China: Wishes come true at heavenly lake

By Jim Eagles

A visit to an ancestral temple at a famous Chinese beauty spot earned Jim Eagles a blessing from an ancient goddess.

The peaceful waters of Tian Chi. Photo / Jim Eagles
The peaceful waters of Tian Chi. Photo / Jim Eagles

The boom from the great bell outside the the Ancestral Temple of the Western Mother Queen rolled down the rocky hill and echoed impressively across the waters of Tian Chi, the heavenly lake, one of the most famous beauty spots in this part of China.

I grabbed the log used to ring the bell and tried to swing it even harder the second time. The result was an even more impressive boom.

By now I had the swing of things so the third boom - which the temple ritual called for - was equally resounding.

I was now, apparently, entitled to a wish. That was, as it happened, my second wish of this outing.

Further round the lake was an elm tree, evidently an unusual species to find this high up in the Tian Shan mountains, and was said to have grown from a hair pin planted on the lake's edge by the goddess to keep evil spirits away from a party she was giving.

The tree is now quite large, and it didn't look healthy to me, but it is marked with a plaque and decorated with coloured ribbons from devotees, and is said to have the power to grant wishes so I made one there, too.

Both my wishes were the same: that I would get home safely from this trip down the Silk Road and find my family and friends safe and well.

The chance to invoke the Western Mother Queen's help made the two-hour drive to the lake from the city of Urumqi worthwhile.

But on top of that, even on a day like this with rain falling from time to time and the clouds obscuring the surrounding snow-capped peaks, this is a classically beautiful spot.

On a fine day, when you can see down to the head of the lake and the massive 5500m peak the Mongolians call Bogeda Feng (the Peak of God), it must be stunning.

It's certainly a place the Chinese seem serious about preserving. Bin, our guide, was grilled by the park police for at least a quarter of an hour before they would let us in. And the plant life is protected by an extensive network of boardwalks and signs saying things such as: "Green grass is afraid of your trample."

The lake is a traditional summer assembly place for Kazakh nomads, whose circular white felt tents - or yurts - grazing horses, sheep and cattle make the place even more picturesque.

These days some of the yurts - the fancier ones with colourful patterns on them - are actually intended as accommodation for tourists but they still add to the atmosphere.

The same could not be said for the young Kazakh pop stars who were jumping about to the sound of some discordant music on a stage just above the lake.

But, fortunately, the pathway to the Queen's tree and her temple led me on a winding route an hour's walk along the lake edge, around several steep rocky bluffs, and the ghastly noise soon faded.

The Western Mother Queen is an ancient goddess, traced back at least 3500 years but later incorporated into Taoism as Xi Wang Mu, the goddess of life and immortality.

The temple by the lake was apparently ravaged during the Cultural Revolution but - such is her power - it was rebuilt on the same magnificent site when normality returned.

At the end of the round-the-lake path there's a steep climb up to the temple, flanked by two brightly painted gazebos, one holding the giant bell which worshippers can use to call on the goddess and the other an equally huge drum.

In the temple itself, as well as the usual brightly painted images and altars on which devotees can light incense in the Queen's honour, there were half-a-dozen booths containing black-robed fortune tellers.

I wasn't sure if it was okay to take photos so I asked one of the fortune tellers. Unfortunately, while he could presumably foretell my future, he didn't know the correct answer to that question.

"Yes, yes, okay," he said, pointing at my camera and the shrine.

No sooner had I started aiming the lens than a young man popped out of a small office and said: "Excuse me, sir, but please do not take photos inside the temple. Outside is fine but not inside." Fair enough.

Luckily, it turned out the goddess was more with it than her fortune teller, because when I arrived home I found that family and friends were all safe and well.

If I went back there I would, naturally, thank the goddess. But I would also inquire why she allowed me to catch a minor cold on the final leg.

Was it, perhaps, a small reprimand for trying to photograph her image?

Something to sink your teeth into

Wandering through a street market in Urumqi looking for something to eat, I came across a stall which stopped me in my tracks. Out in the middle of the footpath was a table and two chairs at which two dentists were plying their trade, fitting false teeth. While I watched, horrified, one elderly patient clenched his teeth and the dentist dealing with him reached for an implement. Nightmare visions of the school dental clinic arose unwanted in my mind ... sending me fleeing. Still, I did run into a nice feed of naan bread and mutton kebabs - the mainstay of Uighur cuisine - at a stall a bit further down. And you can guarantee that I chewed that food very, very carefully.

- Jim Eagles

CHECKLIST

* Getting there: Singapore Airlines operates 12 times per week between Auckland and Singapore and then onward to 62 destinations in 34 countries, including China. For more information visit singaporeair.co.nz

* Getting around: World Expeditions operates its Silk Road expedition from Beijing to Samarkand via Urumqi in April, May, August and September. Ring 0800 350 354 or visit worldexpeditions.com for further details.

Jim Eagles visited China with help from Singapore Airlines and World Expeditions.

- NZ Herald

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