Monday, March 19, 2007

In the presence of a giant

As I write this a tradesman is in our bathroom attempting to get a decent water flow in the shower. I was expecting this in China, but the Minshan Hotel is rated four stars according to CITS. I'm not really complaining, for we have had a fantastic day, up there with our walk along the Great Wall.

We (okay, I) woke before 5am in order to get ready for our trip to the airport. Both of us felt nervous as our taxi drove us along darkened back roads on the industrial outskirts of Xian. We could have been dumped there and nobody would see it happen.

But we survived unscathed and reached Xian's domestic terminal unscathed. The airport is quite functional, if unexciting. The toilets, however, stunk of excrement and urine, despite appearing clean. I think that they were of the type where toilet paper is placed in a bin adjacent to the toilet rather than down the drain.

I can't recommend the hot chocolate at the Denise cafe either, but what can you expect?

This time we were flying a China Eastern Airlines Airbus A320. The plane could do with a good wash, but what can you expect from flying above the land of the long grey smog cloud? As we ascended above the cloud layer snow capped mountains poked their summits into the heavens.

It was another rough flight. I wish I was like B and could sleep through the bumpiness. Little LCD screens popped down above the seats to show some promotional piece, sometimes in colour, but mostly in black and white, about Xian, though we were flying in the opposite direction. The hot Chinese meat bun was much appreciated though.

Chengdu airport looks very impressive, their speed at getting the baggage on the belt even more so. We were met by our driver for the day, a much quieter man than Mr Zhou. As we drove out directly towards Leshan, 150 kilometres away from Chengdu, B and I both fell asleep, tired from the early departure and from the late nights and too early mornings before it.

B declared that she no longer liked China due to the amount of spitting. The Chinese don't just let their phlegm drip to the ground. Neither is it a quick hrckt pfft. For them, it is a process of bringing up and flinging out every last drop of mucus inside their bodies, at least for a minute of so. A hhhrrrrrrrrcccccckkkkk, pppppfffffffffttttttt from deep inside their chests. The government is supposed to be cracking down upon it, but spitting seems, by the enthusiasm with which they do it, to be a source of great pleasure for many Chinese.

As we approached Leshan two previously unseen sights emerged: our first Chinese rain and motorcyclists wearing helmets.

But forget rain, spitting, pollution and anything disgusting or bad about China. A walk around the Big Buddha at Leshan was absolutely beautiful. After we stepped past the gate and started up the trail past the Buddhist grottoes, the dragon and the tiger statues, up into rainforest, bamboo and palm, we were in another world, a magical place.

The Liguyan Buddhist temple was guarded by colourful bodhisavattas, more like Hindu gods or demons. Then we were in a serene environment of monks, candles and incense, soothing music in the background.

Dafo, the big Buddha statue is 71 metres high, carved out of the red sandstone face of Liguyan Hill to provide protection for travellers along the Min River. The statue of the monk Haitong, the driving force behind Dafo's construction, sits nearby. The story goes he gouged his own eyes out to demonstrate his devotion to the project after a corrupt official threatened to blind him if he didn't get a cut of the funds.

Standing besides Dafo you feel like you are in the presence of a giant. He is a truly incredible creation. We climbed down the steep steps besides the statue, taking in every facet. The more you stare, the more alive he becomes, as if he is about to stand up and walk.

We took the walk around and through the cliffs, taking in the views of the Min River and the valley and stopping off at the pagoda lookouts. We saw the narrow fishing boats and fishermen encampments near the river bank. At the recreated fishermen's village we were accosted by old ladies trying to show us menus. We kept walking.

The old style, partly covered Haoshang Bridge provided a great view of the fisherfolk amongst the yellow rapeseed flowers. We crossed, then returned to the Mahao Cave Tombs, hollowed out rectangular caves into which families were buried upon their deaths, with various pottery items enclosed with them, not entirely unlike the Banpo neolithic peoples.

We walked back up to the fishing village, and finally agreed to eat a fish from the buckets. The old lady demonstrated that the prices were by weight, not fixed, took a fish and slammed it into the ground, before taking it inside to prepare it.

We ate an incredibly delicious meal of sichuan fish, fish head soup and rice, sipping hot tea. It was the best meal so far in China and good value at RMB50 for two. Only the bones were left once we were finished.

Trying to backtrack to the Linguyan Temple, we didn't realise that the tickets work in one direction only. But the ticket ladies were kind enough to issue us with new tickets for no charge. We took a different route back, up past the waterfall and wall of calligraphy, a beautiful, peaceful place.

It was time to return to the car, despite the many other sights left unseen. Again we slept for much of the drive back, arriving at the Minshan Hotel in Chengdu. It is a decent hotel, though we have now been shifted to a new room where the shower works. Free internet access too.

We were naughty tonight. After walking into the centre of Chengdu and trying delicious spiced skewered beef we ate dinner at Pizza Hut. Neither of us regretted having a change of diet, with salads and smoothies. Tomorrow, is pandas and proper sichuan food again!