Xi Men Jie
This afternoon I was skulking about in a part of Simao's old town I hadn't been to before. One of my current projects is trying to record photographically as much of "old" Simao before the bulldozers finally destroy all the beautiful (but terrible to live in!) adobe brick houses. To be honest there's not much left - even in last few years there has been a phenomenal building boom and a rash of new, earthquake-proof white tiled concrete palaces, complete with Grecian pillars and painted in lurid pink has taken over from the warm-toned redbrown brick. Even after 4 years here I still have the forlorn hope that I'll stumble across some preserved vestige of ancient China, some fantastic little corner which will live up to all the misinformed preconceptions I had of 21st Century China before we came here. Well today I thought I'd found it!

I couldn't believe my eyes. Across the rooftops I spied the beautiful tiled roof and upturned eaves of an old temple, windchimes jangling in the wind. Heart racing, I braved a pack of feebly yelping dogs and found the side entrance. Inside it was perfect - serene, with a carp pond and covered walkways holding calligraphy equipment and teadrinking paraphenalia. The main hall was light and airy but I was confused by the mishmash of gods on show. Three Buddhas centrally placed suggested a Buddhist temple, and sure enough on their left were some images of Guanyin and Dizang, Then I noticed a statue of an old fellow with a droopy calligraphy brush - Laozi, the founder of Taoism. On the far left sat Cai Shen, God of Wealth, usually seen in Taoist or local folk temples. Finally I saw a couple of even more familiar characters, Kongzi (Confucius himself) cosying up with a statue of Mao Zedong. It was all a bit strange - this place seemed to be devoted every possible aspect of Chinese "religious" culture.

Back outside I found an old lady (always a good bet) to fill me in. No, there was no monk in residence. When I asked how old the place was she said 3 or 4. I thought 350 years seems quite old, then thought again and checked. No, this place really was only 3 or 4 years old! It was new - hence the rather all embracing religious iconography. The traditional architecture and faded, peeling, distressed woodwork had fooled me into believing this really was my long-sought-after ancient retreat, and, ironically, it's been thrown up in the same time we've lived here in Simao. Next on the agenda is to find out more. Who's the owner? Why build it? Does anyone come to pray here? It certainly makes a change from yet another white-tiled, flat roofed utilitarian residence block!

I nearly bought a pair of jeans that had been made to look old and ragged. Then I thought - my existing jeans look just like that, so I stuck with my really old pair.


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