The Iron Pagoda

Trip Start Aug 24, 2007
Trip End Jul 04, 2008

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Tuesday, September 11, 2007

    Right now while the freshmen are in their mandatory two-week military service, I have an extremely easy schedule.  I only teach one class a day, Monday through Wednesday.  So yesterday, after we had our daily meal at the noodle shop, I quickly changed out of my "Miss Miller the Teacher" clothes, filled up my water bottle, grabbed my camera and started walking to the Iron Pagoda.
    The Iron Pagoda is two blocks north of campus and is visible from a majority of places on campus.  Built in the 11th century, age has made its tiles resemble iron, thus lending its name to the Buddhist pagoda.  The pagoda is the center of the park with all trails leading to this stately structure.  Because it was a Monday afternoon in September, the guards at the park's gate were stretched out on chairs with their shirts unbuttoned and lazily fanning themselves.  In their state of contentment in the hazy heat, they let me glide by the gate without showing my park pass.  The little pagodas that dot the park were pumping out music that the Chinese would consider corny and trite, but is still exotic to the waiguoren laoshi (foreign teacher).  The combination of the still heat, the music playing from speakers still associated with old buildings or communist countries, and my solitary presence in an empty park was just the respite I needed after a particularly frustrating day of teaching. 

    Walking past what I presume to be the visitor center, and the main perpetrator for flooding the park with music, and past the lion statues that lined the pathway, I paid my ten kuai to climb to the top of the Iron Pagoda.  This is the scariest thing I've done in China.  Entering through a small doorway that is no taller than three and a half feet tall, I stood in the small entranceway to let my eyes adjust from the bright heat of outside to the cool dark calmness inside.  And then I looked up and saw the stairs.  The stairs wrapped around the center of the Pagoda and were the most vertical stairs I have ever seen.  They were huge chunks of varying shapes and sizes, sandwiched in between two brick walls that looked liked they were tired of being separated and that life would be easier for them if people would just let them join together.

    Thankful that I was the only person in the park and that no one else was here to climb the pagoda, I started on my quest to the top.  Clambering up the steps on my hands and knees, I cursed the iron handrail for its pointlessness and cursed the person who thought it would be a good idea to place it so high in a country where people are notoriously short.  I thought that I was probably getting a glimpse of the way my grandma felt as she labored to climb the back steps to my apartment this summer.

    After I reached the first window to the outside and the first landing, I noticed the tiles of Buddha placed on the wall opposite the window, allowing Buddha to eternally look over Kaifeng.  Buddha's gaze reached over the tourist center, the lions and the music, the sunning guards with their hand held woven fans, over the university and over my apartment.  I decided to keep climbing. 

    The cursed person who designed the hand rail must have realized that it was pointless and gave up after the first landing, making the climber use the steps ahead of themselves to haul their bodies up to the next step.  The more you climbed and wrapped your way around the pagoda, the more Buddha showed himself to you.  Each landing featured a central depiction of Buddha with smaller tiles and different depictions scattered around.   Usually the tiles were defaced, perhaps an everlasting mark of the Cultural Revolution when the pagoda itself was too large to destroy. The vandalism leaves only his hands and his crossed feet, making him a faceless deity like all the other vandalized faceless deities in the West I've seen before.

    The higher I climbed the calmer I felt about my upwards trek.  I didn't really think about the steps, but focused on the bricks with Chinese characters scratched into them, my first vision of Eastern graffiti. Or I focused on the different colored tiles of Buddha and wondered if after a year, I would become desensitized and unaffected by this image, effectively throwing Buddha into my mental garbage bin of religious images that I could care less about now. My prediction is that I won't - the depictions are much calmer and less violent than the representations of Christianity I have seen throughout my life.  But right now, it's not tarnished by comparison, by what I've already seen.  It's still new.  Still fresh.  Still the unknown.

    The top of the pagoda is somewhat anti-climatic and you don't realize that it's over until you go up those last few and unnecessary steps in the darkness and hit your head on the stone ceiling.   The last view Buddha has is of money offerings on the window ledge overlooking the lake and the ancient city wall of Kaifeng.  Perhaps the offerings are to Buddha.  Perhaps to the trapped demons doomed to keep going in circles on the bridge over the lake. Perhaps to Kaifeng.  Perhaps to the future and the money that is promised to start flowing into Kaifeng any day now.

     I heard someone laboring over the steps below me and decided it was time to go back down.  And then I realized - how the hell am I going to make it down those steps without dying?  Devising a system of walking down like I did when I was a baby - half on my butt, half putting both feet on a step before going down to the next one - and supporting myself with the low arches draped over the steps, I noticed more artwork and more Chinese graffiti that I hadn't seen before.  Like the tiles on the way up, the newfound Buddha tiles on the way down were also defaced.  No religion ever has it easy.  

    I finally made it down the stairs of doom and had to let my eyes adjust to the light and my body adjust to the heat before I started exploring the grounds further.  Before I left, Erin told me that there are signs in the park that say "Foreigners, stop your steps," but not knowing any characters and hoping that my confused look would deter any guard I might encounter, I threw the warning to the wind and walked around.  Palm trees punctuate the ground and mingle with the loops and twirls of carefully manicured plants that I have yet to learn the names of and wrap their way around the willow trees that sag above the murky and somewhat polluted ponds.  One path lined with vegetation leads from the pagoda to some type of hokey museum designed to lure in visitors that may be na´ve enough to buy fake jade or other types of "antiques."  Another path leads to a long Chinese-styled veranda where on more popular summer days, throngs of visitors can hop a ride on the pleasure boats that resemble long-lost cousins of rejected carousel rides.  As I walked around the park, I slowly started to realize that I was not the only person on the grounds.  The drivers of the pleasure boats were sitting in the shade of the lakeside veranda, neglecting their boats for the time-honored tradition of shootin' the shit.  As I walked past, the guttural and disjointed sounds that make up Chinese to a waiguoren suddenly stopped, allowing the drivers to better focus their attention on this strange person.  I wrapped my way around the veranda, walking along a number of Kaifeng businessmen who apparently took the afternoon off to sit on the veranda's railings to fish and eat Kaifeng's famous peanuts.  One man had his tie undone, his navy blue suit jacket carefully draped over the railing and seemed to be more interested in constructing the largest pile of peanut shells known to man than he was in catching fish.  

    I walked past the circle demon trap on the bridge and headed to the island in the middle of the lake.  There, I sat on the roof-covered walkway, watching as two men lazily laid by the side of the water with one eye closed and one eye on the pole.  I watched as the sun began to slip down underneath the haze and atmospheric blanket created by a hungry and growing China.  As I stood up to walk back to campus, the Iron Pagoda's reflection shimmered on the lake and one of the fishermen started to snore.
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Comments on

We must go here together.


Your writing is so fascinating.

njnellie on

You are such a wonderful writer! I love your take on things and get the feeling of being right there with you. I put my first comment in the guest book. Don't know if you saw it yet. Keep em coming!!! Aunt Nell

guavamama on

Re: awesome!
Oh no, I definitely got it, I don't know why it didn't show up. Also, I put your name suggestions on the name list but no one chose them! They chose names like Scott, Tyler and Lilian. LAME. Don't worry though, I still have the freshmen coming and they are young and malleable. Wait, I mean, I'm a great teacher and have the students' best interest at heart.

pluscolter on

love your storytelling
Emily we are enjoying your writing. Thank you for sharing with us.
Ena and John
Glad to see all is going well

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