Monkey Madness

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Latimer: Who knew walking up a Chinese mountain to stay the night in a monastery could lead to close encounters of the wild monkey kind? I sure as hell didn’t, but it happened!

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Our Chinese guide said the monkeys of Mt Emei Shan were well-known for jumping onto people’s backs, opening their bags and stealing food (and anything else they could get their hands on). Sometimes they mistook phones and cameras for food and on realising that they couldn’t eat the precious electronics and priceless memories, they’d toss them over the edge of the cliffs.

Nice!

The monkeys had adapted to the influx of people climbing the mountain to see all the temples and monasteries. They were being opportunists – ‘okay cousin humans, you can traipse around our home, but be aware, we are going to steal your crap!’ And, because the monkey’s had no fear of human’s anymore, the human’s had turned them into a tourist attraction (but of course!).

You can buy nuts to feed the monkeys so that they’ll jump up on your back and you can get a photo with them. Wooden bridges have been built along the mountain to allow people the chance of a close encounter… and there are even people called ‘Monkey Police’ (who scare the monkeys away for you if you are about to be robbed).

The monkeys are so unafraid of humans that they get mad when you try and stop them stealing and they get pretty aggressive. So, we were warned to be careful. We were given bamboo sticks to scare them away (not hit them, just smack the ground and scare them). The sticks were cool because walking along a mountain is not the same without a stick!

I didn’t want a monkey to jump on me, but I did want to see them…

On the walk up the mountain the only monkeys I saw were on the ‘encounter bridges’.

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A few people from my group went out – brave souls. One had a monkey jump up onto his back and the rest of us started shouting – “He’s trying to open your bag! He’s trying to open your bag!”

Seriously the monkey was pulling at the zippers; he knew exactly what to do. He didn’t have any luck though, our group member sauntered back, indicating his double-zipped super bag and in a cool American accent, smiled; “This isn’t my first rodeo!” 🙂

I was half-disappointed and half-relieved not to have had more of a monkey encounter. We all made it safely to the monastery on the mountain – the walk to which nearly ended me! I thought, ‘they’ll have to leave me here, I’ll learn Chinese and live off the land!’ – it was rough!

There’s a small kitchen/café near the monastery – the oddest most remote place – and they had the best pancakes, and half the world thinks so too judging by all the messages people had left on the wall – all talking about the pancakes.

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I found some Irish one’s, so that made me smile – these girls, they have v.good Irish!

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It’s a husband and wife duo that run this kitchen (and live above it); I got some photos of the kitchen, xie xie (thank you :-)) to the woman for letting me! Isn’t it an amazing place?

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And this was the monastery we stayed overnight in…

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We stayed one night then headed back down the mountain in the wee hours of the morning – I thought that was the end of my potential monkey encounters… but OH no… they’d only just begun.

The monkeys are very active in the morning as it turns out. There were big groups of them. By the time I’d realised that we were surrounded I was at the back of the group with the tour guide and local guide, when holy crap this big angry male monkey appeared (he was massive!).

I fear feeling fear in front of animals, because I’m always thinking; ‘they can smell my fear!’

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All I could think was the warnings we’d been given; if they jump on you don’t scream (yeah right!) and don’t show them your teeth (that’s an act of aggression in monkey speak).

The tour guide tried to scare the monkey off with the bamboo sticks, and you know what this monkey did? He paused, took one measured look at the stick, and the man to which it was attached, and seemed to say; ‘I’ll have you!’ and charged back at the man, swiping his hand at the stick, trying to whip it away from the guide!

The guide managed to ‘scare’ the monkey away in the end and I scuttled off down the path. It was pretty scary!

Monkeys (and apes) are so intelligent; there’s a new series on the BBC called Monkey Planet and it highlights some really interesting traits that monkeys and apes have! When I watched it I kept getting flashbacks to the smart, scary, monkeys on the mountain!!

Walking along a Wall

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Latimer: There are lots of things to be excited about when you’re going on holidays; you don’t have to worry about work, you’re going somewhere new and you can relax and do what you want – it’s a great feeling. Aside from the food, which is one of my most favourite things about being on holidays, one of the best things is getting to see famous places you’ve only seen on the TV!

In Beijing there were lots of famous places to stamp my foot on.

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You can’t go to China and not go to the Great Wall.

To me it was one of those places that I’ve known about my whole life; it’s a place of massive human achievement, but had it been overhyped in my mind – could it really be that good?

Yes, as it turns out! It was as amazing as people say.

Getting to stand on the Great Wall and stare around the valley (like a boss), as it criss-crossed the landscape, weaving up and down like a great stone snake slithering over hills through smog into the far north of China – spectacular!!

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The Great Wall started its existence as a series of small walls that were unified into one Great wall by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shi Huang (namesake of the Qin Dynasty). This is the Emperor who also built the Terracotta Army – a busy man right? Up to a million people died building the ‘Great Wall’ and are actually buried within the wall itself. So there’s an eerie feeling walking along the wall and thinking about that!

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The part of the wall that I was on is called the Jiangshanling Great Wall; it’s a bit of a less touristy spot. It was great because there was hardly anyone else on the wall. It was basically empty, so it was even more incredible to be able to stand on one arching swell and look into the distance and see nothing but the wall and its watchtowers 🙂

As I walked I noticed that there was a lot of graffiti – people had carved their names into the wall. This started a conversation about how if the graffiti’s been there long enough it becomes historic (is a 400 year old piece of graffiti terrible… or historic?).

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When people used to visit Shakespeare’s home (a long time after his death), they used to write their names on the windows to say that they were there. Lots of famous writers (Dickens etc) signed the windows, and now they are a museum piece within the house.

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It’s an odd one and it happens everywhere; I’ve seen names carved into the stone at our own Newgrange (which is 5,000 years old, which makes this really bad).

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It is sad, and you do shudder at seeing it; ‘I’d never do that! That’s terrible’… but then if enough time passes… does it become alright? Do you start to think; ‘someone in the 1800s was standing where I am now, in awe of this thing I am seeing that they once saw too… (of course they were busy carving their name into it, so we aren’t really experiencing it the same way, but still!)’

People like to write their names on things because it says; ‘I was here, I existed once and I was here’. And I get that, but…

Argh, it’s a tough one; but people shouldn’t be doing it anymore – that’s what the visitor’s guestbook is for!

While on the wall I ate the bag of Hula Hoops I’d gotten in Dublin airport (and failed to eat on the plane – I told you we’d be seeing those food items again!)… That was bizarre!

Then it was on to the Forbidden City (give or take a day, ha). That place is amazing.

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It was built according to the rules and laws of Taoism – the cultural religion of China. For example, Taoism is crazy about numbers. The number 9 (and 5) is very important and lucky in the religion. The doors of the city’s gates have gold circle embossing – there are nine rows with nine circles across.

The Forbidden City is also said to contain 9999 rooms; the Emperor is the only one on earth who can have 9999 rooms. This is one less than the Jade Emperor (the King of Heaven in Taoism); only he can have 10,000 rooms. The Jade Emperor sounds cool doesn’t he?

There’s a lot to see in the Forbidden City, I found myself just wandering on my own at one point, enjoying my own novelty as a white foreigner (I’m hardly ever exotic, so that was fun!).

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It wasn’t long before my time in Beijing was at an end, but I did manage to check out the Bird’s Nest Stadium and the Cube before I was off on an overnight train (13 hours!) to Xi’an and the Terracotta Warriors, but that’s another post 🙂

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Previous post: Middle Kingdom Musings and next post: The Art of Terracotta

Yeats Country

“Under bare Ben Bulben’s head
In Drumcliff churchyard Yeats is laid.
An ancestor was rector there
Long years ago, a church stands near,
By the road an ancient cross.
No marble, no conventional phrase;
On limestone quarried near the spot
By his command these words are cut:
Cast a cold eye
On life, on death.
Horseman, pass by!”

Ridley: I’ve been wandering Ireland and I’m back from Yeats country (Yeats country being Sligo, in the West of Ireland!). 

Latimer and I have decided we’d like to see more of our own country, we’ve such amazing landscapes and tourist attractions but we really don’t appreciate them. I’m ashamed to say I haven’t been to a lot of our most famous spots. So we decided to change the record this year. We’re lining up a few mini-adventures in the coming weeks, which we will, of course, be sharing with you!

Starting this was a solo adventure of my own to my fantastic relatives in Sligo, who put me up for the weekend. We all socialised into the wee hours. They have an absolutely entrancing view of the sea; I caught myself staring out the window quite a number of times at the continuously changing landscape. It’s completely solidified my desire to one day live by the sea!

While we were there we took a detour to Drumcliffe, which is just a ten minute drive from Sligo itself. This beautiful church yard rests within the large shadow of the arresting mountain that can be seen no matter where you are in Sligo. This of course is Ben Bulben, which is immortalised in Yeat’s poem ‘Under Ben Bulben’. At this church site, you will find three things of interest, well four if you count the church! There is a magnificent High Cross, the ruins of a Round Tower and the resting place of W.B. Yeats.

In a grassy cemetery filled with mossy ancient graves is one of the finest examples left in Ireland of an 11th Century High Cross.

It is truly beautiful, magnificent even. I’ve always wanted to visit one. The West shaft of the cross holds scenes from the New Testament, a camel and two unknown figures in high relief. The East side shows Adam and Eve, Cain slaying Abel, Daniel in the Lions’ Den and Christ in Glory. 

They are often known as Preaching crosses as they had ‘sermons carved in stone’ on them; these crosses enabled people to tell stories from the bible. Almost like stone books. Even if you aren’t remotely religious, visit it for the pure craftsmanship of these engravings, the intricate designs and also to marvel at its height. It’s 3.38 meters high and it towers over the rest of the graveyard, which once belonged to a former abbey. Couldn’t you imagine the tales that old engraved stone could tell? Of monks gliding by it in their brown habits, with their arms wrapped around precious books filled with ornately decorated manuscripts. 

The Round Tower nearby is even older than the cross; it was built in the 10th century. 

It would have even more stories to tell; perhaps it could whisper of chaotic Viking attacks as it sheltered the monks safely within its thick walls. It would have witnessed so much as it stood for so long, high above the landscape observing the sea, the mountains and of course Sligo, where it is the only known example of a Round Tower to have existed in the county. Now though it is a ruin, barely half of it is still there, as in 1396 it was struck by lightning (Thor, a god worshipped by the Vikings, exacting his revenge for thwarting his people perhaps!) and then most of the tower was dismantled to build a nearby bridge.

There is a local legend that the last of the tower will fall on top of the wisest person who passes under it- so I kept well clear of it, naturally! 😛

The third thing of interest there is the grave of W.B. Yeats, one of Ireland’s most famous poets. His grandfather was Rector of Drumcliffe and despite Yeats being born in Dublin, his heart belonged to Sligo.

He was buried right next to the stone church, which I might add is beautiful inside. Even the doors to the building are decorated. The bronze swan handles are a nod to Yeat’s poem ‘The Wild Swans at Coole.’ Inside, the back wall over the altar immediately draws the eye.

Though before entering there was this charming poster, they seem to have a problem with pious pigeons! There were a number of stone plaques along the walls, not to mention the arched stone glass windows and the organ up above in the gallery.

Yeats wrote very inspiring poetry and it’s not surprising when he had landscapes, like those found in Sligo, surrounding him.

 He also drew a lot of ideas for his works from Irish mythology and folklore, which are filled with rich tales of warrior maidens, Chieftains, druids and ancient magic (another burial place in Sligo is the cairn of Queen Maeve. One day I will walk to the top of that particular ‘hill’ to see it!).

Also a powerful inspiration for his poetry was the Irish revolutionary Maud Gonne. He met her in 1889, and proposed to her four times over a ten year period. He was turned down each time. His unrequited love for Maud has always been a source of fascination for me. She is forever immortalised in his words, made famous by them, however she was never able to return his affections despite his efforts. Rather sad for a man who seemed to have spent his life searching; searching for love, the meaning to his existence, for things ‘not of this world’- Yeats was extremely interested in the occult and the supernatural, something else that can be seen in his writing. In his book ‘The Identity of Yeats’ Richard Ellmann states that Yeats ‘does not offer a fixed set of positions at the end of his life.’ It seemed he was always questioning, always searching and never definite on anything.

Perhaps this is why so many people connect with his poetry, aren’t we all searching for something? Meaning? Love? Happiness?

Perhaps this is why despite his death in 1939, his memory still endures and his words still inspire people?

If you want a thought provoking day out, one filled with beautiful poetry, magnificent crosses and fabulous views, pop on over by way of Sligo and visit Drumcliffe! You’ll feel all the wiser for it but then don’t go strolling passed any Round Towers afterwards!