Beijing: "Le Retour"

Le Retour

People's Republic of China
January 29, 2008

Dear Family and Friends,

When I was a boy, one of my favorite piano works was a set of short studies called "Twenty Five Progressive Pieces," the Opus 100 of Johann Friedrich Burgmuller. I played all the pieces, including the vigorous "Arabesque," Barcarolle" and "Tarantelle," and the melodic and lyrical "Innocence," "Pastorale" and "Tendre Fleur." One piece had a lasting impression. It is called "Le Retour" or "The Return."

"Le Retour" is written in a short sonata form. One theme is introduced and then repeated; then another is played and repeated. The piece closes with the original graceful theme that is both melancholy and hopeful.

Like "Le Retour," my return to Beijing is a little sad but filled with the expectation that the final days of this trip will repeat the vigorous and melodic themes of my initial visit.


The opening theme is "Quiet Temples."

The White Clouds Temple was founded in 739 CE and is China's largest Daoist shrine and home to Daoist Monks - their long hair tied in distinctive topknots. The large traditional halls are the Hall of the Tutelary God, The Hall of Ancient Disciples, The Hall of Wealth (pray for success) and the Hall of Medicine (pray for good health). I was happy to find a wall with carvings of the twelve signs of the Chinese Zodiac. I am a Dragon. And you? A Rabbit? A Snake? A Rat?

I missed the Fayuan Temple, the Dongyue Temple and the Cow Street Mosque so I have plenty to see the next time.

The second theme of my trip is "The Hills of the Countryside." And what a beautiful day it was as we drove through the jagged mountains and crossed the frozen streams that surround Beijing.

The first stop, the enormous Tanzhe Temple dates back to the 3rd Century CE, and has a splendid mountainside setting. Up and up I walk to visit the hillside temples that are shaded by trees so ancient and gangly that they are supported by long metal props.

The most fascinating sight is the Stupa Forest that lies hidden in the nearby foliage. The entrance was closed so I jumped the wall to explore this marvelous collection of towering burial places for renowned monks. The earliest stupas date from 1115-1234.

Nearby is the Jietai Temple, founded in 622 CE, and dotted with ancient pine trees. The halls are filled with golden Buddha images and the courtyards have several cheerful sculptures.

Situated on a steep mountainside sits the tiny village of Chuandixia (Under the River). From the top of a hill I look down over this crumbling and charming hamlet of Ming and Qing dynasty architecture. With a population of seventy, it is a picturesque scene of courtyard homes and rural buildings that are interconnected by narrow lanes. There are several small restaurants and a few almost-modern guesthouses. Return I must. Could be fun!

The third theme is a true "return" and a promise kept – "Le Retour a la Grande Muraille."

By taxi, bus, and minivan and finally a scary, ten minute ride in a chairlift, high, and I mean high above the valley below, I reach the section of The Great Wall called Mitianyu. There are almost no other visitors here so I have The Wall to myself.

What a spot! What scenery! What a climb! I counted more than 1200 steps going up and then down again as The Wall snakes it way to follow the contours of the steep mountainsides.

Please visit China. Please come to see this wonderful site. If you have been here before, why not return?


"Mes nouveaux amis" is my closing theme.

To all my new friends, "Thank you."

Thank you to my drivers. You were patient and tolerant and helpful. Without you, my trips would have been colorful, but not as comfortable.

Thank you, Jenny. The Terra Cotta Warriors would have been formidable, but not as charming.

Thank you, Sandy and Bill. Xi`an would have been impressive but not as inviting.

Thank you, Zhu Zhu. Luoyang would have been exciting but not as gracious.

Thank you, Angel. Beijing would have been efficient, but not as welcoming.

To my own Gang of Four in Beijing, "Thank you."

Thank you, Jasmine. Tian'an Men, the Forbidden City and the Temple of Heaven would have been heavenly, but not as delightful.

Thank you, Elsa. The Great Wall would have been daunting but not as adorable.

Thank you, Li Li and Diego. Your suggestions and assistance were invaluable when I arrived, alone and illiterate. And my dinners would have been satisfying but not as warm and tasty.

"L'adieu" is one of the twenty-five Burgmuller pieces I love, but it comes in the middle of the Opus, not at the end. I need not say "farewell" to you, my friends.

"The Return," "The Swallow" and "The Knight Errant" are the last three selections. My friends, when my need to rove arises, to be once more that errant knight, I shall return to China for a hearty dose of adventure, again, with you.

A bien·tôt,

Xian Shen Jan

PS I had a good laugh one day. While I was waiting for the train in Luoyang, along with several hundred others crowded into the station, I met an attractive and interesting couple. They spoke good English and we chatted a bit. The man was a surgeon who had just returned from Africa after a voluntary tour with the international medical group, Médecins Sans Frontières. His wife was curious about me. (I probably was the only Westerner in the station.) She was surprised that I could travel alone in China. Finally she asked me, "Do you speak any Chinese?" I answered in an instant, "Not a word!" We all had a great laugh.

My friends in China say that I am quite "brave" and "clever" to travel alone and to find my way. They know that I can't read a sign or say anything in Chinese beyond "hello" and "thank you" and "delicious." I can't even say, "I don't know how to speak Chinese." Even so, I never think of myself as brave. A little bit clever? Maybe.

"By the way," in a few days I am leaving Bangkok to visit yet another country where I also can't read a sign or speak a word. But I do know how to say, "Sorry mister, I don't speak your language."

I hold my palms up, raise my shoulders, tilt my head to one side, and with a shrug and an embarrassed smile admit, "Slicha ani lo medaber eevrit." Or if I'm lazy, "Lo eevrit."


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