First Int’l Summit on Laozi & Daoist Culture

Part III A Long, Strange Trip

The First International Summit on Laozi and Daoist Culture held Nov. 5-7 at the China World Hotel in Beijing launched Daoism as an official religion of China. More than 600 Daoist academics and clergy from all over the world attended or made presentations. The current entry is Part III — the tour post-conference. For earlier entries see Part II East/West Divide and Part I PRC Embraces Daoism, below.

Day 1

On Sunday morning, those of us who signed on for the tour offered by the PRC to conference delegates were up early and guided onto three ‘luxury’ buses standing by to take us out of Beijing and deep into Henan province.

Henan is traditionally regarded as the cradle of Chinese civilization.

We were scheduled to go to the Henan capital, Zhengzhou, first. A trip that should take about 8 hours. We were told we would have an arrival banquet and be taken to a hotel to rest. The next day we would make a shorter trip to Laozi’s birthplace. We were scheduled to see Luoyang and the Longmen Grottos — where thousands of Buddhas are carved into the side of a mountain, among other sites, over the next several days.

Excited, we took seats and got acquainted. Most of us were Western professors and Daoists, some were Asian professors and some Chinese Daoist clergy from the conference were also scattered among the three buses. On my bus, in the back, a group formed composed of my Australian friends Stuart and his wife, Lionel, a French Political Sciences professor, a Korean, Vicki, a producer from LA, Gregory and Rita, professors from Calgary, Gregory, a qi gong student and Brit, Kimberly, an American studying in Paris, Jennifer, also an American, but studying Daoism in the US somewhere, Donald, an American professor from Old Dominion and Tantra author Stephan Wik.

Lionel, Vicki, Kimberly, Gregory, Stuart and me in the back of the bus…

It was early morning perhaps 8 am when we began the trip under sunny skies. Things quickly went wrong. The buses were clean and huge and ‘new China’… the traffic however, was definitely ‘old China.’ Within an hour we ran head on into a jam. No motors running. Everyone stopped. No idea what caused the shutdown. But not a thing was moving as far as the eye could see and there were trucks filled with livestock, cars of all sorts, choking the road.

At first we didn’t think much of it. How long could we be here? Traffic has to get moving again. Someone is probably working on it right now, we chattered on. An hour went by; another. Luckily [?] we were stalled right next to a highway convenience store. Some of us got out and walked to stretch our legs and see what there was to see. We were rural now and other than the tie-up, nothing but flat land and winter grass met the eye. I got some hot water for my tea and checked out the store. Not much: instant noodle soups, snacks, dried fruit and other sweet things, some trinkets for strangers–weigouren.

In our traffic jam, other travelling companions… .

It was getting near lunch time, and still no movement in the traffic. We were bonding during the hiatus–although we mostly knew or knew of each other from this conference or earlier Daoist conclaves. We also met some of the folks on the other buses. And we got to know our Chinese ‘handlers.’ Each bus had one or two handlers to ensure we all got on and got off and that no one was left behind or lost. They also provided facts and figures about Henan — as only the Chinese can do — emphasizing how big this province is to the centimeter, how many people, what ethnicities there are, businesses etc. enumerating to the most exacting degree the success, richness and vastness of Henan via a hand held microphone from the front of the bus.

Hunger forced us back into the convenience store. We started to buy up everything: it becoming clear that no one was upset about the stalled traffic and seeing the Chinese at convenient picnic tables, hunkered down over steaming paper bowls of instant noodles in the sharp November air. The store was crowded now, the patrons more desperate. Who knew how long we’d be here? Just as I got to the cashier and paid… sounds of motors erupted and I ran outside. Sure enough they were yelling for me to board. I grabbed my booty and sprinted.

We were off. Within an hour we were back in stalled traffic. This time, however, our driver decided on taking another route, to get us out. We drove over back roads, a convoy of three towering buses, through small towns and even smaller villages. The tops of our buses loomed and threw sunlight over the village walls that lined the narrow roads. We had to turn around at one point because a bridge ahead was too low for us. Our tireless drivers succeeded in backing up for a long, long way on the narrowest country road I’ve ever seen. We ended up circling back through the town center of another village several times as we got lost. Locals scratched their heads and faces as we went by once, twice, thrice. We waved to them. Finally a couple of local police guided us out.

It occurred to us that it is likely that the locals in that town carved our image somewhere — showing three sparkling buses full of Westerners that kept circling in and out of their hamlet one strange Sunday….

Nightfall, and still no idea when we would arrive wherever we were supposed to be. We’d been on the road for about 8 hours and really hadn’t had much of a meal except for snacks. Our handlers just kept telling us we were getting there…we figured we’d stop for dinner. But instead, we got stuck in more traffic.

From somewhere our handlers mercifully pulled out bottles of water and some strange snacks. But we ate most of what they gave us and drank the water. No word on when we’d be at the hotel or whether the ‘arrival banquet’ that was our luncheon, was now a dinner.

More driving, napping on the bus. Cranky. Twelve hours on the bus turned into 16 hours and then 18 hours. At 2 am, our bus pulled up to the hotel. Bleary eyed, strung out from the road and junk food, we tumbled out of the buses and into a brightly lit hotel. Staff cheerfully led us up winding, carpeted stairs to a Mezzanine overlooking the lobby. Our baggage was brought in. We didn’t know where we were going, but we followed the smiling staff, to find ourselves escorted into a banquet room — filled with tables and a podium and officials.

We were stunned. Were we going to eat at 2 am? All anyone could think of doing was getting our hotel room keys and showering and collapsing into anything that wasn’t shaped like a bus seat.

But there were dignitaries, officials, the Mayor of the town, his wife. And food, lots and lots of food. They had been holding the banquet for us all day and all night long. The staff, probably as exhausted as we were, began serving us at 2 am. The Mayor came to every table, offering us a drink and his gratitude for our visit. His aide-de-camp kept saying over and over, looking into our eyes: "xin ku, xin ku le!" what troubles, what hardships you’ve had…

So we stayed, we picked at the 13 or 14 courses brought to the table. Our keys were brought to us by our handlers while we ‘ate.’ Slowly, a few at a time, so as not to be insulting, we began to slip away to our rooms–which were reasonable and inviting. I was in bed by 3:30 am.

Day 2

Up early, breakfast and…. back on the bus. Groaning, we got in. We were told today’s journey would be short, about four hours there and four hours back. We were skeptical, but on we went. Today was to be the visit to Laozi’s hometown.

Now things can get a little sketchy here. Most Western scholars don’t believe Laozi existed. Chinese scholars believe he existed, wrote the famous Daoist text, the Dao De Jing, and celebrate Laozi as the father of Daoism. Some have elevated Laozi to a divine being.

Our group of Western scholars and Daoist adepts were about to visit a town that claimed it was Laozi’s birthplace.

Mercifully, it was about a four hour trip. About half way we were treated to another Chinese banquet in a small town. On the road again and we arrived in the late afternoon to see newly created landscaping and bridges and architecture surrounding an enormous statue of Laozi. The locals were all out too, running, playing, watching the buses roll in and the strangers come out. The rest of the town looked very humble and dusty.

Laozi statue in his "hometown."

No time to explore the statue up close, we were quickly escorted to our luncheon. Another Chinese banquet. A few speeches by the local officials, Mayor, etc. When the luncheon was over, we were just as quickly ushered up three flights of stairs. Confused, we of course did what our handlers told us to do. Apparently we were going to a press conference. On the trip up the stairs, some of us, that hadn’t presented at the conference were asked if they’d like to present something at the conference now. A few said yes.

We all stumbled into a large room. Tables placed in a horse-shoe fashion surrounded a focal table and a podium. All of our names were on placards. Fruit bowls and water and brochures were at each of our seats. My friend, Taoist author Michael Winn and I were seated together. My other bus mates, one of whom sat at the head table in order to present, were scattered elsewhere.

International Summit on Laozi Culture & Health

I looked at the banner over the main table –it was different from the one at our conference in Beijing. The English words were similar, but but the meaning was not the same. This banner emphasized Laozi Culture & Health Care.  I was perplexed. Photographers were everywhere and television cameras flanked the room purring. We were filmed from all sides. I looked at Winn. He grinned. "We’ve been co-opted," I frowned. He grinned some more. I ate a pear.

Daoist Author Michael Winn — Tools of the PRC

Speeches and presentations took about an hour. Gratitude and friendship between East and West. the key point. Lots of pictures and video would show what looked like a Daoist conference being held with foreign professors. The town was officially launching itself as a tourist venue. They were angling for great success.

Ushered back downstairs, we had a short bus trip to the temple of Laozi in the village. The outside of the building looked older than everything else we’d seen here and there were a few other artifacts showing that famous Chinese officials had visited this site over the centuries believing it was connected to Laozi. But nothing that anyone could explain was meant to prove this was indeed Laozi’s birthplace.

Ancient monument showing the visit by an Emporer to this site.

At the temple, we all paid our respects in whatever way we wanted.

Outside the Laozi Temple.

Pictures were taken and then we tried to get back to the small souvenir shop… only to find that it closed minutes earlier, at 5 pm. One of our group bought a bronze Laozi on the back of a Water Buffalo just before they locked the doors. Others of us wondered how successful this place would be as a tourist attraction if the store couldn’t manage to stay open five minutes late in order to take money from several hundred foreigners with full wallets….


Laozi, Father of Daoism

Day 3

Breakfast and a bus trip to Luoyang, the Longmen Grottos. Only three or four hours away. The day was dark and a cold drizzle dampened our moods. We drove for sometime and were taken to yet another Chinese banquet for lunch.

Back on the bus, and in a short time we arrived and were ushered onto a series of golf carts linked together. which took us to Longmen, dragon gate, Grottos — a UNESCO World Heritage site.

White Horse Temple, oldest Buddhist Temple in China, across from the Grottos

We read some English signs informing us about the place and how it came to be — the Yi river cuts between two cliffs. On one side, still operating and visible, China’s oldest Buddhist monastery White Horse Temple, on this side, where we were, facing the monastery, cliffs filled with carvings over a thousand years old.


Carving of a protective spirit in the Grottos

Each carving done by a monk. Each carving done by hand. Sometimes taking longer to produce than the life of the monk who started it. They said if you counted there are over 1,352 caves, 785 niches and more than 97,000 statues of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas and Arhats along the one kilometer cliff. The carvings took over 400 years to produce, beginning during the Northern Wei dynasty (386 – 534).

Buddhas and Saints on every inch…

It was a quiet and reverent place. We walked through, listening to our handlers describe different saints in the Buddhist pantheon and marvelling at the dedication, devotion and skill of the monks handiwork. The defacement that was evident on the carvings was explained euphemistically as being the result of structural changes due to outside forces….

Most famous statue from the Grottos

We rested, talked and relaxed in the cold air. We weren’t afforded too much time so we didn’t scatter. A few souvenir shops were open selling peony stone — black stone with white markings — native only to this part of China — and other carvings, statues and paraphernalia. One offered hot tea or hot water.

Some our of delegates and handlers from the conference at Longmen.

Day 4

Early up and making arrangements to get to the airport. Breakfast with friends. Swapping emails and numbers. They would make another trip today. I would go back to Hangzhou. Couldn’t eat much breakfast, but I shrugged it off. Five or six Chinese banquets in a handful of days would make any anyone skip breakfast.

Plane to Hangzhou and back at home and my last memento from the trip — dysentery.

Days later, I would email the others and discover that nearly 75% of the Westerners also had been afflicted — some to a greater or lesser degree. Many would not be able to make their flights home and have to reschedule. Back in Beijing, they were too ill at the hotel to do anything. Ray Tequia, doctor and presenter at the conference, selflessly ran from room to hotel room, helping first this, then that delegate. For some of us it took weeks to recover fully from our long, strange trip through Henan.


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