The China Logs: Chengde

Well it’s been all up and down since the Great Wall, and we have clocked up quite a few miles too.

I am writing from sunny Xi’an (not! It’s been raining for 24 hours now) which is about 1,200km south-west of Beijing. I thought it might be a bit warmer here, and it’s certainly not cold, but this incessant pouring rain is getting to me, especially since both of us have come down with inevitable colds.

One of the highlights of the trip so far was last Sunday, when we took a four-hour train journey north of Beijing to spend the night in the mountain resort of Chengde. We travelled in a hard-seat carriage, which certainly doesn’t mean sitting on wooden benches – it is a reasonably comfortable carriage with about 150 people to the carriage, sitting 3 opposite 3 or 2 opposite 2 on nicely upholstered seats. Being a Sunday, most of the passengers seemed to be in high spirits, and it was a really enjoyable journey.

The train left promptly at 7.16am and after an hour or so we slowly left the built-up area of Beijing, and the high-rises melted away. The countryside began to take over as we climbed into the craggy mountains. The land looks fairly infertile but it can’t be – every spare inch of ground has been cultivated in some way, right up to the train tracks. Mostly the corn crop was dominating, although the harvest was over and all that was left were stalks ready to be cut down to make fuel or to be burnt on the narrow terraces for the next crop. The harvested corn was everywhere, like I saw before, stacked on windowsills and roofs to dry. A good deal of cabbage was being grown on the cleared land, and in the foothills I saw orange, lemon and peach groves covering every possible corner.

The people working the land seemed to have a hard enough life. We are talking 19th century farming methods for the most part: I saw one small tractor in the whole journey. Mostly, the land was being cleared by hand with scythes, or weeded manually with long-handled hoes. Other harvested crops (wheat? rye?) were being threshed by hand by the women, or laid out on the roadways to get the traffic to do the heavy work first. I even saw a traditional stone mill for grinding flour – it looked fairly newly-hewn and was clearly in current use. Nonetheless, there are electricity lines going into most of the dwellings so it’s a bit of a mismatch of technology I guess.

The sun shone as the train flew along through this scenery. I caught a rare glimpse of myself like a satellite camera zooming in on my position on the globe – I am so privileged to be able to travel so far in the world and to see these things for myself. There is a one in four billion chance that I was born to be who I am rather than the daughter of one of these subsistence farmers.
My thoughts wandered to my Dad, from whom I inherited my much of my adventurous and inquisitive traits. He was a great armchair traveller and I am sure would have been able to tell me a thing or two about my destinations and what I had seen, as well as being fascinated by the insights I gave him. I thought of all the things I had already seen in our travels that I would never be able to share with him, and how much I missed him still. Sitting there on the train as China passed my window and the sun shone on my face, I wept for all the new conversations I would never have with my wonderful dad.

In time we reached Chengde, and after a hairy hour or so looking for a bed for the night, we got our bearings and jumped on a local bus to take us to the biggest local attraction, a Buddhist monastery with an interesting statue (the book said). After 20 or so minutes crawling through the busy shopping streets of this little city (population approximately 1.4 million!) the shops thinned out into stalls and barrows selling fruit and other local produce. On the outskirts in the hills we could see the pagoda roofs of other local temples (there are eight in the general area) as well as some weird rock formations, one which looked like a club standing vertically (called Club Rock) and another which really looked like a toad (called, predicably, Toad Rock!).

We couldn’t have missed our destination though. The bus driver gave us the nod as we reached what looked like a fairly big monastery complex surrounded by touristy stalls selling the usual tat (red Chinese hanging good-luck things, postcards, bits of jade on a string, chopsticks, Fifty Cent tee-shirts???? yes really). We bought our tickets and a young monk let us in through the space-age-looking entrance gates into the ancient-looking complex. We found ourselves in a courtyard surrounded by smaller buildings in the Chinese style, as well as one pagoda housing three large steles (tall stones with calligraphy on). Just behind this building was another larger temple in which we found three buddhas, one representing the past, one the present and one the future. The middle one (the present) was a bit bigger than the other two, and they were all really nice, but nothing hugely exciting.

I looked around a bit more trying to be impressed and then came back out. Hmmm. Wonder which one was the interesting statue?

At the back of this courtyard were huge steep steps up to another gathering of buildings so we climbed up. A much larger courtyard was surrounded by buildings which looked a bit more Tibetan/Buddhist to me. A big trough held central position in which many big incense torches were burning. Young monks sat and chatted in small groups, hugging their maroon robes around them and kicking at the stones with their trainers. They looked like any other group of youngsters except for the shaved heads and monks’ habits. Closer to the main temple, a huge building at the back, was a group of much older men playing traditional Chinese instruments and chanting. Being late in the afternoon, there were few others around and I could really appreciate the tranquillity of the place.

We walked into the big temple, which was really high like a pagoda. On the right and left were huge painted statues of mythical warriors which are the protectors of the temple. I was fascinated by these and inspected them closely as they resembled a lot of what I had seen in India. Orlando’s bemused face directed my attention to the centre of the temple.

There, behind the monk’s prayer benches, above head height, I saw a pair of giant wooden bare feet peeking out from the carved wooden folds of a gown. I stopped in my tracks as I beheld what must have been the bottom quarter of an enormous statue. Even without being able to see the whole of the statue I was frozen to the spot by its presence. Awed, I edged forward and gazed ever upwards until I could see the whole 22m (about 70 feet) of this heart-stopping sight: the Buddhist Goddess of Infinite Mercies, Guanyin, with over 40 arms, carved entirely out of four types of wood, stood in majesty gazing at me from above.

(Strictly speaking, Guanyin is not a goddess (as Buddhists don’t worship gods) but a Boddhisattva, which is a person who has reached nirvana but chooses to stay on earth as a guide for others.)

Her head was crowned with an ornate headdress, an enormous necklace of wooden beads hung around her neck and her arms were adorned with what looked like jewelled armbands (but everything was polished red-hued wood). Each of her hands had an eye in the palm; each hand held an implement or object: an urn, a flower, a bow (for throwing arrows), a sword, a goblet.
I was entranced: more, I was overawed, and fought the urge to fall to my knees in front of her. There is only one time in my life that the sight of something has reduced me to tears, and that was the very first time I laid eyes on the Taj Mahal; but my reaction to this magnificent sight was much more profound that a reaction to an object of beauty. I am not sure if thoughts of my father were still fresh in my mind, or if the goddess herself sensed my emotions and understood. I truly felt as if I was in the presence of a divine being. I had no words for Orlando (then or since); I simply stood and wept silently for the second time that day.

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