Sunday, June 18, 2006

China Stories Pt. 13: Leshan

We started the Year of the Snake riding a bus to Leshan. It was about a four-hour trip. By Chinese standards, this was nothing. It didn't really even qualify as a long-range bus trip. Long range buses that made 12-, 18-, 24-hour trips were common. They were outfitted with bunks instead of seats. I never took one of these buses, but I can't imagine it was pleasant in, say, hour 18. The first hour on the four-hour bus certainly wasn't.

Our bus was like a school bus – bench seats, small and close together. Bob and I squeezed into a bench near the back. We were the only foreigners on the bus. And since we were heading into a more remote part of the country, quite a few people on the bus were not ethnic Chinese. That is, not of the Han ethnicity, which comprises 92% of the population of China. The remaining 8% of the population is made up of 55 different ethnic groups, most very small and located in the outlying areas of the country. I really hadn't encountered non-Han Chinese people before. Our fellow travelers to Leshan looked very different than Han Chinese. They wore brightly colored clothing. They reminded me of indigenous people in Mexico and South America.

I'm guessing we were at least as interesting to them as they were to us, since they stared at Bob and me continuously for four hours. They didn't feel any shame or embarrassment about it. Being stared at all the time took a lot of getting used to.

The road to Leshan was not a freeway. It was a winding two-lane dirt road that meandered between hillsides. It seemed to be in no real hurry to get to Leshan. Every square inch of hillside was planted with tea. The steep hills with their neat rows of tea looked like green wedding cakes.

We went through a few small towns along the way. Billboards everywhere touted China's family planning policy, showing smiling couples with one child. (Oddly enough, many of the families looked white. I don't know why, maybe they're easier to draw.) I saw one sign that said restaurant in Chinese, and next to it, written in English, "RESTQURQNT." I figure the owner had found someone to write out the word for him, and in handwritten lower-case letters, "a" had looked like "q." It's pretty understandable – there are a lot of Chinese characters that look pretty similar, but are completely different.


Once our bus arrived in Leshan, Bob and I went to find a room. There was a brand-new hotel in town, touted as being "five-star." We were skeptical, so we opted to head to the older, more established place. I can't remember, but I think it had an evocative name like "Guest House No. 2." After we checked in, we headed downstairs for dinner.

In the restaurant, we ended up sharing a table with a couple of backpackers. They were from New Zealand, and they'd been traveling in China for about 4 months.

We exchanged a little bit of small talk with them, I don't remember what about. Probably the usual traveler chatter: where they had been, where they were going.

Travelers, especially of this backpacking sort, had this kind of ritualistic exchange about their travels. You always go over these same well-worn questions and answers. Then, at some point, each would try to one-up the other as to who was roughing it the most, who was spending the least money. There was some perverse sense of nobility in this I guess.

"You paid to take the bus here? Really? Wow, that must have been nice. Oh, us? Yeah,we hitchhiked down in a truck loaded with raw hides going to the tannery. The smell was awful, but it only cost us one pack of Marlboros."

There was something a little odd about these guys that I couldn't put my finger on. They clearly hadn't done a lot of shaving since being in China, but that wasn't it; that's just backpacker chic. I just remember immediately wondering if they were in China hiding out from the law.

As became apparent, they did not speak Chinese. The waitress came to take our orders. They spoke a few words of Chinese, and pointed. They did it with a kind of hostility, like it was a tremendous inconvenience to them that no one spoke their language. It didn't matter that people made an effort to try to speak English, and that they didn't seem to try very hard to speak Chinese. I'm sure that over a period of months, it made them feel a little helpless, and frustrated.

The fact that Bob and I could speak Chinese, and could actually communicate with the waitress, must have galled them. The small talk lapsed into awkward silence.

After we were finished, the server came back to clear the table.

"Finished?" she said in English.

"Yeah," said one of the backpackers. She began to clear the plates, then he added:

"Hey, when you come back, do you think you could suck my d**k?"

The server just stood there for second, uncertain and uncomprehending. Then the guy laughed. Then the server laughed nervously, and retreated to the kitchen.

We finished our dinner, paid, and left. Bob and I walked, and said nothing.


We walked around the town a little bit, and eventually found our way to the new hotel. As we walked through the lobby, Bob did a double-take.


"Bob!" Mitch was our classmate from Bei Da, and Bob's roommate. Here we were, four hours from Chengdu, 1,400 miles or so from Beijing, and we run into Bob's roommate.

We knew he had gone to Sichuan, but didn't know where. He was traveling with a Chinese friend, Lu, to visit Lu's family. (Lu had lived with Mitch's family in the US.)

We went up to see their room, to get the full effect.

The hotel had very few guests, so it had an eery, abandoned feeling. I half-expected to see Jack Nicholson or Scatman Crothers. (Yes, that was a "Shining" reference.) And apparently, the lack of guests meant they would not so much be heating the hotel.

The room was perfectly generic – it could have been a Ramada Inn in Indiana. Except instead of being connected to a Waffle House and having pay-per-view porn, this Ramada Inn only had hot water until 8pm, and got three TV channels, CCTV-1, CCTV-2, and the Sichuan TV channel. After visiting with Mitch and his friend for an hour or so, we departed. They were getting up early to drive on to Lu's family's house, and we had to get up early to go see the Big Buddha.

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The Leshan Dafo is the tallest Buddha statue in the world, at 71 meters. It's located on the side of Emei Shan (Mt. Emei), one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China. As such, it's a destination for Chinese travelers as well as foreigners. Bob and I were an added attraction for the Chinese tourists. Some even had their pictures taken with us. We were getting used to it.

The statue is carved out of a mountainside at the confluence of three rivers. To get to it, we walked onto a pontoon dock extending into the river. From there we took a small ferry across to the other side. Once the ferry seemed full, they loaded another, oh, 18,000 people aboard for the short trip across the river.

We joined the long line of tourists snaking along the shoreline, over to the foot of the Buddha. From there, we climbed six or seven flights of stairs that stood just to the right of the Buddha. At the top we took some pictures – right next to the Buddha's nine-foot tall ear. Then we descended the stairs on the other side.

At the foot – er, feet – of the Buddha, tourists milled about taking pictures, eating snacks. There was no barrier to keep tourists from crawling all over the statues feet, which they did. One after another, they would scramble up onto its crumbling toes to have their pictures taken. At this rate, the Buddha's 1,000 year-old feet would crumble to dust in a generation. (Now there is a protective railing.)

In the afternoon, we took the bus back to Chengdu, where we would spend one night before catching the train back to Beijing. Bob and I agreed that after three nights spent in cold guest houses without running hot water, and before spending two more days on the train, we could splurge a little and stay at a hotel with hot running water.

We checked in and I took a long hot shower. I have never appreciated hot running water more than I did at that moment.

Bob and I grabbed some dinner, then returned to our room where we watched an episode of the American TV show "Hunter" dubbed in Chinese. Then we packed for the train trip home.

That's how it felt – we were going home. Beijing, thousands of miles from my real home, where I'd only been for a couple of weeks. But after traveling another 1,300 miles into even stranger, less familiar surroundings, I was looking forward to getting home to Beijing.


At 10:48 AM, Blogger ww said...

WOW! Another amazing blog entry. Loving this story as it unwinds and that is an incredible photo...I want to go! I have forwarded your blog to several of my friends....a must read!

At 1:04 PM, Anonymous Hazel said...

I love this story too! Keep it up, and keep adding the pictures. They definitely add to it.

At 7:28 AM, Blogger LovedGeek said...

I was trying to find a picture and came across a semi-official website without pictures.

"Wah—what a great stone Buddha!"

At 2:51 PM, Blogger Ish said...

WW and Hazel - thanks for the nice comments!

lovedgeek - good find on the picture and the website. I especially like the factoid that the Buddha's ear cavity can hold two people.

I picture a couple guys standing up there next to the ear, looking at it.

"I bet I could fit in there."

(a minute later)

"Dude! Come on over, there's plenty of room."

At 4:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...



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