Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Paved Paradise Put Up a Parking Lot!

Too many days on the tourist trail in China. Sometimes when in NZ I despair at our abandonment of the mountains. The vast areas of land preserved for eternity in their queitness, slowly and methodically being stripped of their biodiversity by an array of specially designed predators. But in China the despair is not quite so insidious, its in your face. Its the red panda skins hanging on the walls of guesthouses...above pinned up furry bear head skins...on sacred buddhist mountains. Its in the concrete slab monstrosities of tourist development. Square organised photo opportunities. Nature is reduced to 2D, a trophy on the wall a place you've been.

This is the worst we have encountered so far. The ugliness of the entrance to Luoji Shan. Half mentioned in the Lonely Planet as a lovely place to explore. It has now been found. We didn't make it much past the gate. The mana of the place has been spiked. The Joni Mitchell song springs to mind "Big Yellow Taxi", you know the one that goes, "They paved paradise and put up a parkin' lot, With a pink hotel, a boutique, and a swingin' hot spot". Its more than "a dollar and a half to see them" though, in China you get stung on average about 80 yuan ($20 dollars at the moment) for every natural feature you want to cast eyes on. We wouldn't mind if the money went to environmental protection.

Out of curiousity I followed my train of thought to investigate what motivated Joni Mitchell to write these lyrics. I didn't have to go far. Wikipedia quotes her,

I wrote 'Big Yellow Taxi' on my first trip to Hawaii. I took a taxi to the hotel and when I woke up the next morning, I threw back the curtains and saw these beautiful green mountains in the distance. Then, I looked down and there was a parking lot as far as the eye could see, and it broke my heart... this blight on paradise. That's when I sat down and wrote the song.

Hawaii as I have encountered in other reading (Song of the Dodo is recommended) is the extinction capital of earth, half of its 140 historically recorded bird species are extinct. Theres still plenty of trees in Hawaii though. It gets back to my point about New Zealand, things look nice on the outside, but there is no equilibrium, bird populations are getting smaller and more isolated and vulnerable to disease. If Avian influenza, hits us like it hit Hawaii with its vulnerable species, we can say good bye to a few more species. But I digress Penny and I are on holiday...

From Xichang we took a night train sitting up (rather than lying down) to Emei Shan. Tourist attraction supreme. This is the place where all those Chinese painting of enchanted looking landscapes (like the photos we took below at the Sichuan Art Gallery are from). I especially like the one with the train, as it shows the composers eye for reality!

Our reality was cloudy. We got off the train at 3am and accepted a touts inflated taxi to the Teddy Bear Hotel, famous and very comfortable backpacker hang-out. You can't bargain on prices at 3am in the morning. We didn't even try. We weren't in any hurry that morning our only deadline was checkout. Emei Shan was a late addition to our plans, we didn't really know anything about it. We packed a light pack expecting an easy stroll for an afternoon up a bit of a hill and ended up walking for 12 hours up 3000 metres up an increasingly dark train and staying in an old monastery, complete with nightman with flashlight and limp, under huge eiderdowns.

It was a fantastic day though. We checked out the museum at the bottom, which is worth visiting , if only for satirical value, before strolling up the windy and rolling concrete path through a succession of small monasteries. Regular sprite sellers plied us successfully with sprite. The paths were quite apart from at the Pure Sound Pavillion where an instantaneous infusion of Chinese tourists injected themselves to hear the rushing waters of the gorge and to visit the valley of the monkeys (Tibetan Macaques)and its crazy little fluffballs.

We escaped the madness by heading up, and of the thousands, there were only a handful that joined us. We ate a lovely dinner in the forest at the hard wok cafe just below the Venerable Trees terrace. The path was going seriously up by here, steps, thousands of them. All these vegetables are carried in. Hard work!

We pushed on past the Magic Peak Monastery and the Elephant Bathing Pool. The latter was where one of the legendary figures landed his flying elepant for a wash. The Lonely Planet seems obsessed with the small size of the pool, but I'm thinking that it would be a perfect size for washing your flying elephant as after all your flying elephant would probably be quite small wouldn't it? And its certainly a nice pool, in an improbable place. (the photo is taken on the way back down).

In the dark we got to the last road end and pushed on past the empty hawker stalls (pondering the shelter and warmth they would give us if we were forced to camp out in our shared thin sleeping bag) to the next monastery, this one. Penny liked it, I didn't, I thought it was creepy and I was looking forward to roughing it for a night and sitting dishevelled and dazed on the summit in the morning feeling like I had just done an adventure race.

Instead next morning we extricated ourselves out of bed at an early hour (in the dark) and slogged for an hour up the hill to narrowly lose the race to the first massive group coming out of the cable car. Theres actually two cable cars they must have decided the first wasn't big enough. The summit was sort of surreal. Pretty, but.

We had noodles and quickly headed down. 2000 metres of steps is many. The pain comes about a day later to the calfs, and stays for at least two days (we still have it). We went down the short way past some more monastery and tuck shops and lovely forests, back to the numbers and the toots and the beauty of the valleys. In Tibetan areas it was music drifting up the valleys here it is traffic noise (note to Chinese censors, ban tooting an Emei Shan, its a sacred mountain for goodness sake!!).

Next up for the day was Leshan and its Giant Buddha. It was big, 71 metres they say. And ancient, construction started around 700AD. I can imagine the awe of observors over the ages, but as discussed against the massiveness that is project China, you sort of expect it. My highlight for the day was the poetry of Dong Po...something along the lines of,

"Good to be the governor of Leshan Better to sit on Leshan's hill and drink tea".


Bob McKerrow said...

I enjoyed travelling with you and Penny. China, apart from HK, is the only country for me left to visit. So it is all new for me reading your blog. I have always been captivating by those almost surreal paintings, and you are there where you are surrounded by those majestic landscapes.

Keep plugging on brother. Are you going to Xianxang or whatever the spelling is. If so, my wifes grandmother lives right on the border on the Kazakh side and there will be a big bowl of tea waiting for you. Naila, my wife was born right on the border.



Jamie said...

Hey Bob

Unfortunately not this time. We are heading back east now, flying out of Xian on the 11th of November

International travels nearly at an end now but looking forward to a kiwi summer!