After a happy, prolonged period of stabilisation and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in gray, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
I was beginning to think we’d never get to Qufu. The journey from Tai’an was only supposed to take an hour, but our sweatbox of a bus had been stopping at five-minute intervals to pick up the entire province (and their mothers). As a result, the vehicle was now audibly straining under the weight of its occupants and the fans were broken, an experience that was every bit as shitty as it sounds.
Another downside was our moron of a driver; a pubescent rake of a boy dressed in a silly cap and oversized trousers. He had no concept at all of how to appropriately use the brake and honked his way through the entire journey. He honked at other vehicles to tell them to get out of the way. He honked at the people he was about to pick up on the side of the road. He honked at the sun for shining so damn brightly and when there was nothing left to honk about he honked some more just because he could. When we finally honked into Qufu, there was a palpable sense of relief for everyone on board as we oozed out of the bus like molten liquid. “Thank god that’s over!” puffed S.
Located in the walled old town, Qufu International Youth Hostel turned out to be really nice, three dorms and half a dozen well-kept rooms set around a cosy little garden courtyard. S and I grabbed a private double before heading to the common room to chat with the receptionist, a hardworking girl with decent English and a genuine love for being helpful and friendly. “It’s pronounced choo foo,” she told us with a playful wink, “small town, only eighty thousand. Almost everything here is tourism, many Chinese people so crazy for Confucius”.
Good old Confucius was also the reason we’d come to Qufu, to check out his hometown and the plethora of sights in his honor, including The Confucius Temple, The Confucius Mansions and the so-called Confucius Forest. Not that S and I were scholars; in fact beyond the basics – author of classic texts, speaker of wise words – I didn’t know much about him. “He was creator of golden rule”, explained the girl with a proud smile, “Do not do to others what you do not want done to yourself”. She then handed us a town map, helpfully circling the key sights with tips on how to best reach them.
We were studying the map over by the common room sofas when a tall, bald, middle-aged man shuffled over and sat across from us, a self-important sneer pasted across his creased face. He had a fountain pen in one hand, a large leather-bound book in the other which he’d attached to a frayed writing pad with a couple of elastic bands. “Here to join the lines of scurrying rats?” he drawled in a thick Australian accent, exposing an unsightly row of yellowing teeth.
“Uh…” I began, but he wasn’t interested in my answer. “Come… see… take your photographs and leave… learn nothing”. With a sideways glance at me, eyebrows raised, S darted off to reception to chat with the girl and order a pot of green tea. Which left me alone with Lord Pompous; who was now trying to stare me out.
“Oh I’m just jesting,” he chuckled, prizing the pad free and flicking through its scribbled pages. “Well… kind of”. There followed an awkward silence… one that remained until S returned with the tea. “How long are you here for? What length of time have you deemed appropriate to gage a scrap of wisdom from the wisest of Earth’s sages?” “Just a couple of nights” I replied, “after this we’re heading down to Shanghai”. He actually snorted at this, eyes fixed on his book as he sought out the desired chapter. “How about you?” I asked flatly. “I have been here for eighteen months and three days” he said, jotting something down on his pad, “and will remain until my studies are completed”.
As irksome as Australian creature clearly was, I found myself a little intrigued, so we offered him a glass of tea, which he wordlessly accepted, and listened as he talked at us in in his smug, humourless, monotone. He was here to learn about Confucius, he told us, to spread the word of his teachings, to eradicate the ills of the modern world from his body and mind, to reach the state of true enlightenment. “One day”, he said, sipping from his tea, “an ordinary housewife approached Confucius for advice on a private matter that was troubling her greatly. After carefully listening to her story, Confucius thought for a moment before advising her to: Take no notice”. Here the old goat paused to stare at us with diluted eyes, presumably for dramatic effect. “Many years later” he continued, “the housewife was making dinner for her family when she suddenly remembered the words: Take no notice. She froze, dropping a carrot into the broth and realised that she was now enlightened”.
Smiling politely, S and I sat there waiting for more, but after a minute or so I realized the story was finished. And then Confucius groupie got up, cleared his throat, scooped up his stuff and walked off without saying a word. Turning to look at S with a bemused smirk, we did our best not to snigger while he was still within earshot. What exactly had been troubling the woman? What was the meaning of Take No Notice? And how the hell had this led to any kind of enlightenment? Regrettably, the only conclusion I could come to was that Confucius’ wisdom had fallen flat. And that he’d also failed to teach the Australian to say goodnight, or indeed the importance of a simple thank you when someone treats you to a glass of tea.
We’d expected the Confucius sights to be busy, but boy oh boy had we been ill prepared for the circus that awaited us! When we arrived at the ticket office it was absolutely heaving, so there was no choice but to join the long line snaking out of the main courtyard and onto the street where rabid taxi drivers and souvenir sellers aggressively vied for business. Queuing patiently, we eventually got the vouchers needed to access San Kong (三孔), the three hallowed sites. Passing through the turnstiles, we entered the Temple Complex and I Immediately knew we’d underestimated just how vast the place was.
A sixteen thousand square meter area that takes up one fifth of Qufu (!), the leaflet we received with our vouchers informed us that there were four hundred and sixty six buildings; halls and pavilions devoted to Confucius and his many descendants. The approach to the main temple was a pretty one that saw us move through numerous courtyards, with towering trees, stone sculptures and crumbling bridges overlooking algae-infested streams. It was all rather pleasant and, with a little patience, we were able to enjoy some personal space.
But then we got to the temple and suddenly found ourselves stuck in the middle of sixteen million people! Parents yapped at their unruly children while teenage girls took endless photos of themselves with their retched selfie sticks. We found ourselves poked, shoved and knocked as we went, a sense of claustrophobia setting in. What should have been a place of tranquility and reflection had been reduced to nothing short of a Chinese Disney World. The tour groups were the worst; immense blocks of anti-social idiots led around by silly guides with giant flags attached to their backs. Addressing their clients through loudspeakers, they blared out unbroken streams of information at the speed of light; their customers bobbing after them like dumb cattle. I tried to take no notice, but the whole thing was just way too intense and after a brief look inside the temple we hastily exited, deciding to get as far away from them all as we could.
Happily things were more manageable among the mansions and we were able to investigate some of the halls at leisure. In one building there was an elderly gentleman selling traditional Chinese fans. They were handsome, simplistic things so I purchased one, which brought a warm smile out of the old guy. Then, to my delight, he proceeded to decorate it with a handwritten Confucius quote in black ink. Asking me my name, he dipped his calligrapher’s pen back into the pot and wrote Leighton across the breadth of the fan in both English and Chinese before applying his official stamp.
Later, upon entering Confucius forest, it was back to the distastefulness of tourist mania. And for the first time we were seeing plenty of fellow westerners, including a Russian school group of unimpressed-looking teenagers.
The main pathway led to Confucius’ tomb, where the crowds jostled for prime photo-taking positions. With no appetite whatsoever to fight our way to the front, S and I stood surveying the situation. It was then that I noticed the nearby grave of Confucius’ son, a faded grey headstone largely ignored by the salivating masses. Now here were some folk embodying the Take No Notice mantra, but I suspect this wasn’t what Confucius had had in mind.
Moving deeper into the forest, we picked out a quiet looking trail and within ten minutes or so had left everyone behind!!! It was a huge relief; just the two of us, a shit load of trees and the occasional butterfly. Following the track all the way around the complex back to our starting point, we enjoyed over an hour of peace and quiet, a pleasing end to what had been a demanding and tiring day.
Back at the hostel and the girl at reception was keen to hear about our experience, joyfully whooping at the sight of my Confucius-approved fan and nodding politely as we described the day’s frustrations. Tired and hungry, we grabbed a box of pork dumplings at a nearby restaurant and spent the rest of the night chilling out outside our room in the courtyard.
Checking out the following morning, we enjoyed a leisurely breakfast of hostel-cooked omelettes, complimented by a giant watermelon bought from a street vendor across the road. We were just finishing up when the Australian guy appeared with his stationery. Greeting nobody, he settled down on one of the sofas, switched on the TV and sat impassively watching a rubbish martial arts movie. I could have gone over to say goodbye, to wish him all the best with his studies and the rest of his stay in Qufu. But instead I opted to Take No Notice. Even after much refection I’m convinced it was the right thing to do. Who knows, maybe Confucius would have been proud.
By the time our taxi pulled up at Qufu Train Station, what had started as a bit of light rain was now edging into torrential territory. Dashing over to the entrance hall, we were both soaked by the time we got inside. “Oh crap!” said S, gazing up at the departures board, “it’s delayed an hour”. Settling down in one of the rows of hideous-orange plastic chairs, I cast my eyes around the glum hall; perhaps the loosest interpretation of train station I’d ever seen. Sections of the stone floor were shattered and a few of the windows were nothing more than unglazed frames, which meant the slanting rain had actually begun to spray into the hall, dampening people in the first row of seats. Realizing there wasn’t even a vending machine on offer, I fired off a quick prayer to the gods of train departures. But of course the hour came and went with no word, the rain getting heavier and heavier all the while. Peering out at the parking lot, I was discouraged to see that it was already flooded, the water level rising before my eyes as an arriving taxi got stuck halfway across the lot.
By now some of the natives were getting restless; crowding around the guard who stood at the entrance gate to the station’s sole platform. With no way of effectively communicating with anyone, we could only sit patiently and trust that eventually our train would arrive. Another hour had passed when we decided to call our hostel and speak to the girl at reception. Handing my mobile phone to the guard, she conversed with him for a bit before coming back to me with a hugely anti-climactic “there is a delay… you need to wait”. Well, yes.
So wait we did. I listened to a Bob Dylan album (Flood on the tracks?) and S read her book. I got up and walked around the hall, got dripped on from the leaky ceiling and paid a visit to the abysmal toilet. Then I was back with S and was almost falling asleep when there was a garbled announcement followed by a sudden rush towards the platform. So out we went, huddling under a corrugated iron shelter with fifty other frustrated hopefuls, straining our eyes down the track. Ten train-less minutes later, the guard brought out newspapers for those who wanted to sit. Some more time passed, I couldn’t say how long.
“Leighton… wake up!” It was S tugging at my sleeve and through my bleary eyes I could make out two distant headlights coming slowly towards us through the fog. Then its horn sounded out, a triumphant noise that got me up on my feet, securing my backpack and shaking the pins and needles out of my feet. It was late afternoon and the light was already fading. We’d pretty much lost a day but it didn’t matter because we were about to board our train. We were about to get warm and dry. We were going to Shanghai!