China 2012 – Day 13 Chengdu to Leshan & Mt. Emei (On Modern China, Buddhism, …)

While the street noises below us had continued fairly late into the evening, once the shops and stands closed down, the streets became amazingly quiet. Because there was no automobile traffic, the only passersby were on foot. Our bed was the softest so far in China, which may not be saying much, as the standard bed is very firm. Other than the lumpy bed, we’d had in Zhengzhou, though, we had slept just fine so far, and this night was no exception. I’m sure some would find Chinese hotel beds uncomfortable. Certainly, when we’d checked before we’d left many reviewers there had commented on the beds.

This bed also had a very heavy quilt, so in the middle of the night I got up and opened the door to the balcony a bit to let in some cooler air, but that had its downsides, as it also let in the first mosquitoes we’d encountered on the trip. In fact, we had seen very few bugs in the entire journey to this point. Perhaps three or four flies had pestered us occasionally at a lunch table, a few gnats were flying around at the Songyang Academy, and a little group of ladybugs had joined us in our room at the Shaolin Temple. Apart from that, we had been bug-free.

In the morning, when we went down for breakfast, we found the dining room was every bit as charming and quaint as the rest of the place, and the food was a very acceptable mix of western and Chinese dishes. Even though we’d grown quite accustomed to the Chinese fare, it was a good break to have a piece of toast and a decent cup of coffee.

We met our new guide, Kevin, who turned out to be a young man about the same age as our female guides in Beijing and Xian but very different in his attitudes and openness. Jenny had been very innocent, almost naive. She would say things like, “I don’t know why we can’t have Facebook,” without ever mentioning or even acknowledging the role of the government in that restriction. Phoebe had been more wordly, but she remained guarded on issues of the government. When she told us that much of the wealth in Xian came from people who had moved from the oil-rich northwest, we asked her how they managed to get rich from oil when they wouldn’t have had mineral rights. She answered, “One would think that when the oil belongs to the country that they wouldn’t get rich from it, but they have ways.” We knew what she meant of course, but she never overtly spoke of corruption or graft.

Kevin, on the other hand spoke openly of young people’s dissatisfaction with government policies, of their mishandling of agricultural affairs (his parents were farmers), and of rampant corruption. He was also more blunt about young people’s yearnings for freedom. He said, “My parents grew up with Chairman Mao and the Cultural Revolution. They had very little information, so they really didn’t know what they wanted. I think, perhaps, they were happier  Now, with technology, we have much more information; we know what we want.” Kevin’s English was by far the best of any of our guides so far, so we were able to conduct quite detailed and complex conversations with him. That was quite a relief after one-way Charlie. Charlie, by the way, had quite deliberately walked by plaques which made any mention of the destruction of the Cultural Revolution without ever saying a word, a function of his generation, I’m sure. He was also prone to statements like, “People are free to practice any religion they would like, so long as it doesn’t go against the government.”  Oh, right, Charlie.  Like those radical Falun Gong, folks, I suppose.

Kevin also spoke of the stress that young people feel today. Having witnessed such massive changes within the past twenty years they are unable to predict what their future will hold. He told us of an acquaintance who had married a young man from Shanghai. The young couple had purchased and apartment in Shanghai a few years earlier. That apartment was now worth triple the price they had paid for it.

All this conversation took place on the two-hour drive from Chengdu to Leshan, where we would see our first site in Sichuan province. The trip took us through much rural farmland, and we were relieved to see relatively clear skies for the first time since our day at the Great Wall. Chengdu’s industries (IT, car manufacturing, pharmaceuticals) are much lighter than those of Luoyang (tractors, ball bearings, glass) and Zhengzhou.

On our arrival in Leshan, a rather hilly, attractive city, we went directly to a boat which took us to the Giant Buddha of Leshan. Carved out of red sandstone cliffs at the confluence of the Min, Qingyi and Dadu Rivers from the 7th to 9th Centuries, the Buddha stands 71m tall. Our “temporary” guide from the day before had offered us the choice of seeing the Buddha from the steep stairs which descend on the left side, or from a boat. The opportunity to see a more panoramic view and avoid the prospect of an hour-long line-up for the crowded, jostling staircase led us to choose the boat. (photos)

As we disembarked from the boat, we walked directly across the street to a restaurant for lunch. We told Kevin that we were willing to eat anything, and that if he would just order us something indicative of the area, that would be great. The dishes were all different from anything we’d had before, although once again we were mildly surprised by the prevalence of cilantro in Chinese dishes. And, like the night before, we encountered the same aromatic mystery ingredient which had made our lips and tongue numb. With a little bit of sleuthing, we guessed that it might be a red peppercorn, and Kevin later confirmed this.

Our only other stop on this day was the Baoguo Monastery (Photos), just a short walk from our hotel at the base of Mt. Emei (the next day’s treat). Kevin’s approach to guiding stood in stark contrast to Charlie’s. He was much less prone to cite hundreds of dates and statistics, but instead gave us a few details (many of which were now becoming familiar from our many previous visits to Buddhist temples) and then let us ask questions. Somehow this exchange led to a discussion on the level of Buddhist belief among modern Chinese. Again, unlike Charlie, who was inclined to let us believe that a majority of Chinese people were devout Buddhists, Kevin’s view was that the vast majority of Chinese people were secular but shared a common set of values derived from a historical blend of Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. He even went so far as to suggest that many of the tourists who offer incense at the various temples we had visited had a poor understanding of the tenets of Buddhism, and were basically just going through the motion of prayer to ask for something for themselves.

He noted that monasteries were now essentially government controlled and pointed out that the government posts several precepts on the exterior of each monastery, most of which boil down to faithfulness to the government and its principles. He even translated some of them for us. While we were at the monastery, we also happened upon a group of business people seated in a temple while a monk read to them. I presumed that he was reading from the teachings of Buddha, but Kevin gave us a rough translation. He was essentially giving them a motivational speech on how to be a good and faithful worker. I’m not sure if I was disillusioned, because I had already had my misgivings at the Shaolin Temple, but it certainly saddened me. of all the things that Buddhism has to offer the world, I’m not sure that corporate pep talks rank high on the list. It did give me a better understanding, though, of the disengaged, vacant looks on so many of their faces. I’ve had that same look on my face during PD days for educators.

I should mention that the monastery is tucked into some beautiful scenery at the base of the mountain. This area is much wetter and warmer than any we had visited so far, so plant and bird life took on a much more sub-tropical feel.

After that, we checked into our hotel. The room was large and pleasant, and the large stands of bamboo outside our window were certainly nicer than some of the rooftops and courtyards we had seen in earlier lodgings. We made a tea and then went for a walk a short ways up the mountain, along a path that meandered along a tumbling stream. It provided some much needed serenity at the end of what had, otherwise, been a hectic two weeks.

Irene was coming down with a cold or the flu, so she had a hot bath, and I walked down the street and picked up a couple of skewers for myself and some oranges and a noodle bowl for her. After that, we called it a night.

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