Borrowing from The Insiders’ Guide to China, the first sentence reads, “A tour of China is more than just a tour, it is a grand pilgrimage through a civilization that has kept its basic structure and philosophy intact for nearly 5,000 years.” China’s cultural attractions were always the big draw for us and we were definitely not disappointed with them.
We knew that the Great Wall would take our breath away and it did – in more ways than one. During the first three weeks of our journey, before going to Beijing, we had not had a single day of clear blue skies. China has a very big problem with its air pollution. As luck would have it, the day of visiting BaDaLing and the Great Wall was a gorgeous one! A worker at our hotel in Beijing had told us to take Public Bus #60 to a certain stop. From there we could walk to the area with busses to BaDaLing. OK, we were game to do that! So, with city map in hand (to be sure that we were headed in the right direction) we got on Bus #60. As usual there was standing room only on the bus. It was common for us to find all public transportation in China to be packed full. It was difficult to look out the bus window to monitor the street names; however, after a few minutes the young man sitting in front of me jumped up to offer his seat. That seemed odd, because such chivalry was not seen often. Jane learned later that Sander had observed the grandmother figure next to the boy nudge him and point to my gray hair. The grandmother was also curious about just what I was doing with the map and proceeded to look at it and babble away in Mandarin. I pointed out our final destination and she responded by holding up five fingers and motioning that we should get off the bus. Sander guessed that she was trying to tell us to transfer at that stop to Bus #5 and a young girl nearby nodded her head “Yes”, we had guessed right.
The bus ride out to BaDaLing took about 1.5 hours. During the last 20 minutes of the ride we started to get glimpses of the wall in the mountains. The place was crawling with tourist ants and the souvenir sellers were in attack mode – even on the wall itself. None of that could discourage us, however. We were finally there and determined to climb to a high point to see as much as we could. The Great Wall is an experience we will remember always. See Photo #1.
Just south of Chengdu is the smaller town of Leshan (only 3.5 million). Situated at the confluence of two large rivers, the currents in the water are tremendous. In 713 AD a Buddhist monk began a project to sculpt a huge Buddha directly into a hill facing the river. It was hoped that the Buddha would protect the river vessels from the vicious currents. It took 90 years to complete and stands as the largest Buddha in the world at an overwhelming 71 meters high. The big toe of the Buddha measures in at 8.5 meters long. Unfortunately, we underestimated the popularity of the Buddha. We set off about 10 AM for the ferry ride over to the park. By the time we had hiked up to the head of the Buddha, we realized that it would take at least another two hours of standing in line to get down the path to his feet and look up. We would have to settle for the brief view from the river on the ferry crossing.
Just before the Yangtze River trip by boat, we visited the Dazu area to see the Baoding Shan grotto with its 15,000 statues, engravings and bas-relief images. The work in the grotto dates from the Song dynasty and took from 1179 to 1249 to complete. We purposely managed to get here first thing in the morning so that we could properly see it all without having to deal with hundreds of Chinese tourists. We did not want a repeat of the disappointment felt at Leshan. The most amazing piece of art is the Sakyamuni Buddha, The Sleeping Buddha. It is 102’ long and fills one entire wall in the grotto. See Photo #2.
The boat trip along the Yangtze River was interesting but we had expected more and were disappointed. Part of the expectation was due to the fact that the Three Gorges area of the river is supposed to be breath taking in its beauty. In the year 2009 the Chinese will complete their work on the controversial Three Gorges Dam at Sandouping. We were eager to see the river before this happens. When the damn (the largest in the world, of course!) is made operational it will flood an area the size of Singapore and wash away the homes of 2 million people. In preparation for this flooding, China has been relocating the lower parts of many river cities onto higher ground. We went ashore at one of the cities and watched men manually demolishing a building at the lower level. We wondered why they did not just blow up the building, but found out that every part of the buildings will be recycled. It was interesting to see the preparations for 2009, but we decided that it would not make any difference in what one will be able to see along the river in the years to come.
In fact the river trip may be more pleasant after the damn is made operational. The gray skies that you will notice in all our river photos were the result of really terrible air pollution. Keep in mind that I have doctored nearly every single photo that you have seen using “gamma” control and “contrast”. You will see the pollution even through the doctoring.
Currently, coal provides 70% of China’s energy needs. Around 900 million tons of lignite (low BTU, high moisture content) coal goes up in smoke every year. This smoke contains ash, soot and moisture. All along the river we saw storage bins for this coal. The damn’s hydroelectric production – the equivalent of 18 nuclear power plants – will equal 1/5 of China’s current generating capacity. It remains to be seen how much (if any) of the nasty coal usage will be curtailed. Regardless, the skies may clear appreciably over the next ten years…we can always hope so, anyway.
One of our major concerns about the flooding of the Yangtze River valley is the possible loss of many other historic sights. A trip to Wuhan after our river boat ride presented us with a really amazing cultural experience. We had read that the Hubei Provincial Museum in Wuhan (7.9 million people) was a “must” for anyone interested in archeology. The museum is an exhibition of the 15,000 relics found in the tomb of Zeng Hou Yi from the year 433 BC. This tomb was discovered in 1978 and the museum opened in 1999.
Most of the items were cast in bronze…ritual vessels, weapons, horse and chariot equipment and utensils. There are gold objects and jade and lovely works of art including a beautiful deer with tall graceful antlers – in perfect condition. Perhaps the most amazing find in the tomb was a complete set of musical instruments. There is a set of 65 bells. Its composite set covers today’s C major scale and ranges 5 ½ octaves. There was a sign in the museum explaining the contributions to the field of music made by the Chinese and proven in this discovery. I did not understand much from the sign but have taken a photo of it to be included at the website.
The bells, the stone chimes, the drums and zithers, the bamboo wind instruments – 125 pieces altogether – have all been reproduced. The originals are displayed in the museum and the replicas are used by some local artists in a short performance. We took several short videos during this performance to give you an idea of the music and the instruments. You will need to view the videos at the website later when they have been posted.
Our concern is that the discovery of this tomb, just north of the river valley, was made in 1978. There are another 8,000 important archeological sights in the river basin. Despite earnest efforts to relocate and preserve relics, how many more sights lie undiscovered and will be buried forever beneath what critics are calling the “a 480km long septic tank – the largest toilet in the world”?
In the next letter we will tell you about our visit to Xian to see the mind-boggling Terra Cotta Soldiers…discovered only in 1974!
Jane and Sander