China Travel Throwback: The Nun of Guilin

To properly lead up to my exciting trip to Shanxi with China Daily, I’m going to count off some of my favorite China trips so far. Today, it’s the Nun of Guilin, a woman I met while staying in a nunnery outside of the famous karst-filled city. This trip stands out for me, not because of the location per se, but because it marked the first time I went truly off-roads and off-plan, while being swept away into something new.

My initial plan for going to Guilin was to see the karst mountains, the Li River, and then the longji rice terraces. I would have seen them all, no problem, but instead I got sidetracked at a Buddhist nunnery.


I’d just been out hiking and getting thoroughly lost in the back trails of a karst mountain, when I heard the tell-tale amitofo in the distance. A nunnery! I saw other visitors nearby, one a child crying because he burned his finger on spiritual candle wax. A woman working there talked to me for a bit, and then asked if I wanted to stay. I’d never been swept away by locals before, so I declined, and went back to my hostel.

But thoughts of the nunnery lingered.

The next day, I packed my things and went back to see if they’d let me stay. The woman agreed. I’d brought some clothes to donate (including some hotel slippers I’d brought with) and I was led to Shifu, a short, terse-looking woman with a bald head.
She told me many things about the inner workings of the afterlife, most of which I didn’t understand because my Chinese at the time was really limited. I saw how she was totally committed to not killing animals — even mosquitoes! I vowed to do the same.

Until…Later that night, I saw a cockroach, and without thinking, stomped it to death.

So, there’s that.

But the real adventure had not yet begun. See, the reason this trip stands out to me is not so much because of the nunnery, but what happened afterward. The nun was leaving at the same time as me, so we left together. She was meeting a friend who would show her some temples she could stay in. I tagged along for all of this, ultimately ending up in the backroads of Guilin, walking along thin muddy trails behind a nun.

**side note: locals couldn’t decide who to stare at more: the foreigner, or the nun? Too much stimulation!

Her friend, a very smarmy, non-Buddhist Buddhist led Shifu to a horrible dump of a temple. Hole in the ground for a toilet. A hose for a sink. Seriously? Yes. He said they could charge parishioners to foot the bill of repairs. Shifu was having exactly none of it. I stood in the back, thinking “Oh snap!” the whole time while she swirled her robes over the tall grass and told me we should go.

We ended up spending the night in a crappy motel in Guilin, the nun sometimes forgetting that I, unlike her, needed to eat more than twice a day. I initially had been thinking I could dash off to the rice terraces, but in the end, spent the day with Shifu, not-so-much understanding the cosmic dimensions of her belief system, though giving her the benefit of the doubt that they were deep nonetheless.

Stay tuned for my LAST China Travel Throwback: Yunnan. Or, the first time I truly traveled alone.


To be a monk

According to a Buddhist novice whose English name was “Boy,” the criteria for being a monk is not so bad.

“One: You must be 20 years old,” he said, watching with fascination as I wrote it down in my little notebook.  “Two: Your family will always support you.  Three:  You are a man.”

“Well, you have that one taken care of, I think,” I said.  

“Yes, yes.  Four: You must be human.”


“Yes, you must be a human.  Five…” he looked at his novice friend for translation help.  They muttered some things in Thai.  “You also must not be crazy…you understand?”

“Yes, I understand.”  (And secretly I thought that even if I was a human man, I may not fit the “not crazy” category).  “What else?”

“You must have the orange robes and a bowl.”


And he smiled, telling me more about Buddhism, and how he could choose when he turned 20 whether he would be a monk.  He said he might, or he might open a restaurant instead.  

“What about when you’re a monk?” I asked.  “How do you be a monk?”

And he said something about rules, and when I asked more, he said “As a novice, we have 10 rules to follow.  As a monk, there would be 227 rules.”

Yeah, I might go with the restaurant.

The Verb

I like to think that I could be Buddhist.  The ideas appeal to me, and there are certain phrases like “live in the moment” that strike a chord.  Do not kill, be kind to one another–these are things I agree with.  It could fit, right?
So when I go to temples or monasteries, I almost feel like I’m “in the know.”  Like, I’m aware of what they’re trying to say and could probably say it myself if given enough time and intelligence to think about it.
This morning, Maeva and I decided to join in the walk around the monastery.  It’s about 3km, and takes walkers past prayer wheels, monks-in-training, and all of the sights we’d later be seeing in an afternoon tour of the monastery.  I thought “yeah, symbolism, I get it” as we entered.  But as it turned out, I had no idea.
For one, prayer wheels.
Prayer wheels.
Prayer wheels.
They’re like wooden spindles set up in rows, painted in faded red with designs on them.  Underneath are structures that resemble wooden plates and along the sides wooden bars.  As we walked, the we reached out and spun the wheels.  Touching them somewhere, keeping the energy going in our clockwise circumnavigation of the monastery.
“Damn!” I thought as my fingers rammed into the wooden handle of the prayer wheel.  I reached out for the plate on the bottom which slid past my fingers, hardly touching.  We’d go down the rows, then enter smaller rooms with more prayer wheels, Tibetans humming and chanting as they fingered the relics up close.
It wasn’t a walk for the Buddhist elite, either.  Old women, crippled men on crutches, children kowtowing every other step with fingers caked in chalk and scrapes, stringy men lying face-flat in the dirt to bow.  Followers bumping heads against the brick walls, near-invalids bent over along the path.  They touched as many prayer wheels as they could, with the creaking and squeaking that comes from constant use.
A walk for anyone willing to walk.
A walk for anyone willing to walk.
We were walking, turning, pressing fingers into wood, going in circles.  In constant motion.  It didn’t matter what ideals I had, or how I interpreted certain pictures or not.  This was about Buddhism the verb, not Buddhism the noun.
As I walked, seeing the movement and the absolute sacrifice of body and soul that went into this sect of Buddhism, it got me thinking.  I’m not going to be a vegetarian.  I’m not as generous as I ought to be.  I’m not willing to give up earthly pleasures just yet.  I kill mosquitos.
I could stick with the Buddhism-the-noun ideas that I like and gloss over the rest.  I could say “close enough” and live in a half-world full of things I’ve specifically picked and chosen for myself.  But I have to be honest.  That’s not Buddhist.  Nor am I.
Because as I watched Buddhism-the-verb unfold, it struck me that perhaps religion isn’t meant to be convenient, or “whatever suits the life you currently live.”  There ought to be sacrifice.  There ought to be some kind of effort that goes into it.  There needs to be intent and sincerity.  There needs to be verb.  
So as we rounded the final bend of the walk, I felt an almost-release.  I am not many things.  All I am is someone turning my own wheels, thinking, and ready for the day that I’m ready to verb, whatever that means.

Buddhist on the town

Smarmy Buddhist Guy spared quite a lot of expenses when finding us a hotel for the night.  It was in the small neighborhood right by the train station, and it had the kind of toilets that didn’t flush, but had to have water dumped in to fix it.  The walls were smeared with dirt and the wafer-thin walls echoed every passerby as they commented on how much money they spent on food that day. 

We were here because Shifu wanted a hotel closer to the bus station for me to get to the rice terraces the next day.  And I was with her because it wouldn’t be Buddhist to go to the wedding with SBG, and even though it was very obvious that I knew basically nothing about Buddhism prior to the nunnery, she still introduced me as “a child who learns very quickly.”

SBG left with a huge grin and told me to call him the next time I was in Guilin “and maybe you could teach my son English!” I said some noncommittal things and watched him drive away in his shiny back car.  Then I went back to the “let’s not think too hard about that blanket on the bed” room to unpack a bit.   

After a while, there was a knock on the door and a small “Amitofo…” from the other side.  I’d been putting my jacket on to go about Guilin for dinner and Shifu looked at my jacket in confusion.  “Oh, yeah, I forgot that you eat dinner” Shifu said when I told her my intentions.  And she went back to her own room to get her robes and come with.   

In fact, Shifu does not eat dinner, only breakfast and lunch, but when it came to eating food, I still looked for vegetarian options.  There was a lot of hot pot, and when we went to order food, Shifu waved her hands in front of her face to dissipate the smell of meat muttering “Amitofo, Amitofo, Amitofo…”  I got a dish of sliced potatoes, and while it’s impressive that cooks can cut them so small, it became a culinary hurdle as Shifu made sure I ate every last scrap of food. 

“There’s still a piece of potato,” she said.

I clunked my chopsticks trying to grasp it, and she just laughed until I got it by dragging it along my bowl for a while, then saying “Very good!”

I went to pay for the meal, and the waiter gave me the rice for free, due to nun-proximity.  Then we went to bed in our crappy motel, me plotting how I’d get to the rice terraces, which was the main reason I’d come to the Guilin area in the first place.  I saw the picture, thought “I want to go to there,” and then went. 

I’ll just go ahead and say that I didn’t end up at the rice terraces.  Because it would have involved almost 6 hours in total by bus for probably less than 3-4 hours at the terraces.  And I guess after all the time I’d spent hanging out with Shifu, it seemed a little shallow to then say “Check, and now I’m off to see another landmark.”  Not to mention that I there was some much-needed reflection/coffee time.  So I decided to hang out in Guilin—to do what I do best, which is wander and see interesting stuff, and then weird stuff, and then marvel at how great it is to not make much sense of the world sometimes. 

But before that, I had to say goodbye to Shifu. 

A part of me thought it was going to be really emotional, but if there’s anything I’ve learned about Chinese goodbyes, it’s that they’re pretty abrupt. 

“I’m going to get my own train ticket now back to Beijing,” Shifu said.

“Okay.”  And I started to walk over to the train station with her.

“I’ll get them myself, it’s okay.”  And then she gave me a little bow, palms pressed together, and disappeared in the throng of holiday travelers cramming into trains going every direction the tracks could take them. 

And that was it.

Later, as I was on my own train (17 hours hard seat—OH BABY!), two girls across from me gushed about the rice terraces, saying that it was the most beautiful place in all of China.  (“They are the best things I have seen so far!”)  The person next to me raved about a bamboo raft-ride he’d taken with his friends and how relaxing and gorgeous the iconic Li River is.  (“It’s just something you have to do once in your life, you know?”)  And they all talked about the admission tickets, the sights, and everything that was Guilin/Yangshuo in a nutshell.

And me? 

I thought of the almost imperial swish of Shifu’s robes as we walked together through the bus station, the embarrassed laugh when we found that we were trapped behind the metal gates and how she’d muttered “Amitofo…” as we inched along the periphery to find out ways out and into the bustling world of Guilin. 

The foreigner and the nun

As we walked down the street, Shifu asked for directions with an “Amitofu, ni hao” and for once in my life here at China, more people stared at her than at me. 

And why not?  It’s rare to see a foreigner.  Even rarer to see a nun.  And then to see them together, well.  A feast for the eyes. 

I don’t remember much about the bus ride to Guilin since there was a children’s movie on about a magical alien that granted wishes and subsequently ate a factory’s pollution and died.  But we got there, that’s all that mattered.  And then Shifu turned to me and said “Want to get lunch?  My treat.”  I tried to dissuade her from treating me, but there’s no arguing with a nun.  Feels wrong. 

She was waiting for a friend to come meet her and show her a potential temple to stay in for a few nights, and I guess when she said he was Buddhist, I was picturing much the same as her: grey and white robes, shaved head, bows with “Amitofu” in the greeting. 

As it turns out, her friend (who I will refer to as “Smarmy Buddhist Guy”) is a very different kind of Buddhist.  Smarmy Buddhist Guy had a nice gold watch, a comically large touch-screen phone, nice shoes, and was definitely smoking the whole time we were with him.  He was on his way to a wedding that night, and as it turned out, it was in Longshen, which was right by the rice terraces that I’d planned on visiting that day and staying for the night. 

“Why don’t you come with, and then he will take you to Longshen?” Shifu asked.

“Uh, I should probably catch the bus…”
“No no no!  Come with!  We’ll stop by the temple, and then go to Longshen!”


So we all got into Smarmy Buddhist Guy’s car.  Not 10 minutes into the ride, SBG invited me to the wedding, saying that since we were friends, I could probably just show up anyways.  And we drove way out into the countryside of Guilin.  I mean, WAY out, where the roads thinned so much that only one car could go through at a time, where cattle lumbered through the fields, where men walked around in flip-flops, and where the car got stopped at one point because there were people chucking bricks out the back of a truck.  And then the one guy on the side of the road clutching a snake like it was a toy. 

SBG was in a hurry to show her the temple, and so once the roads were cleared, we drove on, beyond mountains, way out until the rice paddies reflected the sky like a green and silver quilt.  All along the way, he talked about how great this temple was “With a room, a kitchen, a bathroom, a spare room, a school…”

What it actually was: a dump.  The temple was in a cave, which was cool, but it was dripping all over and the “rooms” were nothing more than wooden platforms so rickety I swear if we exhaled too much, they’d collapse.  The kitchen was just a water pump, the bathrooms were outdoor holes, and the school was actually okay, but not open for use. 

SBG turned around and gestured to Shifu with a broad smile.  “What do you think?”
“I can’t live here.”

And then, the negotiations began to try and convince this nun to live there and pretend that it was an awesome idea.

“Oh, it’s not so great now, but just wait three months!  Then we’ll have fixed it up so much!”

“I can’t live here.  Are you kidding me?”
“We just need more money!  We could charge people to come see you, and then we’d have enough money to fix the place more!”

And I was lurking in the back as village boys on bikes lurked in the trees to stare at the foreigner, thinking “OH SNAP YOU DID NOT JUST SAY THAT TO A NUN!” 

This went on for a while, Shifu holding her ground.  I was amazed at how clueless SBG really was, and even as we trekked back to the car, mud now all over Shifu’s slippers, distaste apparent at the villagers electrocuting fish in the rice paddies for dinner, he was still trying to convince her to take the temple offer.  He drove us to his house, brewed us expensive tea, and yammered on about the great potential of this temple, Shifu sort of nodding, but not really listening anymore.  SBG proudly showed us through his workshop where he carved figures out of wood.  I almost burst out laughing when I realized that, of all trades, this guy’s calling was chopping down trees and shaving them down to make other things.  Oh, Smarmy Buddhist Guy. 

Well, I did not end up at this Buddhist wedding, since Shifu told me, as SBG went out to get something, “This wedding is a bad idea.  There will be alcohol, smoking, and things that a Buddhist should not be involved in,” which I take to be the closest she can ever get to insulting SBG.    

“That’s okay.”

“Can you go to the rice terraces tomorrow?”

What choice did I have?  I said “okay” and soon SBG came back to drive us to a crappy motel to crash for the night.  And so I hit the town with a nun in a run-down motel. 

To be continued. 

Get me to a Nunnery

My red bag was full of offerings: a sweater, pajama pants, sunflower seeds, and slippers.  I’d asked the ludicrous question already and was now awaiting the verdict.  And I was also watching a British child try not to cry when he burnt his thumb on incense.

The scene: a Buddhist nunnery off in the forest along the Li River, which is the same gorgeous landscape printed on the back of 20 yuan notes.  It wasn’t a place I’d found on my own, but had read about in the hostel’s “things to do in Yangshuo” guide that also boasted its wood-fired pizzas.  Of course, the guide had only talked about a visit.  Not what I was trying to do, which was stick around a bit longer.

One of the nuns came back (I’ll call her Shifu from now on) in her white clothes and silent slippers.  “It’s okay, follow me.”  And she led me, the galumphing foreigner in hiking boots up the stony stairs to where the rooms were.  I was to stay in a small room next to hers with a surprising stack of blankets and nothing else for the night.  Why?  Because I’d shown up at their doors earlier that day and asked.  And also because China, that’s why.

She showed me her own room which was simple—only her bag, some books on the table, her prayer beads, and then a small clock on her desk.  She was telling me a lot about Buddhism, but I didn’t understand much.  Which had everything to do with the fact that she was talking about the inner workings of the afterlife to a person whose Chinese struggles with baby books.  I rolled each bead on the prayer bead necklace and tried very hard to suddenly understand Chinese so I could be a part of her world.  She laughed and said I looked tired.  So I went back to my room.

Water dripped from the stalactites outside of the rooms as I practiced the prayer beads.  “I can do this,” I thought.  “I can be Buddhist.”  Then a beetle scuttled across the floor and before I even thought about it, I went “Ew!” and stomped on it.

“Damn it…” I hissed at the big black smear on the floor—the damning evidence that I was no better than the child who burnt his thumb.  Shifu had seriously just told me that Buddhists loved all creatures and didn’t harm anything.  I was also still in a sacred place and there—there on the floor was the smear of good intentions gone horribly wrong.  I wrung my hands and hoped that she wouldn’t choose this moment to see how I was doing.  Then, I did what any grown up person would do.  I pulled out a Kleenex and scraped the beetle carcass off the floor before anyone saw.  I destroyed the evidence by cramming this creature into my backpack and went on as if nothing happened.  “I am totally going to get reincarnated as a damn beetle, I just know it,” I thought and went to bed trying to love all of the bugs and mosquitos sneaking in the room.

I woke up the next morning at 5:40 to hear wooden blocks and chanting.  By the time I reached the main rooms, it had gone quiet again, and I was afraid that I’d missed something.  I was about to peek in, when one of the workers saw me and just sort of shook her head.  Then I remembered: Ah, yes.  Meditation.  Not really a group endeavor.  So I went out front to look at the river and think about how strange life can be sometimes and how, as soon as I was done with breakfast, I’d be out and back on the road to Guilin—my ultimate goal to see the Longji Rice Terraces.  I was already picturing myself sipping coffee and processing it all on my own when Shifu found me by the bank of the river and beckoned me over to wash my face and brush my teeth.

“Right after breakfast, we will be on the road.  I’m also leaving for Guilin today.”

“You’re leaving, too?”

“Yes, I’m from Wu Tai Shan, and will be returning home.”

“Oh, okay.”  

“So, we can journey together, okay?”

“Okay.  Yes.”

And so as we finished the breakfast soup/crackers that resembled cocoa puffs in milk for too long, and as my mind stumbled over itself in horrible jokes like “There’s no running a-monk in this place!” we made our ways to a rickety three-wheeled cart that banged and swayed down the road to Yangshuo, last stop Guilin.

‘It’s okay,’ I thought.  ‘I’ll be on my own in Guilin and will find a nice coffee place to think about all of this.’

Little did I know, the adventure was just beginning.

To be continued