Monthly Archives: October 2012

The Big Ka-Buddha!

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Giant Buddha

A few years ago I was sitting at a café, when I randomly spotted an image of an enormous Buddha in a travel magazine. I had never seen an image like this before, and I was immediately intrigued. I knew one day I had to see this thing.

I remember glancing at the fine print and reading the Buddha was located in China, but I had never heard of the city before and soon forgot the name. Years later, when I was finally making plans to go to China, I knew I had to find this place. Lucky for me, Leshan, home of officially the world’s largest Buddha, was not too hard to find, and in fact was an easy day trip from Chengdu in Sichuan.

Carved into a cliff face, the Buddha is 233 feet tall, with shoulders 92 feet wide, and toes that are nearly 30 feet long, each! It was constructed between 713-803AD under the instruction of a monk who thought the Buddha’s presence would calm the tempestuous rivers that plagued the shipping vessels that went by. Interestingly enough, the sheer amount of rock that went into the water as a result of the sculpture altered the currents and indeed had a calming effect on the river.

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My trip to the Buddha was lovely, though not quite what I expected. What I didn’t realize was that the giant Buddha is part of an entire Buddhist complex, complete with numerous temples and parks to walk around. What I also didn’t realize is the main part of the complex is level with the Buddha’s enormous head, providing an interesting and relatively close perspective to see just how huge his features are, as well as a bit of a surprise when you enter the grounds. But to see the big picture, you have to line up with the seemingly millions of Chinese people to make the long, slow, crowded descent to the bottom. Luckily, there are enough viewing spots along the way to allow you a good long view of this wonder, which really is pretty amazing. Once at the bottom, you can linger a little (not too long) to take even more photos, before exiting and making the long ascent back to the top.

As a city, Leshan was pleasant enough, but the sweltering temperatures made daytime wandering highly undesirable. I only expected to spend one day there, but since the lone daily bus to reach my next destination in Kanding was booked, I had to spend an extra day. So what to do? See the Buddha again, of course, this time from water :). In addition to (or instead of) battling the crowds on the temple grounds, you can take a pleasant 30-minute boat ride along the side of the cliff instead. Though you don’t get nearly as close to the sculpture or spend as much time viewing it as if you were on the grounds, the boat ride is really relaxing and provides a bigger, more-distant perspective and enables you to see the two flanking sculptures that aren’t visible on land.

Below is a short video of this amazing and striking sculpture and definitely one of the coolest Buddha’s I’ve ever seen.

An Army of Terracotta

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I find the pottery sections of history museums incredibly frustrating. As much as I strive to be “cultured,” the drone of staring at one red pot after another creates a kind of tedium in me that knows no limits. This plus a healthy dose of guilt at my inability to truly appreciate the importance of these gems from the earliest stages of humanity leaves me always wanting to pass through quickly and move on. But, of course, my quest for knowledge and appreciation leads me to return to these museums again and again, though often to no new result.

Though I had specifically included a visit to Xi’an to see the famed Terracotta Warriors in China, my expectations for my appreciation for them were pretty low. As I read further about the warriors before my visit, I tried to fully grasp their importance.

Discovered by farmers in the 1970s, the Terracotta Warriors are a massive collection of life-sized pottery soldiers found buried around the tomb of China’s first emperor, Qin Shi Huang, dating from around 210 BC. The soldiers were thought to protect him even after his death. The true significance of the warriors comes not just from the fact that there a ridiculously huge amount of them (more than 8,000!), but that each warrior has his own set of distinct facial features, clothing and identity, all painstakingly detailed, down to the ridges on the bottom of their shoes. Additionally, hundreds of other sculptures, including acrobats and musicians, were found within the tomb, as well as horses, dogs, pigs, cows and other animals, presumably to provide entertainment and food for the emperor in the afterlife.

Knowing this information, I still didn’t have high expectations. In fact, more than being impressed with the warriors, I figured I’d also have an extra-large helping of guilt for not enjoying them all that much. I really did not expect to be COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY.

I made the trip with my two new Iowan friends (and train travel buddies), Kaleb and Wade, who I’d met in Beijing. The three of us hired a guide and followed the masses to Excavation Site 1, the first and largest of three sites open to the public. I gotta say, there’s something about seeing these pottery soldiers close-up, buried in the original ground they were discovered in that no museum can hold a candle to.

The largest and most impressive of the sites, there were more than 6,000 terracotta figures found in Excavation Site 1 alone! It was only when I actually saw the sheer number of clay soldiers standing attentive, staring back at me did I truly grasp their significance. All I can say is wow.

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Though smaller, Excavation Sites 2 and 3 were also nice, and featured more individually displayed warriors and details about the tomb. Site 2 featured four specific types of warriors, including soldier, general, army chief and a kneeling archer. It also showcased some of the warriors’ finer details, like the groves in their boots. Site 3, the army line closest to the emperor’s actual tomb, contained the highest rank of soldiers, situated differently than the other two sites.

What’s fascinating is that the excavation work is far from finished. In fact, the tomb of the emperor himself has yet to be touched and is supposed to contain the “real” treasure. The tomb, however, is apparently protected by a moat of lethal gases which would take years of planning and advanced technology to unearth safely.

Perhaps when that happens, I’ll have to make another trip to China :).

Why You Shouldn’t Drink on Trains…

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The drinking culture of different countries is usually pretty interesting.

In China, the ability to consume massive amounts of alcohol when pressured by friends or making a business deal is necessary in order to “save face” and maintain your reputation (ah, binge drinking, always a healthy habit). With the words “gan bei,” one must down the drink without question, often the ever-terrible and ever-potent “baijiu,” a distilled liquor usually made from rice, wheat or barley that can only be compared to drinking rubbing alcohol. Repeat this procedure throughout the night and you can get some interesting events.

Like when taking a night train in the seated class.

With our last-minute planning, my travel buddies Kaleb and Wade and I found ourselves forced to spend the night in the chair-only section of the train on our way to Pingyao. While Kaleb had his own seat in the section behind us, Wade and I found ourselves sitting across a table from a Chinese woman and a Chinese man who spoke no English but seemed pleasant enough. As I leaned against the window to attempt to sleep, I heard the words “gan bei”, as the Chinese man and his buddies across the aisle attempted to engage Wade in their drinking game. Always a good sport, Wade happily obliged, and as I glanced at the silver bottle containing the nasty baijiu, I was grateful to be a woman and, therefore, usually left alone in the drinking games.

As I continued to doze, I heard laughter as the men delighted in Wade’s participation and their own progressive inebriation. Awhile later, further into my sleep, I felt something shoving against my leg and was forced to awaken fully to discover our neighbor passed out, slumped across from us, trying to stretch his legs under the entire length of the table. The woman, who had originally sat across from me, had been displaced. I looked at Wade at what to do and together (or really, Wade), moved the man to lay on his back with his legs away from us and into the aisle.

Chinese drinking

Again, I attempted to sleep.

A short time later, I awoke to a gurgling noise to find that our Chinese neighbor had begun to vomit on himself. Quite disgusted, I waited in vain for one of this man’s buddies to take care of him. The guys across the aisle from us made no attempt to help this man, and in fact, found the situation pretty funny. Though I’ll admit I was part annoyed, part amused by the circumstances, I did not want this guy to choke and die on us and called the attention of one of the train attendants.

Chinese drinking

I have little experience taking care of drunk people, but I thought the SOP of these situations was to turn the person over so they don’t choke. To my surprise, the train attendant, finally dawdling over to us, simply wiped off the man’s face before covering it with newspaper. No joke.

I looked to Wade for help on this on to whether or not I was overly worried. He said that he was not planning on sleeping that night and would keep an eye on our drunken neighbor and make sure he kept breathing.

Semi-relaxed, again, I tried to sleep.

A short time later, I was woken up again to the feeling of someone pulling my backpack out from underneath my legs and seat. My sleepy instinct was to fight to hold my bag with my feet, and then I realized it was Wade “stealing” my bag and asked what was going on.

He said that our “friend” had begun to wet his pants and he was trying to save my bag so it didn’t get peed on.

Now I was annoyed.

As Wade tried to find a place to store my backpack on the already-full train, a distinct smell of urine filled the air as a pool of liquid began to form on the ground beneath the table.

I decided that I had had enough.

Like the woman before me, I found myself displaced and was lucky to find the one open seat remaining a few seats down.

Returning to my original seat in the morning, I was pleased to find the man sitting up, alive, relaxed in his chair, carrying on as if nothing had happened the night before. As I stared at the dried vomit on his face and the newspapers on the ground, I wondered what was going through his mind. Was there any sense of shame or remorse to the previous night’s activities or was this just another evening for him? If one was required to drink excessively to prove himself to his friends, was alcohol tolerance a factor or were these drunken and seemingly expected occurrences all part of the game?

I never did get my answer to that one. I’m just glad he didn’t piss on my bag :).

The Great Wall

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It seems so cliché to go to China and visit the Great Wall, but like the Taj Mahal, it’s one of those things that you just have to see if you have the chance.

With most of these kinds of sights, I always expect it to look just like the pictures, plus a million annoying tourists. But, I gotta say, seeing the Great Wall in person is so much better!

There are lots of places, especially around Beijing, to see the wall, but I opted to join a tour at the Beijing Downtown Backpackers Hostel that does a 6km hike on the wall between the cities of Jinshanling and Simatai.

It was perfect.

I have heard a lot of stories about overly touristy Great Wall destinations like Badaling or Mutianyu, where everywhere you look people are trying to sell you t-shirts and drinks. But on this hike, there were about 20 of us on our tour and only a handful of others that we encountered the entire afternoon.

We could not have asked for a better day. Above us, the sun was shining, with only a few clouds creating a perfect 70-something temperature for a hike. All around were absolutely stunning views of lush greenery and mountains. I had no idea the Great Wall of China would be this pretty!

My visit to the Great Wall was definitely one of my absolute favorite experiences of all of China and maybe of my entire trip. I hope you enjoy the photos!

Great Wall

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