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The Lama Temple, also know as Yonghegong, or the Palace of Peace and Harmony, sits in the northeastern part of Beijing. Built in late the 17th century, the temple served as a residence for a prince for a brief time before being converted into a lamasery for Buddhist monks. Lamaseries are monasteries for monks practicing Tibetan Buddhism, or Lamaism. We visited the Lama Temple on a rainy afternoon in late October, just two hours before closing time. Because of the weather and our late arrival, there weren't many vendors on the road, or visitors inside the temple. We practically had the place to ourselves. As we walked to the temple from our bus stop, an elderly Chinese man in a bluish suit, sporting a red and green tie and wearing an old fedora style of hat on his head, started ghosting our steps. Staying just a few paces behind, he nipped at our heels as we passed the last vendors lining the street to the temple. Most of the vendors had closed up shop, but a few of them eyed us with interest. Our group consisted of two Americans, an Australian, two Germans, a French guy and three Japanese women. We spoke mostly in English, but one of our Japanese friends wasn't very good in English, so we also conversed in Chinese. Every few paces, the old man in the blue suit would catch a bit of our conversation and repeat it loudly, though he made no attempt to join in. He was like a blue parrot mimicking our words. We checked the opening times at the entrance and bought our tickets. The old man leaned against the building and pulled out a pocket watch, which was attached to a long metal chain. He twirled the watch about while whistling softly. He was a curiosity, but as foreigners living in China (at least those of us with European blood), we were used to being stared at, even in Beijing.
The Lama Temple was beautiful. We entered through a red door, adorned with wonderful woodwork. One of the Japanese girls bought some incense to burn, placing the sticks in one of the many altars. We made our way to the Gate of Harmony and Peace, which was guarded by a large imperial lion, made of stone. We spun every single prayer wheel we passed. The Pavilion of Infinite Happiness housed a gigantic sandalwood statue of the Buddha, over 50 feet in height. The statue is in the Guinness Book of World Records. Gold and red colored beams and supports framed the pavilion, as they do most of the lamasery. Different halls contained different images and statues of the Buddha, both large and small. Our incense, along with the incense left by others, filled the temple with that fragrant smoke we'd come to expect of any a religious site in China. As we left the complex, we all commented on the state of calm that had prevailed inside the temple and remained with us still. It was truly a restful place.
Outside, the old man in the blue coat with his bright tie still waited for us. He winked knowingly and nodded his head in our direction. We paid him little mind. We began walking toward our bus and he fell in with our group, locking steps with our own. At first we ignored him. Then he started walking in front of us, deliberately impeding our progress by his slow pace. The Aussie in our group asked if there was something we could do for him. The old man seemed delighted that we'd finally spoken to him. He asked, in flawless English, where we were from. One of the Japanese girls answered (in Japanese) that she was an exchanged student from the northern island of Hokkaido (she told me this later). He addressed her in what she said was perfect Japanese, welcoming her to China and asking her if she had a deep interest in Buddhism. Next he asked me where I was from. Trying to be clever (though failing miserably) I told him I was from The United States, but I said this in Spanish. The old man spoke excellent Spanish, the Castilian kind, and asked me if I had any Hispanic ancestry. He spoke German with the Germans and English with the Aussie and French with the French. Later that day, after our encounter, everyone came to the conclusion that he was fluent in all of the languages he spoke with us. Our French friend knew some Swedish and tried a bit on the old man. He wasn't fluent in Swedish, but he knew enough words to have a basic conversation. We were amazed. We'd thought he was just some poor man running some kind of scam for money. Still wary of his intentions, I asked him what he did for a living. He said he was retired, and left it at that.
A block away from our stop, the old man began showing us magic. Real magic. The first thing he did was to pull two flowers from his sleeve, giving them both to one of the Japanese girls. Then he suspended a coin between his hands, after which he dropped the coin in his left hand and with a puff of powder made the coin disappear. He told us that he'd worked as a magician in his youth. I asked how he'd learned some many foreign languages. He must have spent some time overseas, I thought. With a proud smile, he answered that he'd learned his languages from books and talking with tourists. He'd never left China, except for a trip once to Hong Kong, when it was still a British territory. But in his mind that really didn't count. At the bus stop, he did a few more magic tricks and answered our questions. Then he suddenly fell silent, as if reflecting on some great tragedy in his life. Unnerved by this, someone from our group suggested we give him a little money. He seemed like a nice man and we knew he couldn't be getting much from his pension. One of the Germans offered him a few coins, but he graciously declined. He had no need of money, he informed us. After all, he could pull coins out of the air. He waited for us to board our bus and then walked down another street, a different way than we'd come. We watched him from the bus. There's no telling whom you'll meet on the streets of China.