By Chris Behrsin
When my wife and I arrived in Fuqing for a weekend visit, we weren't sure what to think. We saw concrete apartment blocks and busy roads but not much else.
Our real destination wasn't the city, however, but the villages that surround it. These towns give Fuqing a unique character that makes it well worth visiting.
On Saturday we visited Fuqing's South Shaolin temple. It's the smallest of three Shaolin temples in Fujian, each of which claims to be the 2,500-year-old original South Shaolin temple of legend.
A search on Baidu put the temple in the village of Dongzhangzhen, just past the massive reservoir that lies northwest of Fuqing. Our Didi driver seemed surprised, however, when we arrived to find no temple. The local villagers directed us 18 kilometers away from the reservoir and into the hills.
We stepped from the car onto soft ground muddy from the previous night's rain. The air was fresh with the scent of mountain pines. We stood and gazed out over the raised dirt ford across a dried-out stream.
Surprisingly, there weren't many visitors. Instead, workmen in yellow helmets smoked under a tall construction crane that lifted long metal poles onto scaffolding. Beneath this, a pagoda was beginning to take form.
We explored the temple grounds, marveling at the golden Buddhas and Bodhisattvas as well as a tall stone Bodhisattva, Guanyin, who overlooked the construction from above.
There were no signs of any Shaolin monks, only an angry dog with squinty eyes that guarded the deserted school at the top. When we were ready to leave, we realized we didn't know when or where to find the local bus.
Fortunately, a kind elderly couple offered to drive us back to Dongzhangzhen. We explored the village's canola farms, honeybees buzzing around us as we took in the spectacular view of the reservoir. We crossed over to a park that led down to a lakeside beach where we watched cranes skim over the still waters.
The following day, we went north of Haikou town in search of another idol, a massive Laughing Buddha as long and wide as it is tall.
This time, we took the bus to a stop just down the road from the Longjiang bridge, a Song dynasty stone bridge that spans the Longjiang estuary. We admired the local duck farm and a troop of goats. We dawdled on the bridge, photographing cranes and cormorants that perched on small sandy islands even as scooters whizzed past us.
We eventually crossed into the town of Haikou where children rode bicycles through narrow streets between buildings of dirty red brick. It felt as if we'd entered another age a world apart from the concrete jungle of Fuqing.
We walked along a more modern road towards the village of Niuzhaicun. The rhythmic sound of machinery thrummed from a nearby quarry.
This time, a map from the Trip Advisor web site steered us wrong. Luckily, a pair of local schoolgirls escorted us to our destination. We took a loose gravel path into the temple grounds, with our new friends parting from us halfway up the steps.
Above us stood Milefo, his mouth wide open in mirth as if inviting us to join him. Before him, goldfish swam in a green pond where children played, more interested in the fish than the looming stone idol.
Steps on Milefo's right side led to a cloister of temple pagodas where incense smoke wafted between the boulders. Behind Milefo, a dog in pajamas played beside the pond.
We climbed more stairs to discover shrines nestled within grottos from which emanated a sense of spirituality as old as the rocks themselves. The path seemed to lead further into the mountains but the sky threatened rain and we knew it was time to return to Xiamen.
Later at the train station, a Chinese poster displayed a photo of the South Shaolin temple and Chinese characters reminded the reader of the importance of the temple to the region: “The source of Fujian. Remember your roots.”
Regardless of which site is home to the original South Shaolin temple, our trip to visit Milefo felt like a journey back in time.