Across the Middle Kingdom

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9 August

3 August 1998 - Chongqing / Dazu

We docked this morning in the "Mountain City" of Chongqing. The terrain here is quite hilly-- San Francisco has nothing on this place. Why it should be the site of a city of 30 million people is frankly beyond me. There are enormous bridges here, impressive not for their length but for their height. On some bridges, the distance from the deck to the river surface is probably two hundred meters or more. There are roads cut into what should be cliffs; it's like a modern version of the cliff trails we saw on the Daning River. Just incredible.

Getting off the boat took some doing, as the path to shore was incomplete and the dock workers were insisting that we get back on the boat until they were finished. We settled for retreating halfway. I was starting to wonder if they'd demand a toll when they finally let us through.

Straightaway we boraded a bus and headed for Dazu. Thanks to the terrain, we had to go through a lot of tunnels before things smoothed out, relatively speaking. The interesting thing was the weather, which varied by valley. We'd be driving through rain, and then enter a tunnel. Upon emerging, there would be no rain. Through another tunnel, and into more rain; another tunnel, and then sunshine through a hazy sky. Very odd, although I can sort of imagine how the situation developed. Anyway, once we left the tunnels behind, the rain was gone and we enjoyed mostly sunlight.

As we got close to Dazu, we saw rice paddies galore, and then up ahead we noticed large rectangles of color right on the side of the road. As we passed the first few, there was quite a stir as we realized these were various foodstuffs (corn, peppers, etc.) spread out to dry-- right on the highway shoulder! I admit the asphalt would make an excellent drying surface; the practicality of humanity once again amazes me. I tried to get a picture, but we were moving a little too fast to get anything recognizable, I think.

And, of course, we had to leave the main highway for local-access roads-- in other words, dirt-and-stone mondopothole city. Whee! The roads are none too wide, either, which could make for some interesting passing situations...

We reached the Dazu Hotel just in time for lunch. While this hotel isn't quite up to the standards of the others we're beein in the trip, it's pretty obviously the best in town. The is the real China-- a place where farmers toil in rice paddies, roads are used as drying racks, and a semi-rural town (as it appears at first) can have a population of several million. Literally.

Anyway, lunch over, we set out for the Buddhist grotto nearby. This involved a ride up a narrow, winding road, climbing into the hills outside Dazu. As we ascended, the scenery became more and more beautiful. Almost impossible to photograph, but perhaps more interesting because of that. (We took a few pictures anyway, of course.)

As we got off the bus at the grotto, some men were setting off a huge cluster of fireworks. We later learned that this was a good-luck ritual, the excessive noise being thought to drive away demons and other evil spirits. At any rate, passing through the smoke cloud and a light rain, we entered the grotto.

I should describe the layout first. This "grotto" is a series of walkways, carvings, and caves which follow the contour of a steep, narrow natural cut in the hills. Sort of like a box canyon, in a way, only this is near the tops of the hills. This gives the grotto a rough "U" shape layout.

As for the carvings and statues themselves-- impressive. There was one trio of sages, each statue close to ten meters tall. In a cave were life-size (or slightly larger) statues depicting the sixteen disciples of Buddha-- the entire sixteen, plus decorations, having been carved out of the walls of the cave itself. The artists had taken an existing cave, enlarged it to the proper size, and then carved the figures right there, using the stone already in place.

And, most spectacular, the "Thousand Hands" wall sculpture, which depicts a Buddha backed by a wall filled with gold-painted hands, each one unique, some holding things like human figures, pagodas, and so on. According to our guide, the wall is eight meters high by about as many wide, and contains 1,007 hands.


There was a great deal else (a 20-meter long reclining Buddha, the Wheel of Transfiguration, the story-carving) but to attempt descriptions of all would be futile. I hope the pictures come out, especially the ones taken after the sun emerged.

That evening, Kat, Crandall, Brendan, and I played Mahjong for an hour (much to the amusement of the young ladies serving us tea) before retiring to our plywood beds. Well, that's what they felt like, anyway. Plus we had to sleep apart, not having been able to get a one-bed room. I think we both had nightmares as a result-- it's been a long time since we slept apart.

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