Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Qiānshān, Part 1

Qiānshān National Park lies about 10 kilometers outside of the northern Liaoning Province City of Ānshān. The city is known for its bad air and prodigious amounts of coal dust, it being the home of huge steel plant and coal mines. With the defeat of the Japanese at the end of the Second World War and following the triumph of the People’s Liberation Army over the final remnants of the Kuomintang, the region quickly evolved into one of industrializing China’s heavy manufacturing zones. Fifty years later it’s recovering from the end of that cycle and trying to re-invent itself as a technology zone.

Qiānshān though has a much different origin. The name is short for “Thousand Lotus Flower Mountains” and was formed when a kindly goddess covered the sun with rocks in order to protect the people living below. One fell to earth and like a pebble falling into sand dozens of tiny mountains were raised up taking the form of the petals of a Lotus flower. Today the area is one of the premier scenic stops in this part of the country and it’s been on my list since I’d heard of it from my first driver back in November. Known not only for its scenic splendor, it is also home to dozens of Buddhist and Taoist temples many at the top of the various peaks. Additionally Ānshān offers the Temple of the Jade Buddha, site of the world’s largest Buddha carved from a single boulder of that gemstone.

I made a plan with Jiang to leave town around 7AM planning on a 3 hour drive up north. Jiang is from Dalian proper and so my little burg offers him some challenges in finding his way around. I know Ka Fa Qu pretty well and we often joke that e make a good team because he knows his territory and I know mine. This was again confirmed when he chose the most obscure route to the expressway entrance taking me through districts I had never seen before. Capitalizing on the moment I used it to learn the proper way to say “I’ve not been here before.” This was a pretty rundown part of town, a mixture of grimy repair shops, single story brick row houses and trash filled lots. People sat out on the curb waiting for the morning bus and thick gray smoke choked the alleys, the product of morning cooking fires.

We finally found our way to the Shenda Expressway Jinzhou entrance and after dodging a long, long line of flatbeds carrying the oddest assortment of giant steel pipes, valves and equipment, entered through the toll plaza.

The Shenda is a great, slick, comfortable road and we were quickly up to 140 KPH heading north. Jinzhou was quickly behind us and I always look forward to leaving the city and getting out into the environs. Tiny farming villages hug both sides of the road each managing dozens of primitive greenhouses. Built of adobe bricks piled in a quarter-circle and arrayed to face the south, the clear side windows are covered with straw mats that are rolled up and down according to the temperature and the time of day. They look far older than I imagine they are, seeming to go back centuries aside from the dirty glass. The hillsides were covered with endless fields of corn nearing its time for harvest. Soon the ears will make their way into the boiling pots in countless street markets across the region and the stalks will be piled in great heaps along the lanes providing winter forage for the farm animals and heating fuel for the homes.

An hour or so into the trip Jiang slowed to pull off to “Go WC” and I had my first visit to a Chinese highway rest area. It was mostly empty aside from the passengers from a couple of tour buses. There were three buildings - one dedicated to rest rooms, another to a grocery store and “Repairing Station” and a third of indeterminate purpose. That building had a fruit stand set up in front of it. A one sentence tape loop kept playing over a loudspeaker announcing something to do with the store reminding me of the announcements we joke about in Mexican supermarkets. Men sat on the ground staring at me and smoking cigarettes. Jiang went off to smoke one of his own.

I waited by the car and looked at what little there was to see. I had the door open and was rummaging around in the front seat when a car horn startled me - some guy in an SUV had decided that his trip required passage between me and the curb and my door was blocking his way. Never mind the fact that the lot was completely vacant and that it would have actually been easier for him to go another way, such is the way that it is here, cars rule and pedestrians are merely there to be inconvenienced. I closed the door slightly to allow him to pass.

The road hugs the coast for a few miles and so the scenery changes a bit. We dipped down between to hillsides and crossed an estuary protected at one end by a giant statue of Poseidon, facing the oncoming traffic in the center median his merman tale beating the bronze waves behind him. Here the land use was different – acre-sized impoundments created square ponds for aquaculture – shrimp, fish and other sea creatures. So much of the land here is dedicated to food production and little goes to waste. Patches of pumpkins and corn can always be found growing on the sides of the highway, planted there by someone dwelling nearby.

Pedestrians are a genuine hazard on these regional roads as it is not uncommon to find little packs of people sitting on the guardrails. Although these are “limited access” roads, taxis and buses still stop to collect passengers, something you would never see in the US. Occasionally their presence creates a bit of a safety issue when families cross the road burdened with whatever sack of stuff they are carrying to their next destination. Usually we simply change lanes and lay on the horn lest they not see us speeding towards them. Today though something different happened – we came around a blind corner in the passing lane and found a woman casually strolling down the middle. Jiang had to react, but it wasn’t a matter of a screeching brakes reaction – he had time to move the car into the middle lane which was thankfully devoid of a bus competing for the same space. We went by her in a flash and I was stupefied – she was walking in the direction of our travel, not looking back and was clearly not crossing the road. Jiang said, “Jīngshénbìng”, “mental illness” and I left it at that.

Two hours into the trip we found the Ānshān exit and after contributing 120 kuài to the provincial coffers we headed into town along the main road. Jiang had a nice loud chat with the toll collector regarding where we were going and it seemed to be simple – straight ahead.

My first impression of the city was very favorable – it seemed to be clean, slightly more modern than where we’d just come from and a lot easier on the eyes. Jiang told me that there was a big problem with dust and smog here because the factories are in the city instead of surrounding it as they do in Dalian. Today though the air was clear, well clear by China standards and certainly not as bad as he described. As we went on I started to pay a bit more attention to the details and the place began to look pretty war torn. Both sides of the street were lined with seemingly endless rows of abandoned apartment blocks, appearing as though a battle had recently been concluded. I was reminded of pictures of Chechnya from the time of its war of secession. As always here where there are abandoned buildings there are piles of rubble and trash and this place was no exception. It was a strange situation – the boulevard was wide and well-kept and as long as you looked straight ahead, things were fine. But scanning the side streets and alleys left you with a completely different impression. Eventually we made our way to the heart of the city and Ānshān looked about the same as every other city I’ve visited here.

The other side of town presented a polar opposite – we were nearing the park and heading into the mountains that run west of the city. Here, dozens of bicyclists on mountain bikes were riding down the service road that ran parallel to our street. I found it interesting that they too were dressed from head to toe like my friend Chung, every square inch of skin covered in tights, gloves and long-sleeved jerseys. I’m not sure if this is a sun protection thing or if they have seen how hardcore mountain bikers dress in the west and are emulating that look. Whatever the reason it was far too hot in my estimation to be dressed up like they were.

We passed a big temple complex and I told Jiang that it was probably the home of the Jade Buddha. He seemed surprised but we kept to our route eventually winding our way out into the country and the entrance to Qiānshān. We paid 5 kuài to park, gathered our goods and headed to the entrance, but not before Jiang insisted that I wear my hat; I was beginning to think that he might have been speaking to My Lovely Wife.
We stopped in front of the main gate so that I could get my picture taken, proving that I had been here. Jiang took two and actually managed to not cut off my legs in the second one, something I can almost never rely on someone to do properly. I was impressed. At the main ticket office it was another 80 kuài to get in the park, I paid and we went in.

Chinese parks are very different than those in other countries. While they have the same elements – vistas, sites, souvenirs, rangers, visitors – these parks have a slightly more commercial/theme park feel to them. This one had a little fleet of blue electric cars to carry visitors to the tops of the mountains and the street lamps had speakers that played Chinese pop music. The general atmosphere is far more controlled and contrived, sort of what the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone might become if they were handed over to the Six Flags Corporation for management. Not bad, just not natural. Passing by the shuttle depot, we decided to walk. The day was reasonably cool, the road lined in shade, and the forest beckoned.








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