I was feeling a little travel weary until I read about Xuanzang, a 7th-century Chinese monk who went on a 16-year, 100-plus country pilgrimage and returned home with one of the greatest collections of Buddhist scriptures in history.
I learned more about Xuanzang at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda in Xi’an, part of the Da Ci’en Temple where he spent 19 years translating those documents from Sanskrit into Chinese. His labors produced 75 volumes and 1,335 chapters, along with a celebrated book on his travels.
The pagoda’s name derives from a legend about a carnivorous Buddhist sect that couldn’t find any meat. A monk asked Buddha to deliver something to eat and a wild goose that had broken its wings immediately dropped from the sky. The sect supposedly established a pagoda where the goose fell and the monks stopped eating meat. I bet PETA made the story up.
The seven-story, 210-foot high Big Wild Goose is the tallest pagoda in China. Built in 652, its brick surface covers a base made of rammed earth. The pagoda is incongruously surrounded by a theme park known as Tang Paradise and an upscale shopping district, where even fast-food franchises like KFC and Pizza Hut are housed in traditional Tang Dynasty-style buildings. There’s also a huge video screen that shows tropical, blue-sky settings to locals who rarely see natural sunshine in this habitually overcast city.
Inside the Temple grounds are a Bell Tower and Drum Tower, which were used to signal the time of day. Just in front of the pagoda are two 1,000-year-old “Dragon’s Claw’’ trees, whose twisted branches look like octopus arms.
The pagoda is part of a large complex of Temple buildings, including one that features an enormous gold-plated Buddha praying in the lotus position. Other buildings house traditional Chinese scrolls, a three-wall mural featuring jade-covered figures, and a mini-pagoda containing a piece of bone from Xuanzang’s skull that was kept after his cremation.
Our tour guide, Cathy, said most of the scripts that Xuanzang brought back from India were burned during the Cultural Revolution, but the handful that survived are on display at the Temple.
Earlier in the day, Pat and I rented a tandem bike and rode on a brick walkway built on top of Xi’an’s 650-year-old City Wall. The 8½-mile long, 40-foot high rectangular structure is the best-preserved city wall in China. It has watchtowers every 394 feet and almost 6,000 battlements that provided openings for archers and javelin throwers.
Today it’s a tourist attraction that includes plaques describing weapons used to defend the city, which was China’s capital during 15 dynasties. Cathy told us that no building inside the wall can be higher than the 118-foot main watchtower.
We later visited a botanical garden where we saw a couple posing for wedding pictures in frigid conditions. Our guide explained that Chinese couples usually have their wedding pictures taken from three months to one year before they get married, and typically spend more than $1,500 for the album. When I asked her what happens if they call the wedding off after the photos are snapped, she replied, “They lose a lot of money.’’
As evening approached, we visited the city’s Muslim district. It’s home to about 60,000 followers of Islam and a bustling, brightly lit marketplace filled with shops and food stands selling everything from lamb’s feet to tofu pizza. One of the souvenir shops was selling a T-shirt adorned with a picture of Barack Obama wearing a Mao cap. It was titled “Oba Mao.’’ Wait until Rush Limbaugh finds about this.
At the center of the district is the Great Mosque, which was built in 742. The place has fallen on hard times because it gets no government support – the Chinese Communist Party is atheist – and many of the buildings are in bad shape. One prayer tower that was damaged in a 2008 earthquake still has scaffolding around it because there isn’t enough money for repairs.
The main prayer hall was empty, awaiting worshippers for the 6 p.m. service. I felt like going in and resting on one of the benches, but decided against it because I didn’t think they’d like a Jewish-American using the hall as a pit stop.