Ken, Ellen and Bei in China

Ken, Ellen and Bei spent a year in Lijiang, Yunnan teaching English. This is a place where we kept in touch with everyone while we were away. If you'd like to comment we'd love to hear from you on e-mail. Send to You can view more photos on Flickr at

Location: Laramie, Wyoming, United States

Monday, May 08, 2006

A Monastery in the Forest

Imagine a lovely monastery deep in the mountains, shrouded in mist and surrounded by dark forest. Inside, fifteen young Buddhist nuns go about their daily routines, sometimes playful—giggling as they lose themselves to an impromptu pillow fight—but often serious, demonstrating their religious devotion at dark, smoky altars in rooms off the main courtyard. Their olive skin, delicate features and lithe, youthful figures straining against traditional clothing as they toil are at odds with their plain and simple surroundings where they wrest a living from this quiet, isolated place. Even washing their long black hair or bathing in the cold mountain pool behind their quarters is an adventure that elicits gasps as the cold water hits bare skin in the chilly air.

Life here is never without a measure of loneliness—in their early twenties and remarkably beautiful, they are at an age where living in innocence is both sweet and sour: sweet because their devotion to faith provides fulfillment that more earthly pleasures might not equal but sour because they are, after all, attractive young girls just beginning their road to enlightenment—a road that some may well choose to exit.

Many of these women have seen only a few men since entering the nunnery—the old gentleman who delivers vegetables, or the woodcutter who occasionally wanders by on his way into the forest—and none of them has seen a Westerner. The rare appearance of any man is fascinating, but the exoticism of a foreigner is almost more than these curious women can bear...

If this is your fantasy you’re in the wrong blog you sick man.

The Shibaoshan nunnery where we spent a night in April is indeed set among mountains in a forest, but the handful of nuns that live there were not spring chickens during the cultural revolution 40 years ago and haven’t gotten any younger in the intervening years. Nevertheless, they are beautiful in a wizened sort of way and Jacqueline, Ellen, Bei and I loved spending a night in guest rooms above the main courtyard.

We visited the mountainous Shibaoshan area in September (see 27 September 2005 post) but stayed in a small village nearby rather than at the nunnery, so we looked forward to our return. After re-visiting the main Shibaoshan temple area, where pagodas cling to an overhung sandstone cliff and monkeys lounge along the tourist trails, we asked our mini-van driver to drop us off at the nunnery for the night.

A feeling of great peacefulness permeates Buddhist shrines like this in China and elsewhere in Asia. I can remember years ago in Thailand stepping out of the mad rush of Bangkok traffic and into a temple complex where cows peacefully grazed among the buildings and a sense of quiet surrounded you like a warm blanket to muffle the frantic city all around. The situation outside the Shibaoshan nunnery is far from frantic, with forest extending up the mountain behind the buildings and a small group of guest cabins occupying the hillside below them, but you still feel the peace surround you as you climb the entry steps, pass the warrior Buddha statues at the door and enter the series of connected courtyards within. Incense burning on altars elicits an almost Pavlovian need to sit and do nothing, and that is mostly what we did, though Bei managed to keep herself busy befriending the residents and showing 70 – 80 year old Buddhists—to their great amusement—how to play fantasy games with Barbie dolls.

We spent what was left of our afternoon drinking tea, grading a few papers, exploring the premises and eating a simple dinner, before retiring to small but comfortable beds for the night.

Early the following morning, we were awakened by the nun’s call to prayer—a series of rhythmic gong reverberations followed by quiet chanting in the altar room in the courtyard, where juniper smoke drifted from a large stupa below our bedrooms.

At the first sound of the gong, Bei, who had been sound asleep, sat straight up in bed and announced, “I guess it isn’t so peaceful around here in the morning, is it?”

The mountainous landscape around Shibaoshan hides peaceful Tang Dynasty sites, many of which managed to escape the ravages of the cultural revolution.

Sunset from the entrance of the Shibaoshan nunnery.

One of the temple sites at Shibaoshan clings to a steep sandstone cliff above forested valleys.

Stay away from my nuns!

A reclining Buddha at the base of the cliff temple.

Characters decorate the sandstone behind the cliff temple.

A poem (I think) at another Shibaoshan temple atop a mountain near the nunnery.

A detail from a painted wall at Shibaoshan.

Wall detail at the cliff temple.

Light pours through a dirty window high in the cliff temple.

Cats in China are like cats everywhere--holes in walls are too good to miss.

One of the ladies at the nunnery enjoying a cup of tea in the warm sunshine that floods the courtyard.

A troupe of monkeys occupies the area around the cliff temple. This guy was unperturbed by visitors as he relaxed on some steps.

In China, large irregular rocks are routinely sculpted into smaller, generally cubic rocks by hand using chisels like these. Entire roads are paved with hand shaped stones.

Fresh tofu at the nunnery, waiting to be eaten.

Graves behind the nunnery mark the resting places of former occupants.

A broom rests against one of the graves. Every year in April the Chinese go out to sweep the graves of their ancestors and friends.

A doorway in the nunnery.

Characters in the shadow of a window grate in the Shibaoshan nunnery.

A detail from the vegetable garden behind the nunnery.

One of the men who help out around the nunnery (yes, there are men here) inspects one of Bei's Barbies.

Bei tries on a typical winter hat offered to her by one of the men at the nunnery.

Bei in her guestroom bed early in the morning, where she was awoken suddenly by the gong calling the nuns to worship.

This kind man, who helps with some of the heavier chores around the nunnery, is the father of 8 children. Despite this, he still had enough energy to entertain Bei with offers of food and play.

Steam from morning tea water in the cooking area of the nunnery.

Surprisingly, the men at the nunnery all like to smoke crack. Just kidding. I was offered this lengthy tobacco pipe just after breakfast and took a puff to the delight of the locals.

A shrine in the main courtyard of the nunnery.

Jacqueline brought work with her for the weekend and happily relaxed with her laptop in one of the rooms off the main courtyard.

Ellen and Bei relaxing in the nunnery.

The morning before we returned to Lijiang, I went for a walk and found myself eventually at a beautiful little temple at the top of a nearby mountain. This man cleans and maintains the area, where he lives by himself in a small room in the temple compound.

The temple keeper.

Bachelors are the same wherever they live. The temple keeper's room atop a mountain where he lives alone could use a little tidying up, but why bother if you don't have to?

I asked the temple keeper for his address, so that I could mail him some photos, but he misunderstood (imagine that) and instead carefully wrote me a Chinese poem wishing me good luck and good health.


Blogger Unknown said...

Maybe the temple keeper understood, but decided to write you a poem anyway.

6:31 PM  
Blogger Ken Driese said...

If he understood my terrible Chinese, it would have been a miracle. He was a very nice and gentle man--I've since seen other photos of him from other travlers who have happened upon that somewhat remote place.

7:20 PM  

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