Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Maiji Mountain

We went on a little three-day trip west of Xi'an along the route of the ancient Silk Road to see a mountain high in the valleys outside the city of Tianshui in Gansu province. The mountain is famous because of carvings of Buddha figures on the near perpendicular face of the mountain and the numerous caves or grottoes carved into the cliffs each of which contain Buddhist statutes and iconography that are about 1500 years old.

It was a rough trip mostly because it was by bus over very rough roads following the Wei River valley up over the mountains. Although this is a major trucking route leading to western China, in some sections it is only two lanes wide thereby leading to traffic jams. There is a new super highway under construction that is rather dramatic because much of it is perched on high pylons as it crosses the valleys and the river or disappears into mountain tunnels rather than clinging to the sides of the mountains as did the road we traveled, but in the meantime the current road has deteriorated leading to a slow, bone-jarring trip for us with many stops and delays.

The Wei River valley is photo-op heaven. The valley is a tribute to intensive farming. Beautiful terraced plots climb the hillsides outside every village and town. This time of year, all are luscious green, not with rice as is the common picture of China, but with wheat and rapeseed, the latter being in full bloom with yellow flowers. There are also terraced orchards of apple and peach trees sitting high on the sides of these mountains some of which are in bloom and all of which are well tended.

Farmers are out everywhere working the fields and orchards. There is little mechanization--I saw only two rototiller-type machines--but I did see several ox-drawn plows in operation and one being pulled by a human. The soil appears to be rich and deep.

Many fields were growing crops in plastic-covered hot houses or in rows where leaves were poking through plastic sheeting laid on the ground to retain moisture and curb weeds.

Everything was a treat to the eye. Maiji mountain was a wonder. I don't know how the ancient monks carved all those figures and grottoes on the cliff face so high up. Since there are deep holes in the rock around all these figures, it appears they erected a framework of scaffolding that rested on timbers that were seated in these holes.

Of course, all the original wood scaffolding has rotted away, but the tourism ministry has replaced it with concrete and steel. It is quite safe, but the steps are still steep and when a stiff wind is rushing across the cliff face and you're hundreds of meters above the ground it is still unnerving and you find yourself gripping the handrails extra tight.

I can't say much about all the Buddhist carvings we saw, because I don't understand what all the symbolism means. It's was all a little strange and off-putting, but you have to admire the devotion of those who dedicated maybe their whole lives to these carvings. They were dramatic, and the whole experience of climbing so high up and seeing things that were so old was worth the 10-hours trip it took to get there.
It was even worth the 13 hours it took to get back. The return was dramatic because we went over the same road only in the rain, which turned out to be the cause of numerous truck accidents, which in turn caused hours worth of delays. Chinese cargo-hauling trucks are enormous. They are much longer than what I've seen in the U.S. and Europe, so when we encountered them on the hairpin turns on this road, they took most of the roadway.

We first encountered a car carrier whose rear axle had slid off the road and whose cab protruded out into half the roadway. Cars and even our bus could still get by one-by-one, single file, but since the accident had occurred on a turn the long cargo trucks could not, although they tried which only resulted in a traffic jam.

We sat on the bus for about an hour while the police tried to sort it out, but eventually the guys got out and stood on the side of the road to watch the action. It was pretty dramatic seeing these big trucks straining to get their loads moving uphill. Their exhausts were belching black smoke as the engines accelerated, the cabs were bouncing with each surge of energy, and the pneumatic brake systems were hissing compressed air as the drivers alternately engaged and released the brakes while maneuvering between a steep drop off on the outside of the turn and the broken-down car carrier on the inside of the turn. The front outside wheels were within centimeters of the sharp edge, and on the inside the truck’s loads were scrubbing against the car carrier’s cab. After several of the larger trucks had cleared the wreck we were permitted to pass through, but looking back at the side of the mountain we could see several kilometers of backup that took the rest of the day to clear.

But we were not home free. Several hours later traffic stopped again. When we got to the front of the backup we found several big trucks inching their way through a tunnel. Trucks jammed one lane inside the tunnel and could not move, and in the other lane was a truck with a large load squeezing through. It had a large section of a crane on the bed, and the top corner was catching on the wall of the tunnel while the other side was catching the loads of the trucks in the other lane. Men were all around pointing and gesturing, cursing and yelling, while the driver swung the steering wheel first to the right and then to the left until his rig was through.

Behind him emerged kilometers and kilometers up backed up traffic, which passed us as we stood on the side of the road watching. For reasons unknown, our lane did not move for another hour. But I didn't mind. I watched and watched as China passed before my eyes. There were sweating, rough-looking Chinese truck drivers with cigarettes hanging from their lips, farmers in their motorcycle pickups carrying loads to numerous and varied to describe, well-dressed city folks in their SUVs, young couples on their motorcycles usually with a young child squeezed in between mom and dad, a small van filled with school children their noses pressed to the windows--a cross section of the 1.3 billion people who inhabit this beautiful land.

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