When Granny opens her eyes after sleeping the whole way from Moscow to Beijing, she gets but a quick glimpse of the Forbidden City before the plane slowly circles and prepares for landing at Beijing Capital International Airport.
After taking a crowded train and a cycle rickshaw from the station and into the countryside, she is dropped off at the base of a winding path disappearing into the forest.
‘Kao-Lin Academy of Martial Arts.’ The driver gestures towards a cluster of brown traditional buildings high up on the mountainside, the sweeping gabled roofs hidden in the mist from a nearby waterfall. Or could it be clouds? Granny hopes not. From the look of it, there’s no lift or mechanical aid whatsoever to get up there. Just her old legs.
Granny opens her little Chinese travel guide and pronounces painstakingly the Chinese words for “How much”, ‘Dor sheow chen?’
The driver looks at her with a blank stare. He reaches out his hand, repeating ‘Sìbǎi. Sìbǎi.’
‘I don’t understand.’ She leafs through the little book. ‘Wore ting boo dong.’
‘Four hundred Chinese Yuan. Four Hundred.’ He accentuates what he’s saying, waving four fingers under her nose.
She fumbles through the multicolored banknotes, fishing up four pink ones with the round face of Mao solemnly staring and hands them over. She watches the rickshaw rapidly descend the steep hill with the whooping driver. She has a slight feeling she paid him too much… Frowning, she takes her little suitcase and starts on the long winding trek up to the school.
Out of breath she reaches the base of the stairs. An information board is displaying different activities and rules. Granny approaches, letting out a sigh of relief when she finds everything is translated. She chuckles at some rather peculiar sentences, thinking they must have used the application “Google translation” that Taïga talked about the other day.
‘Let’s take a look at the timetable : Mental discipline… martial arts… mental discipline… jiu-jitsu… mental discipline… tae-kwando… mental discipline… judo… mental discipline… karate… mental discipline… sumo… mental dis -hang on!?! Sumo? SUMO!?! No way will I let my granddaughter study “sumo”… Hmpff… Sumo…’
She struggles up the many stairs, pausing ever so often to recuperate and admire the view of the Chinese countryside. She turns a corner and catches her breath at the sight of what must be the Forbidden City in the pristine morning air. She decides that she absolutely must visit, even if it implies she has to walk – no, climb – back up here again.
She slumps down on a bench at the top of the stairs, closing her eyes and gasping for breath. She has lost the extra weight by dieting, but she seems to have lost her physical condition as well. She opens her eyes and looks around her. Even up close the school is magnificent, pure lines and a garden that inspires both spiritual peace and discipline. And the silence is overwhelming but ideal for meditating. She can’t remember when her own life was just as silent.
Her stomach growls, and she digs for her last Mars bar in her purse. The platform vendors at the train station had bombarded her with cries selling their local specialties which had seemed to consist of various fried or barbecued bugs, scorpions and larvae. She asked for the famous duck’s neck that her travel guide warmly recommended as painstakingly cooked and extremely tasty, but when she examined the dish, she wasn’t sure if it were duck’s necks or some unknown animal’s private parts. Hence the Mars bars.
She wonders if sumo was on the schedule when Missy studied here. She adds evilly that it was probably the only subject her sister excelled in. She takes the last bite of the half melted chocolate bar and chuckles under her breath.
‘Honorable Madam Grey?’
Granny stops guffawing and startled she looks up at a young Chinese woman in in a modern sleeveless turtleneck and a slim beige skirt that stops level with her knees. Her hair is pulled back from her pretty face in a severe bun held in place with what looks like two chop sticks.
‘Yes. Err…?’ She stumbles to her feet and reaches out her hand, but the woman just bows deeply, so Granny does the same.
‘I am the humble assistant to the director, Hui Young Kim.’ She bows again, and so does Granny. ‘Follow me, please.’ She adds in a melodious voice, with hardly any accent, ‘We were expecting you one hour ago, Honorable visitor.’
‘The journey here took longer than I expected. Especially the last mile or so…’ She follows the young through a corridor that opens up on a terrace overlooking a small garden. She can hear water pouring in the background, but it’s difficult to situate the source. There are some martial arts devices and a young woman is sparring against one of them.
‘Liu Liu – she is our Kung Fu master.’
Granny throws a last glance at the training woman and follows Hui Young Kim into the office which opens up towards the mountainside.
Granny has brought all the paperwork demanded and the young official enters the data on a computer, her fingers rapidly moving over the keyboard. When she has finished, she turns the screen slightly towards the old lady so she can see it. ‘Everything seems to be in order, Honorable Madam Grey… We always have room for an A-student.’ She smiles. ‘Do you have an email address?’
‘No. I prefer the old fashioned way – on paper, please. And I have a question about the schedule. There was one pinned to the board at the entrance.’
‘Oh, that is the special schedule for martial arts students. Your daughter will of course try out the different combat sports our academy excels in, but she will have math and history just like any other European student. Now, if you will excuse me, Honorable Visitor Grey, I have to go and get your paper file – the printer is just down the hall. I won’t be a minute.’
Granny nods. A few minutes later, she has all the information needed – on paper.
‘Now let me show you the installations and your room. Our humble school has wonderful accommodations – identical to the room your granddaughter will have,’ she adds efficiently.
Granny pushes back her chair, but remembers something and sits down again. ‘I’ll be delighted to visit your, err… humble school, Miss Young Kim. But could I ask you if there’s a way to visit the Forbidden City?’
‘There are sightseeing tours leaving every hour from the market place. I can reserve tickets, and tonight there is also a special performance of “The Old 12 Girls Band”.’ She smiles encouragingly at Granny, who fumbles for her purse.
Absentmindedly she listens to the enthusiastic young woman shower her in information.
‘Zijin Cheng -The Forbidden City- was home to the Celestial Emperor from the Ming Dynasty to…’
‘… gilded lions guard the entrance…’
‘… political and ceremonial center of China for 500 years…’
‘… the Palace Museum with famous artifacts such as the masks from the Sanxingdui civilization…‘
‘… 14 million visitors every year…’
Hui Young Kim hands Granny a map, where she has deftly marked the different interesting places with a cross while she continued her descriptions.
‘You can also take a rickshaw, maybe it’s better than trekking or pedaling…’ She looks Granny over, deciding she’s too old to go all the way up to the Temple of Heaven by her own means.
‘Shing Hong is an honest man, and his cycle rickshaw is very modern. He will take you on the most picturesque sightseeing tour, all the way to the Dragon Springs. His father Chen will then take you back to the Forbidden City on his traditional “hongtou” sampan.’ She nods encouragingly. ‘It will be memorable! Only 400 Chinese Yuans-’
‘Yes, it might seem expensive, but you will see – Shing Hong will give you the worth of your money. It would be good to add 50 for the boat ride and a little tip for the Hong’s. Shing Hong will even take you to the Great Wall of China. You will see, it is magnificent! May I suggest you bring an umbrella, we are expecting rain.’
Granny nods. 400 Yuans. If she sets eyes on the thief of a rickshaw driver again she will definitely transform him into something unpleasant…
‘Honorable Madam Grey?’
‘Err… Yes. It seems perfect. I’ll let you make the arrangements… Will I be back in time to change before the show?’
‘Oh, yes. It will not start until sunset. My sister Sun and I will sing and play the erhu.’
‘Erhu? Err… It sounds interesting.’
‘It is an ancestral two-stringed instrument. The characteristic sound is due to the Python skin. Very beautiful.’
Granny pays and pushes back her chair. ‘You’ve been most helpful, Miss Young Kim. It will be a pleasure to listen to you and your sister tonight.’
After visiting the school and being introduced to the Director, Granny takes a quick shower and heads out for an afternoon of sightseeing.
Hui Young Kim has made the necessary arrangements, and a man is waiting at the base of the stairs with a rickshaw. He takes her on a bumpy ride down the winding path and Granny has to hold on with both hands not to fall out of the jolting vehicle. She wonders if it had not been better to walk down to the road as when she got here.
As soon as they reach the dirt track, the ride is smoother. Shing Hong points out interesting views and explains in an accented English what she is seeing, encouraging her to step out and take photos, but Granny prefers staying in the rickshaw.
Shing Hong stops on the bridge over the canal separating the Forbidden City from the town.
‘I can’t take you farther, Honorable Madam Grey. I will wait for you at the main entrance.’ He gestures vagely.
Granny steps out of the Rickshaw and fumbles for her camera in her backpack. The color of the wall surrounding the Forbidden City is wonderful and she tries to capture the warm glow of the red brick with her camera.
Shing Hong offers to take a picture of her. ‘A nice souvenir, Honorable Madam Grey.’
She can’t refuse and poses awkwardly with the wall behind her.
She hesitates under the huge three-arched gateway. If she had lived during the Ming dynasty, she would have had to use one of the smaller portals as the huge central one was for important people only. She lifts her chin and resolutely uses the middle arch to gain entrance into the Forbidden City.
She walks briskly towards the huge main building, realizing it is farther than she would have thought at first view.
Shing Hong has stopped a lot during their way to the Forbidden City so when she finally reaches the emperor’s Hall of Supreme Harmony, the sightseeing tour is already under way and she is refused access to the palace. Seething she ambles around the gardens as she has to make do with taking pictures of the remarkable exterior.
Shing Hong is waiting for her just outside the main entrance. He helps her into the rickshaw, then he pedals away from the Forbidden City. Granny turns on her seat, taking a last picture of the immense gateway.
He takes her to the Dragon Springs on small winding roads through the vast forest. Granny forgets about her bad mood. She enjoys the picturesque scenery and furiously clicks away with her old camera. They cross a quaint village built on the hillside. The low buildings are mounted with heavy ceramic tiled roofs with wide eaves and particular upturned corners.
When she wonders about the architecture, Shing Hong explains that the houses are built to survive the frequent natural disasters; typhoons, earthquakes and floods. And if they were destroyed, the structures are made to be rebuilt quick and easy.
Granny nods to herself, taking pictures. She has trouble imagining this graceful landscape as being dangerous.
They cross the river several times on old stone bridges. Suddenly she catches sight of an elegant temple in the distance.
‘The Temple of Heaven,’ Shing Hong puffs, striving up the slope. ‘First wall, then temple.’
She eats with Shing Hong in the afternoon in a little restaurant close to the great wall. They have Dim Sum and Shing Hong teaches her how to correctly hold the chop sticks. She buys some cinnamon flavored banana rolls to share later. Poor Shing Hong must need sugar to keep up pedaling up and down the hills.
As promised they stop by the Temple of Heaven. The daunting but graceful structure is surrounded by gardens that peacefully blend into the natural scenery. Granny is hesitant to visit, but Shing Hong insists on accompanying her all the way up to the top.
She doesn’t regret the strain of mounting the innumerable stairs. When she panting steps out onto a little balcony, a view that literally catches her breath opens at her feet. The foggy mountains are colored a faint pink, promising a spectacular sunset a little later. Granny sighs and looks around for somewhere to sit, but Shing Hong pulls at her arm.
‘Time to leave, Honorable Madam Grey. My father is waiting.’
They ride through the darkening forest, towards the sound of a waterfall.
A fortress like stone building with gleaming copper dragons on the roof is situated by a lake covered in lily pads. Shing Hong steers clear of the maleficent looking edifice, discreetly doing a sign to protect himself from evil.
‘What is this building? Some kind of castle?’
Shing Hong nods. ‘The Castle of the Wizard. The Emperor’s personal magician lived here. Very evil.’
Granny’s curiosity is awoken, but her guide only shakes his head, feigning incomprehension. ‘Look. My Honorable Father, Chen Hong.’ He points to the opposite side of the lake where an old man is waiting for them on a Sampan.
Granny gets on the traditional flat bottomed boat, taking a seat at the prow to get the best view for taking pictures. Shing Hong and his father loads the Rickshaw in the middle of the boat before pushing out from the shore. It is a nice change from the hustling of the rickshaw to gently float down the river in silence, the only sound the faint splashing of the pole propelling the boat forward. She can see the Sampan is equipped with an outboard motor, but Shing Hong’s father prefers using the traditional “yuloh”.
She can see fish moving right in front of the boat, and she leans over to take a picture of the gleaming golden creatures. Suddenly a huge fish colored like a Native American horse in white and goldish red jumps out of the water, splashing her camera. She swears and tries to dry it off with her skirt, irritated at the men laughing.
The old man says something in Chinese, and Granny tries not to look at him, feeling clumsy and stupid.
‘It’s a good omen, Honorable Madam Grey,’ Shing translates.
‘I can think of better omens than drenching a completely useful camera,’ she mutters to herself, forcing a smile but wondering if the precious object is broken.
‘Red koi is the matriarchal koi,’ Shing continues. ‘It represents strength and power.’
Granny smiles again, genuinely this time. Old Chen says something more.
‘My Honorable Father will now tell you the legend about the waterfall,’ Shing translates. ‘Once upon a time, many golden koi swam upstream the Yellow river. They fought against the current, getting stronger and stronger, glittering in the water. But when they reached a waterfall, many of them turned and were carried away by the powerful river.
The remaining koi were strong and refused to give up. They jumped and leapt through the air in their attempt to reach the top of the waterfall. Their vain attempts draw attention to themselves and demons laughed at them. They heightened the waterfall out of malice, letting the koi, to no avail, continue trying for a hundred years. One koi was more perseverant and determined than all the others. It finally succeeded and the Gods turned it into the image of power and strength – a golden dragon!’
Granny looks at the glittering fish in the water. Then she turns to Shing and asks him, ‘Would your Honorable Father know more about the Emperor’s magician?’
Shing shakes his head and glares at her, talking rapidly in Chinese to his father. The old man spits in the water and does the same sign as Shing to protect against evil.
They finish the boat ride in silence.
It’s an exhausted Granny who stumbles to bed late that night after day filled with emotions. She pushes at the thick but firm mattress with her hand, thinking that it feels like it’s stuffed with stones. She chuckles. It’s probably part of some asceticism leading you to higher enlightenment or something else in line with the teachings of the Academy.
She had tried to ask some people she met at the concert about the dark castle, but either the people didn’t know what she was talking about, or they reacted as the Hong’s. A mystery, indeed. But she is decidedly too tired to solve it tonight.
The journey to Egypt will be quite strenuous. She has to get to Beijing to take her flight, but has decided against using the same transportation as to get here. She’ll splurge on a taxi the whole way, even if she has to conjure up money that will disappear after a few hours. She mustn’t feel guilty, the taxi driver is probably some cousin to the rickshaw driver who cheated her upon arrival anyway. And you can’t really expect someone to start on a twenty hour flight, with two stop-overs after sharing their seat with a goat or something just as smelly, can you? No. Thought so.
She sets the alarm clock even though she thinks that she probably won’t be able to get much sleep on the hard mattress. If ever Taïga will boarder at the Kao-Lin Academy, she will shake up the extra funds so she won’t have to make the strenuous journey out to the country-side again. Taïga will do the travelling and spend the holidays with her in Beijing…
When the plane takes off in the afternoon the day after, Granny watches in wonder how tiny the Temple of Heaven seems from above. Satisfied that she took so many pictures, she unfastens her seatbelt and reclines her seat, making the people behind her pester. She doesn’t care. She has paid good money for her seat and she’s tired after tossing and turning the whole night. She’ll arrive in Guangzhou in about three hours for a two hour stop and change from China Eastern Airlines to Egypt Air. She wonders if she’ll have the time to buy some tax free tea…
She catches a last glimpse of the Great Wall of China before the view is hidden by the clouds, and she drifts off to sleep, ignoring the “fasten seatbelts sign” blinking above and the angry couple behind…
Part I – End of Chapter 29