Saturday, September 10, 2011

Don't Be Scared Little Guy...

...Wo bu yao ren! (I don't bite!)


Friday, September 09, 2011

The Mystery of the Mud and Clay

For years now, us Ballas have spent tons of time in ancient temples looking at sculptures built hundreds of years ago and wondering about their poor conditions. Except for such sculptures as the Buddha made out of a single piece of sandalwood at the Lama Temple, there are a relatively small number of ancient sites of worship that remain completely intact. There always seem to be heads missing, crumbling fingers, and worn down toes, and we are always left wondering why.

So when we arrived at the grottoes in Datong, we decided to do a little investigation. You see, with the 50,000 carvings, we figured there had to be some answers buried below the surface of the issue. We were highly skeptical that China would allow their history to simply crumble under the strains of weather and time.

With so many Buddhas of all shapes and sizes, there were a fair number that we could get close enough to touch. Many were merely worn around the edges but tons were barely recognizable as human figures. They had been reduced to lumps in the sides of the mountain with bits of paint still clinging on.

After much detective work, the Ballas discovered the deep dark secret of those ancient Buddhist sculptors. While many of the decorations are actually carved right into the stone and were painted in their day, a great deal more were not made to stand the test of time. Instead, the stones were carved into the basic shape of the Buddhas they represent and then covered with layers of mud mixed with hay until the surface was smooth. Finally, they were coated with paint and were ready to be worshiped by their creators.

Bring it on Hardy Boys!


Touch the Grottoes

Back in 2004, when we first went to Guilin and made a tour stop at a "famous" Chinese cave site (the name now escapes me), I was stunned by the proximity with which I was able to experience such wonders as stalactites and stalagmites. In other words, the tour guide and the guards (were there any?) were not concerned with the oil from my fingertips stopping the growth of these geologic marvels. If you have ever been to a tourist-style cave in the US, you'll probably recall the signs and lectures from the guides about this phenomenon.

Fast forward to this year's excursion to the Yungang Grottoes. These 50,000 Buddhas carved in stone date back 1500 years. Covered with plexiglass and housed in a temperature-controlled airplane hangar to protect them from the harsh elements? Nope. Now, while some of the caves housing the carvings have wooden railings across to protect the really large ones from being climbed on or the well-preserved ones from having their remaining paint rubbed off, there are very few areas that are off-limits. I noted plexiglass over one or two surfaces and signs requesting no photos of the large Buddhas, which is the case in any temple. This left around 49,900 that could be examined very closely. There was no concern about oily fingers!

As for the accompanying picture, that's the tiniest Buddha we found...and touched...carved around 470 A.D.


Thursday, September 08, 2011

Chinglish Lives!

We've been down this road before...snarky foreigners bemused at the mangled English on signs throughout China. (Just get a native speaker to do the translation!) Normally, we've moved way past writing about this phenomenon, but there were some great ones on Hengshan, a mountain (in fact, one of China's five sacred Taoist peaks) we hiked up after our visit to the hanging monastery.

Click on these pictures and enjoy a little trip back in time, Chinglish style...


Xuankong Si From Below

Z and I scampered across the rocks (of course we did!) to bring you what I think is an image that pretty effectively gets across the "hanging" nature of the hanging monastery. The temple is perched here something like 200 feet above our heads.

Incredible stuff!


Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Hanging Around...

...for around 1500 years.

It was "not without danger" (to quote our German friend Andreas) that we toured the Hanging Temple of Mount Heng (Xuankong Si), about 60 km outside of Datong. Ever since I had heard of this place a couple of years ago, I have wanted to see it for myself. Having experienced many temples all around China, most of which have similar layouts and design, this one was absolutely a sight to see.

Supported by stilts, Xuankong Si is uniquely attached to the side of a cliff. From the bottom view, it seems to literally hang. Built initially in 490 AD, it has been renovated a few times, most recently in the early 1900s. Given the amount of time that has passed since those repairs, it is amazing what good shape the temple is in.

The perception that one has when walking along the hallways is one of wonder...and a little fright. The view is spectacular, with beautiful rock faces at every angle. It reminded us a lot of the views we have experienced in the Grand Canyon, in that the sun, depending on time of day, would illuminate the rock or paint shadows, which would alter the appearance. If you stayed long enough, you could view the temple in sunlight and then shade, totally different but both beautiful. Looking down from this perch is not for the faint of heart, as the railings, both rickety and low (definitely not built with a westerner's height in mind!) provide little protection from the 100 meter drop. There are sections of the temple (which is wide but not very deep) where I found myself staying very near to the wall!

A few thoughts that struck me as I sauntered through walkways that, at times, seemed suspended in mid-air...

First of all, who could even dream up such a structure?

Secondly, once planned, how could the construction of a temple planned to dangle so precariously ever be approved or pursued?

Finally, how awesome would it have been to live here as the monks did...before tourism turned this spot into a destination visited by so many. To have been able to pray, study, eat, and sleep with the majesty of these surroundings, in addition to calling one of the most incredible man-made structures your home, must have been nothing short of inspiring.

As for now, it is a steady stream of visitors from all over the world...dragging their jaws on the ground with amazement. For Julie and me at least, you can put it in the "favorite temple" category hands down...or maybe, stilts up!


Civilized Driving?

Even though I suspect many of you would be hanging on for dear life as a taxi driver wings you along the roads of Beijing, the four of us have come to recognize the civilized nature of big city transportation, even in the great driving frontier that is today's China. Just in case we were beginning to take all of this civilization for granted, all we needed to do is head to small city China and experience driving the old school way.

Enter Datong, a wee city of 3.11 million people, a place where dotted lines mean nothing. Hey, even solid lines are no deterrent when one needs to get around slower moving traffic!

As we made our way out to Xuankong Si (a 1500 year old hanging monastery...stay tuned for stories and incredible pictures...), heading up through a mountain pass, the paved road ahead had been rendered impassable by a rock slide. And so onto the dirt it was! Bumping, jostling in our minibus, the same rules of the road applied...

Passing on the right? No problem! Just be sure to honk as you go by!

Somehow, it all works...


Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Traveling Coach

Datong is a third-tier city, located in Shanxi Province, a relatively undeveloped and poor part of China where coal is king. (It has been called the West Virginia of the Middle Kingdom.) Datong is also home to a number of historical sites that date back 1500 years, sites that Desi has been itching to see for years. (More on these sites in later posts.)

And so, there we were, riding on a big coach bus, a six-hour trip between Datong and Beijing. The other option at our disposal, an overnight train ride on nothing but hard seats, for some reason just didn't seem to cut it!

One of the advantages of buying bus tickets early (Read: A whole four hours prior to departure!) is that we nabbed the first four seats. Seats 1-4 were located right above the driver, at the front window on the upper level.

For Julie and Z, this meant a comfortable first use of the portable DVD player they picked up in the shadow of the Bell and Drum Towers. (After many years of looking for just the right deal.) We also had a bird's eye view of all of the impenetrable highway signs (click on the pictures to take a closer look...).

Such as...

Rear End Collision
Keep Space

And this one...

Rainy or Snowy Day
Bridge, Slow Driving

And, finally, my personal favorite...

Don't Try Fatigue Driving


PS: Why would highway signs in China be "translated" into English anyway?

It's Electric (conjure up that famous line-dance song as you read this title)

Did I say "run out" of electricity?

When you live in a high-rise in Beijing, paying your electric bill is nothing like you might expect. Writing a check to Pepco or PSE&G and mailing it out or taking care of it online is for most people unheard of in China. Instead, you need to buy your electricity as you need it.

In order to purchase electricity in Beijing, you must obtain a card, much like a top-up card for cell phones on a pay-as-you-go plan. Then you can go to almost any bank and add money (and therefore units of electricity) to your card. Once you have figured out this process (just one of those baby steps that foreigners need to learn by doing!), you take your card back to your apartment building and insert it into a slot in a box that has a digital meter on it. Once you insert it, the units are added and you are all set.

Just don't forget to check the box from time to time to see how many units you have left...or you may find yourself in the dark...without air conditioning...taking an icy cold shower.

Been there, done that.


PS: If you are still humming that song, I am deeply sorry.