly visible over the enclosure walls (pun intended). I did manage to get some spectacular pictures of it, but the ones I cherish more are the ones of MaoMao and I posing with the various bronze statues around the Pagoda wall. (Note: you can see the Pagoda pictures by googling Big Wild Goose Pagoda, but you probably won’t see MaoMao unless I attach his picture to this blog. Hence the choice of pictures.)

Each sculpture represents some part of traditional Chinese culture: shadow puppets, poetry, music, dancing maidens and the like. MaoMao and I took turns posing with the statues. At one point he wanted to take a picture of me with a statue depicting a female warrior and I told him he should pose with female statues and I should pose with male figures. He saw the sense in that and agreed.

As we spent more time together our conversation became more comfortable, in spite of the language barrier. I asked him if the Government will help him find work now that he is discharged from the military and he did aver that, after the New Year celebration, there should be job offers for him such as: accident investigator, traffic policeman, or some other lower level bureaucrat position. Considering how difficult it is to find a good job in China, I was encouraged to know that, after serving his country, his country will assist him. Much like the veterans get assistance in America, I assured him.

All too soon we had walked the entire circumference of the Pagoda and its park, which incidentally features the largest dancing water display in all of Asia, and there was nothing left to see or do. MaoMao walked me to the bus stop and waiting with me until I was safely on the bus, headed home. As I turned to wave at him, I saw him on the phone, presumably with Ken.

As usual, these good times spent with friends deserve as much room on this blog as I can give them. Hence this outing with MaoMao takes up all the room, even though it was just a short outing – maybe 2 hours spent together. And, because the Big Wild Goose Pagoda and Small Wild Goose Pagoda are not geographically close to one another, with one being at one side of the city and one being on the other side, I think I will tell you about visiting the Small Pagoda in the next post.

Besides, I went there by myself. See? Another difference.

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