Sally in the Zen

Confessions of a Befuddled Zen Buddhist

Homecoming – Conclusion

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Truth be told, during the entire trip in China, I listened with only one ear to all the history that our tour guides recited.  Admittedly, if I didn’t think to write it down in my journal that I kept, I wouldn’t have remembered what had been said and done. 

Instead, because I’ve always been a visual person, I basked in the entire experience of being where I was, being in the moments.

Like when we were visiting Guilin.  We sat for a spell in a teashop, sipping yummy lavender tea.

Like being with Zen Mum and Zen Master at the Temple of Heaven and Earth.  We were told that standing at that particular level was essentially being between Heaven and Earth.  And I remember I had thought, COOL!

Kevin, our Beijing tour guide, took this photo for us.


Or when we went to see Chinese Opera.  Zen Master sat enthralled throughout the entire show while Zen Mum and I passed out.  In all fairness, Chinese Opera is an acquired taste.

Or the goosebumps that I felt as I took this photo from within the tour bus as we approached the Great Wall for the first time in my life.

Or when we were at a famous restaurant that was renowned for its Peking Duck dinners.  It took 40 minutes to cook these birds and once they arrived at our tables, it was quite a show.


And definitely during dinner meals throughout the trip, which consisted of 80% vegetables and 20% meat.  It seemed that most of the vegetable dishes centered around celery, celery and what did you say? celery.  After the second or third dinner meal into the vacation, I realized that I was quite a carnivore because I craved chicken and pork sooo much, and I really missed my meats. 

It took some getting used to, eating mostly vegetables — celery — but the cool thing was that we didn’t gain one pound throughout the trip!

Or when we took the bullet train from Shanghai to Suzhou, only to discover when we reached Suzhou, that we had been on the maiden voyage of that particular train.

Or discovering when we got on the train that it was unlike the Amtrak Acela Express, where there were no walking between the cars because there were no interior doors that allowed passengers to move around.

Or when I burst into tears when we were at the Red Theatre in Beijing, watching Chun Yi – The Legend of Kung Fu.  That was my “Amy Tan” moment of the trip.

Or experiencing the biggest culture shock of all:  squat toilets.  I didn’t take a picture of this unforgettable sight, but suffice it to say, if you can just imagine a toilet built right into the floor and all one has to do is squat, you pretty much got the picture.

Oh.  My.  Goodness.  Now that was a hard thing to get used to.

Thankfully it wasn’t a concern in the hotels. 

Although our trip happened in 2007, I can still vividly remember it as if it was yesterday.  The sights, the smells, the flavor of life there.  I had naively thought that it was probably going to be like an extended visit to Chinatown, like that in NYC. 

Boy, was I an idiot.

Zen Master, Zen Mum and I had agreed beforehand to not speak a lick of English while we were there.  We wanted to blend in and see where that took us.  From sight to sight, city to city, when we engaged with the folks there, we came away with one common observation that just tickled us when people spoke with us.

Everyone thought we were from Hong Kong.

All in all, China is simply awe-inspiring.  There really isn’t any other way to say it.

Would I go back for another visit?

In a heartbeat.

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Homecoming – Hangzhou – Part 8

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This time our bullet train ride was from Shanghai to Hangzhou.  It was longer than our first time when we went to Suzhou, this time around being 1-1/2 hour one way. 

The weather was rainy and dreary all day.  Who could’ve known that it would become one of our nicest days in China?

We were met at the Hangzhou train station by our tour guide, Pudding.  Yes, that really was her name.  I checked twice, including the spelling.  She said that when it was time to choose an english name, she chose Pudding because it sounded nice.

Pudding was quite memorable, if not just for her name alone.

We went to the tea villages that Hangzhou was renowned for.  And it just wouldn’t be me, if I actually remembered the name of the tea village.  No, that would be too easy!

Then it started raining again.  The tea village and fields were owned by a famous person whose name I didn’t write down in my journal; thus, I have absolutely no recollection.  I just know he was the top tea farmer whose tea was highly prized.

Now how often do you see something like this?  Mine’s on back order as we speak.  Just so you know.

May I live here?

All the green tea you can possibly drink.

What are they looking at, you ask?  Glad you did.

Why, tea roasting, of course!  Isn’t it obvious?

Pudding said that hand-roasting the tender, fragile green tea leaves was a delicate process that took all day.  To show our fondest appreciation for all that hard work, we took home cartons of these lovelies.  The green tea is in the round canister while the chrysanthemum tea is housed in the square package.  (Don’t mind my rice cooker and coffee maker in the background.)

Remember when in Xi’an, Zen Mum and I developed a cough towards the end of our stay there?  Well, at this point it was body-wracking and becoming quite painful.  Zen Master, out of the three of us, was the only one unaffected, and he asked Pudding if there was a drug store we could go to to get medicine. 

And God bless her, she took us to a wonderful pharmacy that sold us wonderful drugs.

After lunch, we went to the West Lake to putter around it in the drizzling rain.  This riverboat was similar to the one we rode.

 We had a blast!

We arrived back into Shanghai at 6:00 PM that night.  I don’t know what it was about Hangzhou that made it so great.  Maybe it was Pudding and her eagerness about her city.  Maybe the smell of freshness in the lingering rain.  Or maybe it was the non-rush of pace in this city that made it memorable. 

It was a lovely city.

And it was a lovely way to end our vacation in China, because we were due to leave the country the next day.

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Homecoming – Suzhou – Part 7

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At 7:15 AM the next morning, Zen Master, Zen Mum and I were in the lobby of the hotel where we met Ms. Lee, our driver and Jacky Chang, our escort to the train station.

HA!  We met Jacky Chang!  Get it?  Jacky Chang?  Jackie Chan?  Jacky Chang?

Okay, so you had to be there.  But he was a cutie!

Ms. Lee took us to the Shanghai Rail Station, while Jacky was there to escort us straight onto the train platform.  I thought it was kind of strange, because why would we need help getting to a train?


Think sardines in a can.  That’s exactly what it was at the train station.  O.M.G.

With my one hand on Jacky, we formed a human chain, where I held on to Jacky, Zen Mum held on to me, and she held on to Zen Master.  He told us to hold on tight and not let go because as we slowly made our way through the mass of bodies, we would have been utterly lost in that unyielding crowd if we became disconnected.  Jacky will forever be my hero.

The train ride was only 1/2 hour and it was our first time on a bullet train.  I don’t know if they called it a bullet train because of its shape, which was sleek and thin, or for its speed. 

But trust me when I say that “bullet train” is an apt description for the speed part because it flew across the landscape.

John, our tour guide, met us at the station and we went to see some of the highlights in the city of Suzhou.

We saw the Pan Gate.  According to Wikipedia, this structure is 2,500 years old. 

This was the view opposite the Gate.

It was a magnificent structure.

John took this picture for us.

Then we went to see this pagoda.  Unfortunately I didn’t write down its name.


Nor did I listen to John when he was telling us its history.  I just remember thinking Oh My.

But the real highlight was the Silk Museum. 

These are the cocoons and the silk threads that are produced from them.

The worms munching on mulberry leaves.  I don’t remember if these were real worms or not, but it was a convincing display.

And here is where they start pupating.   

And then they’re cooked!

At this point, we enter the “kitchen”.

Here is where the cocoons are cooked, cooled and threaded into the rig.  The process is kind of like threading a sewing machine.

Multiple cocoons are threaded and eventually unwound into the spools on top of the machine.

And then the silk threads are further combined through this machine.   In what way, I don’t remember.

In the very very end, what is the result?  Handsome hand-crafted silk clothing.  Fascinating.

I apologize for my lack of recall of critical details, but I was in the Oh My mind fog throughout most of that day.  That’s why I don’t remember if I took this picture at Suzhou or at a museum that we had visited earlier in either Xi’an or Beijing.

I vaguely remember that it was a museum that displayed authentic historical imperial clothing, but I just can’t remember what city it was in.

But I promise that the next time I get a chance to visit such fascinating sights again, I will keep more thorough notes and pictures!

Final stop:  HANGZHOU

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Homecoming – Shanghai – Part 6

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On Sunday, April 15th, 2007, we arrived for the first time ever into Shanghai, home of Yao Ming of the Houston Rockets.


Oohh, pretty!

It kinda felt like Chinatown in Manhattan, New York City.

And for a moment I really felt like we were in New York City.

We had arrived in the early afternoon and it was a free day for us to wander on our own.  We had split from the rest of the tour group by arriving into Shanghai a day or so earlier than the rest, while they deviated to a different tour path that led them to a different city. 

Wandering through Shanghai was like wandering through any metropolitan.  It was modern day living versus the previous cities we visited.  In hindsight, I wished we had the mind to hook up a tour through our hotel to tour Shanghai, most especially the Bund.

Oh well.

Our tour package had Shanghai as a pit-stop for visiting both Hangzhou and Suzhou.  These two cities are within traveling distance from Shanghai via train.  But that didn’t happen until the next day.

So Zen Master, Zen Mum and I wandered around the area near our hotel.  The highlight of the day for us was dinner. 

We ran into a couple from our original tour group and they had invited us to join them for dinner with a native Shanghai friend of theirs.  This was an unexpected surprise, so out of the blue that I left my camera in the hotel when we went out to dinner.

Yes, I know, I was really on top of my game.

We ended up at a restaurant that had a gaggle of ladies, giggling and extremely bubbly, usher us in from the outside.  And going along with my forgetting-to-bring-my-camera thoughtfulness, I forgot to write down what we ate and enjoyed that night.

Because it was absolutely one of the most delicious meals that we’ve had on this vacation thusfar.

And it wasn’t even anything fancy.  I remember I had a bowl of noodle soup with pork dumplings.  And among the many dishes shared at our table, the one I well recall was fried pigeon.  Zen Master and our tour companion devoured it like nobody’s business.  I had a piece of leg given to me and it tasted like chicken. 

And it was quite tasty.


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Homecoming – Guilin – Part 5

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After being in Xi’an, dry and dusty as it was, we hopped on another plane ride and landed in the city of Guilin

What a contrast this city was to the one we just came from.  It was extremely humid, hot and quite moist. 

When we had landed into this wonderful city, our tour guide (I forgot to write his name down in my journal) took us straight away to climb this mountain. 

It was one of the main tourist attractions because it offered an awesome view of the city.  But first we had to climb this bad boy.

See those steps behind Zen Mum and Zen Master?  See how steep they are?  We had to climb quite a bit of them to get to the very top of this hill.

Did I mention that it was humid, hot and extremely moist? 

This is important to point out because as we made the slow climb up, I was wearing fleece.

Fleece + humid hot moist weather + the steep climb up a hill = wilted Sally in the Zen. 

Also, humid hot moist weather + the steep climb up a hill = sweaty Zen Master and an absolutely exhausted and irritable Zen Mum.  At one point in the climb, Zen Mum just stopped and almost refused to continue, she was that drained.

But she persevered.  And it was worth it in the end.

Interesting tidbit:  according to Wikipedia, photos of this city were used in Star Wars III:  Revenge of the Sith, for the planet Kashyyyk.

Yes, yes, what in the world was I thinking, wearing fleece?  I asked someone in our tour group to take this photo and I don’t remember who it was.  At this point, I think my brain was slowing seeping out my ears from the humidity and the climb.

The next day we woke up refreshed and gungho to explore the new territory known as Guilin.  But as we walked outside, the humidity and moistness smacked us silly in the face again.

After breakfast at the hotel, our tour group boarded a riverboat and cruised down the Li River for a bit.  It was probably the humid hot moist air that invigorated Zen Mum to try her hand in taking pictures for once. 

I’d say it turned out pretty well.  The humid hot moist air did absolutely nothing for my hair.  I think I was puffier than a poodle.

We cruised down the Li River for four hours.  And the sights were magnificent.

And it started to rain and mist throughout the rest of the cruise.

Since I had packed only fleece and sweatshirts, we went out and bought lighter clothing for me.  It was a lovely light green shirt and it shrank after I wore it one time.  But I still kept it as a souvenir.

The next day we went to Elephant Trunk Hill.  See the rock formation behind Zen Mum?  Elephant Trunk Hill.

There was an amusement ride near Elephant Trunk Hill, if you could call it that.

I called it the bubble ride.

I wanted to jump in there and roll all around the water but Zen Mum was adamantly against it.  She was concerned that the bubble would pop with me in it.

I guess we’ll never know because I didn’t go on it.  Note to self:  the next time we ever get to visit Guilin again, jump on bubble ride when Zen Mum turns her back.  I run faster than her.

During the evening, after dinner, we went for a walk.  And at night our hotel was lovely.

The two days that we stayed in Guilin were lovely, albeit humid, hot and quite moist.  I am never going to stop saying that because that is one of the most vivid details that I recall.  It wiped us out so thoroughly that we didn’t even have the energy to take in any dinner shows or evening entertainment.  We went straight to bed after our brief evening walks.

The overall feel of Guilin was more old school than Xi’an.  It wasn’t as modern or bustling, and it actually felt quite quaint, rustic.  Surrounded by picturesque mountains and being so close to the river, it didn’t nothing for my hair or clothes but did everything for my spirit. 

I adored it. 


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Homecoming – Xi’an and Terracotta Soldiers – Part 4

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After the city of Beijing, our next stop was Xi’an.  After a 1-1/2 hour flight, we arrived into a city that was some 300 miles from the Gobi Desert.  This factoid was according to our tour guide named Yang, so I can’t guarantee its accuracy.  How could I possibly forget this piece of trivia when I was this close to the Gobi Desert for the first time in my life?

It is a beautiful city.  I imagined how I would live in such a place, with such architectural structures surrounding me on a daily basis.  Stepping out of my home, I’d merely look up and see history on just about every turn.  It is a magnificent city.

But for all of its appeal, Xi’an’s greatest appeal is the Terracotta Soldiers.

It was a sight to behold with my own eyes.

Not a single soldier was the same. 

I was in complete awe to be standing there witnessing this, when Zen Master took this photo.   Hence the spaced-out look on my face.

The Emperor of the Qin Dynasty was buried in terracotta.  And let me throw out a few more factoids offered by Yang.

Emperor Huang was 13 years old when he came into the throne.  There were 7 feudal states at this time, with different currencies and different leaders.  At the age of 22, the Emperor started a fight between the other 6 states, and by the age of 40, he conquered them all.  He had standardized the currency and language throughout the land, and built the Great Wall. 

Emperor Huang was one of the most important emperors in the history of China.  He had built more than 700 palaces and possessed more than 3,000 concubines. 

At the old age of 52 years old, Emperor Huang passed away.  His funeral was a 3-day affair, and ultimately buried with him were 160 scholars, many childless concubines and servants.  Tour guide Yang said that the scholars, concubines and servants were all buried alive.

And to guard the Emperor for all eternity were 7,000 soldiers, numerous carriages and horses, all made of terracotta.

Utterly amazing.


Immediately after this, our tour group went to lunch at the restaurant within the museum and the food was phenomenal!  We watched as our noodle dishes were freshly made right before our eyes.   Here’s a video made by Chefs Without Borders – La Mian Chinese Hand-Made Noodles –  who had the pleasure of experiencing what we saw and tasted during our lunch.  I was Googling for something that came close to what happened during our lunch and found this.

The overall adventure in this city was fascinating.  But I have to admit that the air was quite smoggy.  Sometimes I wondered if the Gobi Desert was also partly responsible for the dust that seemed to linger in the air around the city.  Towards the end of our two-day stay, Zen Mum and I had developed a cough that consumed us.  We were almost at wits’ end by the time we left, our coughing was so fierce. 

But you know what?  I wouldn’t have changed a thing.  I loved that city.


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Homecoming – Great Wall – Part 3

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How often can we say that we’ve been at one of the Wonders of the World? 

Oh, talking to me?  The Great WallOh, been there, done that.

We were at Ba Da Ling – the Northern Pass of the Great Wall. 

Zen Mum and I went up a little ways and it was quite a workout!  High in altitude and very steep in incline, it made for good times.  Zen Master took this picture just as we were taking a breather.
See that tower behind us?  That was our destination before heading back down.

Then I grabbed my camera back and sprinted up the way until I thought I was gonna fall over and roll down the Great Wall.  But not before I took this picture of Zen Master and Zen Mum chugging along.  At this point, Zen Mum chose to stop and take a break…

…while Zen Master and I continued the upward climb just to see if we could reach the top of the next crest before passing out.

And it was during this time that Zen Mum began climbing again.  So we waited for her…

…and then…TA DA!  GO TEAM!  We came, we saw, we conquered the Great Wall!

We were proud but pooped.  If only they had elevators for the way back down to the buses.


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Homecoming – Beijing – Part 2

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How did it feel to be in a country where I was part of the majority?  Pretty awesome.  And intimidating.

I have never been part of a majority before.  What if they asked me for directions?
All I knew was how to order a cup of coffee.  And my one-two-threes, since the conversational Mandarin CDs focused a bit on bartering.  I may not know what they’re saying to me, but by God, I know how to barter!

After breakfast, our tour group piled into the buses and then we landed at The Gate of Heavenly Peace, otherwise known as Tiananmen Square.

I snagged someone (I don’t remember who it was) in our large tour group to snap this family photo.  Don’t mind all the water bottles that we were hanging onto.  We were just petrified of accidentally drinking anything besides bottled water.  But I had packed tons of Immodium in my bag, so we were good.

Then Kevin, our tour guide with his little tiger hanging by its neck on his tour flag, waved to all of us and we were on the move…

… and crossed Chang’An Avenue, heading towards Forbidden City and the Imperial Palace.

And O.M.G.  We were in!

And there was the Emperor waving at us!

Zen Master needed to remind me that it was just an actor.  But that was fine, I still gave him my princess wave.

And finally, as we set off to go deeper into the City, to bask in the place where emperors of history past reigned, where empresses roamed, where the concubines’ quarters were, what happens?



Was it kismet?  Was it fate for my batteries to die at that one place on that one day?  Did it mean I wasn’t supposed to take pictures?  Or did it mean that I needed to get more rechargeable Duracells?

Or was it simply a case of my completely forgetting to plug in the recharger the night before? 

I’m leaning more towards this one. 

C’est la vie.

Next stop:  GREAT WALL

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