Hope you are well. It’s been another exciting week in China , which should please those of you have commented that these reports are like a soap opera. This week there’s a new character in the serial, a young Chinese guy called Ben (the titular accidental engineer). I’ll give some background, both to enhance your dramatic pleasure and because it provides some interesting insight into the workings of China .
Ben’s from a largish (i.e. bigger than one child) family, as his parents got special permission to have another child. This was a result of Ben, perhaps unwisely, attempting to emulate the antics of his favourite TV acrobat by swinging round an iron pole. Unfortunately he had got to said pole by climbing out of the second floor (English first floor) window of his house. As he recounts the story, his mother watched, understandably a little upset, as he fell off and landed on his head (Chinese TV acrobats now warn children not to copy their stunts, I can’t imagine that this was purely a result of Ben’s accident, which brings to mind images of early 80’s children all over China falling onto their heads after swinging round poles, probably with their mothers watching). Fortunately Ben made a full recovery, but by this time he already had a sister.
He also told me that his mother is one of 10 children, the result of official policy at a time when China was backing Vietnam in the war against the US . Ben explains it by saying that the government didn’t want to run out of people, which seems quite dramatic, but may well have been what people were told. It’s interesting to live in a country where the structure of government allows such dramatic changes of policy within the space of one generation, and also allows the building of a dam that will displace millions of people (but I’ll explain more about that after I’ve been on the Three Gorges trip).
Skipping forward 15 years to the Spring Festival, Ben’s family home (along with about 80 others) was burnt down by a stray firework. Fortunately his family were visiting relatives, but they did lose all their possessions. At first people were not too worried, as they believed that the government would compensate them for the damage. Unfortunately this hasn’t happened (although they were provided with a place to live). The Chinese seem to take these things stoically, with Ben describing life as being about ups and downs. The main thing that seems to rankle is that the houses that were destroyed overlooked Jifangbei Square , which is right in the commercial centre of Chongqing . The government can sell this land for a huge amount of money, but the former tenants are going to see very little of it. While nobody seems to think that there is any corruption involved, and I’m certainly not going to suggest that there was while I’m living out here, I get the feeling that the former residents feel that they have been treated a little unfairly.
Jumping forward another couple of years will bring us pretty much up to date (Ben’s 23 now). He’s working in the same department as me, on pretty much the same project, but never really meant to. The explanation provides a fairly dramatic example of the danger of saying yes when you don’t really understand the question. Basically Ben’s degree is in International Business, and he applied for a PR job with Ford. He got a phone call to say that all the PR jobs had gone, but would he be interested in working in TD. He was keen to get a foot in the door, so agreed enthusiastically. In his words he was “Shocked” when he found out that TD stood for Technical Design. The Chinese have a great sense of humour, and he laughs all the time as he tells this story. I don’t think any of the other English engineers here know this story, and I had to laugh when Ben got a sum wrong and the managers response was ‘You call yourself an engineering graduate?’. Ben wisely kept his mouth shut.
I think that’s enough scene setting, now we can move on to the story proper. The adventure really started on Friday night with the traditional trip to the supermarket for camping food. Careful planning was needed as temperatures were forecast to reach 44degrees on Sunday. Fresh meat was out of the question, so we got some smoked sausages, similar to the red ones covered in flour that they sell in Spain From here things went downhill, largely because I’d made the mistake of going shopping while hungry. We left the shop laden with a nutritious diet of biscuits (both cheesy and chocolate), crisps, popcorn, jelly, dried beef and the all-important sausages. I think it’s fair to say that significant expeditions have survived on less.
An early start Saturday morning meant we got to the bus station at the same time as everybody else in Chongqing . The bus station was as exciting as any other in the world (I imagine this is quite a subjective point, but for the record I like bus stations). People laden with sacks hurried in every direction, seemingly obeying the Chinese instructions that boomed over the tannoy. Ben made sure we got on the right bus, and paid local prices. It was interesting to learn that even non-local Chinese will pay an inflated price for their ticket, which means that when Ben travels he has to get friends and relatives to arrange his tickets. We splashed out on an air-conditioned bus, the only real option when the temperature was already 30 degrees at 9:30 .
We passed the mountains that surround Chongqing , high enough to trap hot air and pollution, leading to the often-unpleasant atmosphere in the city. Fortunately a tunnel saved us driving over them, and allowed me to experience the longest road tunnel in Asia (if you discount ones that go under the sea). The bus station in Dazu provided a contrast to the high-tech bustle of Chongqing . Departing buses kicked up clouds of dust from the barely surfaced parking area, and a lack of air-conditioning left us sitting in 35degree heat for two hours while we waited for the bus to Baoding .
Twisting round peasant houses, and through their paddy fields, a single-track road took us to Baoding , the site of the Buddhist carvings. The town itself is a tourist trap, with the hawkers and hustlers that have been refreshingly absent from the rest of the country. Fortunately they haven’t perfected their art, and a smiling no thank- you sends them scurrying to the honey pot of tourists on package tours.
The statues at Baoding are spectacular. The life’s work of a devout Buddhist 1000 years ago, the site has survived the intervening years almost intact, important enough to be protected by the countries rulers during the most turbulent times. The carvings are spectacular with intricate scenes depicting important Buddhist principles. In one the progression of a bull from wild animal to domesticated animal is used to illustrate the path to enlightenment, with the man and bull fighting while unenlightened, and able to live harmony once enlightened. Other carvings show a god holding a samsara wheel, with graphic depictions of hell serving as a warning to those who do not lead a pure life.
The most striking figure is a 1000 armed goddess (apologies to those who know anything about Buddhism for the vague reports of who’s who). 1000 hands were individually carved into the rock, with every hand decorated by an eye. It’s hard to explain the effect of so many hands looking over you, but it was certainly unnerving. The whole figure was covered in gold, although sadly scaffolding, used for preservation work, obscured much of it.
Among the other scenes was a huge sleeping Buddha, more images of hell (the guy seemed to have enjoyed making these), one marking the filial piety (that’s what it says here, don’t know what it means) of an early Chinese Buddhist, and finally a depiction of the relationship between parent and child, the centrepiece of which is a non- PC carving of parents praying for the birth of a boy.
The carvings were fantastic, and I’m glad that I got to see them before they become any more commercially exploited than they have been already. The area is a World Heritage site, so it’s likely that it will continue to enjoy the protection that has kept it in such amazing condition so far.
Getting back to Dazu involved hiring an entire bus for ourselves. This meant that the driver ignored all the people at the side of the road, who would look disappointed as we shot past. It wasn’t long before I told Ben to ask them to pick them up. I really felt bad about leaving them stood there.
The best way I can describe the scenery in this part of the country is like a Vietnam film without the napalm (although this probably says more about our/my generations cultural references than the similarity of China and a country several thousand miles away). Terraced paddy fields disappeared into the haze, tended by people in conical straw hats. The steepest parts of the land are covered in dense forest, their height making them more visible than the fields, at times causing them to float in mid air.
Our destination for the evening was Longxi lake, meaning another bus ride, followed by a trip in a motor rickshaw. The motor rickshaw was a lot of fun, basically a motorbike with the back end chopped off and two wheels and a metal pan put in its place. I did wish that Ben would stop talking to the driver, as the distraction tended to lead to evasive action when an unnoticed truck appeared in front of us. Quite an exciting way to travel.
The lake itself was strange. I’d been expecting a rural hamlet on the edge of a small lake, but was met by a sort of Chinese Butlins. Food stalls prepared peoples evening meals, while other stands were ready to supply the masses with swimming costumes. Boats crowded the waters edge, ready to take people on exploratory journeys to distant shores (or as we shall discover later, to rescue people from islands in the middle of the lake). A short wander round saw us declining the advances of a prostitute, and accepting an offer of accommodation. Our cabin was on the far side of the lake, so we stepped into one of the boats and set off.
The cabin itself was a pleasant surprise; A/C and good beds promising a good nights sleep although the large gaps under the door and in the walls suggested that we should use the anti-mystical device that was provided. Dinner came with the cabin, it was fairly tasty, although I don’t think I’ll have pig’s ears again. Kind of like very chewy, but tasteless bacon. The walk back gave us a chance to see some of the local wildlife, including frogs, butterflies the size of your hand, a huge jumping spider (without exaggeration it must have been 4 inches across, while for those who prefer drama it was at least a foot across, with 10 legs, and when our eyes met I felt the chill that comes with knowing that death is imminent). Fortunately we managed to avoid the snakes (both water and land) that we had been warned about. With the air-con set to icy we settled down for a good nights sleep.
The next morning I learnt two important lessons. First if a Chinese person points to a fairly distant island and says that it would be fun to swim there, it’s probably more out of bravado than any real confidence in their ability. Secondly, if after reaching the island with some difficulty the Chinese person gets on a boat for the return journey, any English person on that island who claims they can keep up with the boat by swimming is probably doing it more out of bravado than any real confidence in their ability. However, while swimming I did see people flying above the lake on a death slide. Obviously our return journey could not be by boat when this option was open, although I did feel a little bit sorry for the woman who had bought us over the previous evening. She had returned at 6 in the morning and waited until 3 in the afternoon in the hope of giving us a lift back.
The death slide was amazing, going on rides like that over here is better than in England , because you don’t have the security of knowing that while it looks dangerous, in reality it’s safe. Suspended from a rusty metal cradle in a well used climbing harness we launched above the trees. I felt a bit sorry for Ben, who had described the ride as ‘thrilling’ when he first saw it, but I think he actually meant ‘I really don’t want to go on that’. He was certainly shaking enough when he was pushed off the platform. The stopping arrangement on the other side was a little rudimentary, mattresses suspended from the ceiling prevented broken legs when you impacted the wall. I had been really tempted to unclip above the water, but didn’t want to make myself too unpopular with the locals.
Our next journey was even more exciting (Mum, you may not want to read this, Dad, you can but pick your moment to tell mum). There were no motor rickshaws to take us back to the bus station, so we jumped on the back of some waiting motorcycles. This was the first time I’d been on a motorbike for any significant distance, and it was a lot of fun with the wind in my hair, the drivers attempting to assert their superiority over big trucks, pedestrians, animals and anything else that got in the way. While I enjoyed it, I think it may be playing the odds a bit if you did it more than occasionally.
Another bus took us to Chongqing and the pub, where we bumped into an English guy who was working over here. Ben got really drunk on two pints, which was quite funny, causing him to go into a stream of consciousness monologue in slightly broken English.
Another fun week, hopefully enough will happen this week to continue the action next Monday
PS I wrote all the above yesterday (Monday). To keep things interesting Ben phoned me last night to ask if he could move into my spare room. I’m a little hesitant as there are very few people who I could both work and live with, I feel as though I’m going to get very little time to myself if he does move in. Explaining this without offending him could be tricky, but I’ll keep you up to date.