Saturday, November 22, 2008

A day devoted to adventuring

Having made it through my first week, I was more than ready for a day off. I’d made a plan with James to collect me at 8 so that we might get off on a grand adventure planned back when I was still in the US.

One of the features of Google Earth is a system of links to a photograph storage website called Panoramio. People all around the world upload their photos, attach Lat/Long data to them and they appear as little blue clickable icons on Earth. I’d spent some time in the last year looking at photos of the Dalian region and had a list of things I thought worth looking for. Today I hoped locate a large statue of the Buddhist goddess of compassion, Guan Yin, and a field filled with what appeared to be small stone Buddha down the slope. If you plug 38°58'2.06"N by 121°17'21.97"E into the search bar in the application you can see the location for yourself.

As I use Google Earth I have been learning the lesson that what appears from space is not often what is actually on the ground – roads change, buildings are built, big beautiful lakes are really sewage lagoons – but finding the is always a challenge and an adventure so it can be fun, sort of satellite based geocaching.

Earlier in the week I had put James to work finding out about this particular site. A few days later I received a couple of very excited mail messages from him talking about the site and explaining where it was. According to the web information, it was called Changchun and was located in the village of Sanjianpu, a name familiar to me from the Google Earth information. Built in 1581, it is a Buddhist nunnery and a locally protected historical site. Lots of detail, but something didn’t ring true with me and my sense of the place I was looking for. But lacking any counter intelligence I decided we would go for it.

Maps in China are a hit or miss proposition, rarely having the detail necessary for anything more than the most cursory use. Chinese people are generally not familiar with them, don’t use them and will look at you as though you have handed them something written in Mayan if you attempt to show them one. I encountered this multiple times in Shanghai with taxi drivers – you’d tell them where you wanted to go, they’d look confused. You’d show them a map and they’d ask you to get out of the cab. No one here seems to need them or want them, relying instead on spoken directions. I suppose a humorous definition of a Chinese map might be a driver and 100 pedestrians to ask along the way. The problem with that process though is that the people doing the answering often have no idea what you’re asking about. To counter this, I made a roughly drawn map myself from Google Earth, marking distances between turn-offs, figuring if we just did it step by step we would more or less find our way there.

James picked me up as planned at 8 and promptly took us off on a tangential route that bore no resemblance to what I had drawn and shown him. I figured I was off on an adventure, so why bother sticking to some sort of artificial means that would take all of the fun out of achieving my goal by making it actually achievable. I sat back and drank in the early morning sights.

We headed NW across Kai Fa Qu to the city of Jinzhou. The streets were foggy with thick gray smoke from fires, being used to heat homes. There is no heat in many of these neighborhoods and people burn trash and scrap wood in order to stay warm at night. The effect is an acrid, dense fog of smoke that clings to the low lying areas as the cold air settles in on top of it. A genuine inversion with an air quality like nothing I have seen aside from a summertime forest fire in the US. The effect it was having on my lungs made me wonder how people could live like this, especially children whose lungs were developing under such horrid conditions. We entered a newly built expressway and my rough hewn map was now fully a thing of the past. Bit at least the air cleared up a tad and as we sped along we closed in on the ocean, specifically the Bo Hai, the sea that borders the western side of Liaoning.

A few small islands dotted the horizon, choked in their own wreath of smoke. As we crossed an inlet, I could a swarm of small waves, from shore to shore, breaking on the shallows as the tide came in. The highway was very nicely built and spotless and populated by very few cars. I looked as though we would make our destination in less than ½ hour, according to the sign for the distance to Sanjianpu.

We arrived at the exit to find it half blocked by a concrete barrier, one side having been pushed aside in a crumbled heap. James stopped the car while we assessed the situation. We decided to go on figuring we could just do a u-turn at the bottom if we had to. And it turned out we did. Driving back up the ramp we stopped to ask a worker how to get where we were going. He and James exchanged a few questions and answers and we were once again on our way. Motoring down the road, we came to another exit, also blocked. As were the next half dozen. We were on the fanciest road in the region and there was no way to get off. The solution of course was to keep driving until the road ended which it did in the city of Lushun which I understood to be off limits to westerners. I asked him about that and he told me, no, they just don’t want any Japanese going there. So on we went, me sitting there certain that I was heading towards a day spent in an interrogation cell explaining why I had 2 cameras, 2 phones and a GPS on a Saturday drive through a sensitive military area.

My worried came to naught, as we exited before the submarine base, paid our toll and got instructions from the woman in the booth.

It was clear we were now off the urban grid and into what some call “the real China.” The air was even more choked with smoke here and the road we were on was pretty much just a dirt track with none of the controls that normally accompany modern travel. We passed through several villages just getting going for the day. People stood in little knots conversing about who knows what. Carts piled high with what appeared to be large turnips or rutabagas were slowly being pulled to market by donkeys, mules, an occasional horse and in one case, a cow. The oddest one though was a double being pulled by a horse and a donkey, and the donkey was having none of it, wringing its head into the side of the horse. It looked as though this set up was doomed to go in eternal circles due simply to the different strides of the animals.

We made it to the village of Sanjianpu having stopped and asked a couple of donkey drivers how to get there. A local delivery man gave us further directions and eventually we just stopped at the local police station who told us to turn around and go back two stop lights.

The troubling aspect of this adventure for me was the alarm bell ringing in my unerring sense of direction module – the place I was looking for was overlooking the sea, and that sea was many miles off in the opposite direction of where we were heading. But again, the journey is the thing and so I decided to just let come what was coming.

Having made the second turn we stopped to ask a woman walking along the road if we were heading in the correct direction. She had no idea, but the two old men wearing Nike baseball caps told us we were heading the right way. Both sides of the road were lined with greenhouses, sort of plastic covered half-circles with big straw mats rolled up on the apex. Apparently these are rolled down at night or during a cold spell to keep the plants inside warm and protected. The sheer number made me realize just how much of this local real estate is dedicated to food production. We passed row upon row of these structures and in between them, something else was growing. I guess dinner for 1.5 billion needs to come from somewhere.

The road began to climb and we went through one small village after another. We went by a brick factory – regular red building bricks on the left side of the road, brown clay drain tiles on the right. Women were carrying them one at a time from drying rack to drying rack. Men scooted past on little three wheel motorbikes adapted to their intended task by the addition a little shelf on the back, perhaps capable of carrying 100 pieces. We came around a corner and found our destination. It was clearly undergoing a serious renovation and thus not open to a visit. James asked a worker if this was the place and confirmed it, adding that there was but one nun living in the complex. I had to come up with the term “nun”, James called her a “monk opposite.” But this was not the place I was looking for, but the worker told us that there was another temple up the road and so off we went.

We headed up the side of a small mountain. The trunk of every tree was painted white up to the 4 foot level which gave an interesting contrast to the barren fall woods. As we climbed, birds darted back and forth across the road and we were treated to the incessant chatter of Magpies. Speaking of which, they are so very common here, we passed many flocks numbering in the dozens on our way here. They are one of my favorite birds, and seeing them in such abundance is a real treat for me.

James pulled over and asked an elderly couple gathering twigs if this was the road to the temple. They answered in the positive and said that we could see it if we pulled up a few yards and looked through the trees. Sure enough, there was a temple down there, but again not the one I was looking for. While we still had no idea where the one I wanted was, we were on our way to our second bonus temple. Not bad for 10 o’clock in the morning.

The road brought us down into a valley and a small farming community. Instead of a brick factory, this one had a foundry judging from the big box crane alongside a building. It seems that industry comes to the villages here as opposed to the other way around. In addition to being famers, these villagers have a ready-made job at the local factory. This morning though everyone in town was working on food production with cane being gather up in sheaves, cobs of corn being laid out on roofs to dry while those having been desiccated we being fed into shucking machines. Everyone was busy at something. The village was pretty small and it reminded me a lot of San Jose de Guaymas, the little square we pass in Mexico on our way to the Cardon forest. Perhaps all little places like this fall into some sort of pattern that works, and so you see these similarities everywhere.

The temple was on the far side of town up a rutted track. An entry pavilion was being built with workers and monks up on the peaked roof welding. The building up in back though was finished and so we followed the dirt road up and parked. James disappeared in the direction of the monk’s dormitory to ask about our as yet unfound location. I walked toward the main square, stopping to speak with a fellow who was getting on his motorcycle. He asked me where I was from and I told him and he commented in the most kind manner that my Chinese was quite good. I went on up the stairs and greeted a monk who was sitting on a small chair by the door.

The temple was large, brown wood post and beam construction, no doubt built from the really big logs we had seen down by the entrance. In the center were three large golden Buddha. Off to the left was another, more diminutive statue, pure white as built from alabaster. As always, places like this just bathe you in a sense of serenity. The silence, the smell of incense, the statues and the view of the valley lay out at your feet. I think one could spend years doing nothing but visiting temples.

James returned with some news – one of the monks knew the place we were looking for. It was back in the direction of Dalian and known locally as “Da Hei Shi” – Big Black Rock. I thanked the monk for his hospitality and we were off, back the way we came.

It was unfortunate to leave the peacefulness of the rural areas for the busy road, but that was our only choice. On the far side of Sanjianpu, we spotted a sign that read “Xiao Hei Shi” – Small Black Rock and James wondered if perhaps the monk had gotten his sizes wrong. We turned the corner and stopped to ask a woman making crepes in a little roadside restaurant. No, this was not the place.

Back out onto the road an on our way. Like the little village back at the temple, this section of road reminded me of Mexico, specifically the drive through Santa Ana. Had the signs not been in Hanji, I would have sworn that was where we were.

Rounding a bend in the highway we saw the sign we were looking for – Da Hei Shi – and so we turned left as instructed. On one side of the road was a large university, on the other vacation homes running three or four deep back from the beach. Up ahead on the top of a bluff overlooking the sea I could just make out the object of my quest – the statue of Guan Yin. I think James was genuinely impressed as I am sure he was beginning to doubt the existence of this place.

We went up the road stopping to ask one more bus driver for directions and found our way in spite of them. Turning right and heading up, the field of Buddha turned out to be a field of statues of Shaolin Monks, decked out in red and yellow capes. These would wait though and Guan Yin beckoned. The road was a really poor affair composed of gravel with lots of big rocks thrown in for good measure. We went by a three part archway, its role being lost to time and the weather. Up and up we climbed, finally cresting at a small parking lot at the base of the statue.

She was composed of metal and perhaps 25 feet tall. Standing on a marble plinth, wrapped in red fabric, she faced north and south with her many arms forming the other two cardinal points. The attendant collected 20 yuan from me for parking and we got out and wandered around. The view was pretty spectacular, the rocky coast on the left, and the dry brown fields of winter on the right. There was a slightly cold wind blowing and you could hear the surf crashing on the rocks below. James looked at me and said “This is very beautiful here” and my day was made. Earlier I had asked him if any of the other westerners that he had driven for had liked to go exploring. He said “no”, they just wanted to run errands. He told me later he considered himself lucky to drive for me as he loves to travel and it is good to have an excuse to do so.

We stayed up there for perhaps a half an hour and then went back down the see the statues below. This was a truly odd place, prayer flags were strewn everywhere along the path in, blowing in the on shore breeze. There were so many that they just began to look like litter. Written in Tibetan script, there were just hundreds and hundreds of them. We walked up a rocky path past a small altar until we found a break in the wall that surrounded the site. It was draped in red. Entering, the sheer quantity of statues was a bit overwhelming. James asked if I intended to photograph every single one and I laughed. Each was different, representing a sainted monk that defended their order. Some wore red cloaks, others gold. Some wore both. All were labeled at their base with their name. The path took a semi-circular route from left to right which then ended in some brambles. Magpies scolded from the pine trees up above us.

I’m not really sure what to say about this place. It was not peaceful like a temple, but it was special. And it was certainly like nothing I have seen before. We wandered back and forth and on the way out James picked up a scarlet prayer flag that had come loose and blown into a thorn bush. He studied it intently as we walked back to the care and once through the wall, I looked back to see him gently returning it to a tree along the path.






























From there we headed back to town. The last interesting thing of the day was getting stuck behind a truck loaded with what must have been an entire tree. It stuck out of the back a good 6 to 8 feet on both sides and perhaps 10 feet to the rear. It was interesting to see the other drivers trying to figure out how to pass it without scratching up their cars. The truck driver took great care in passing other vehicles, going all the way over into oncoming traffic to avoid running the branches along the side of a bus. He even gingerly passed a woman pedestrian standing on the middle line so that she would not be knocked over. It was a sight.

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