Friday, 20 May 2011

Do fish sleep?

Friday 20th May 2011

10 days left traveling the world.

MP3 track of the day: Du Hast - Rammstein

Weather: Today's weather was odd; its like the day never got past dawn. The smog was thick, preventing the sun from breaking through, making the whole day seem gloomy. The morning was cold, due to a strong breeze, and I regretted putting my shorts on; in the afternoon rain fell, however it felt acidic.

I didn't plan being up until midnight, but that's what happened; the Malayan woman and I passed the time chatting about our individual travels. As the conversation went on I felt a lot of respect for this young woman; she's from a country that isn't very rich and yet she's managed to visit Europe, the Middle East and Asia - on separate occasions - all by saving for three years before traveling for two months each time. It would appear that traveling is her passion and it was lovely to see her smile as she gave details about her trips. I do not begrudge the fact that she's traveled more than I; giving up your job in a country, where there's no social welfare, takes a lot of courage and it would appear that she's had to scrimp, save and fight for every bus ticket. As I put my head on my pillow I felt guilty; here was I, traveling for a year, without sacrifice and, two beds away, was a lady who had given up everything to concentrate on seeing the world. A remarkable woman.

Even though I'd had a late night I awoke early; the Malaysian woman was up too and, just before I left for the day, she handed me half of her 'Chinese Swiss-roll' saying that she wouldn't be able to eat it all. She continued to say that, to save money, she traveled with a lot of food and, me eating half of her cake, would lighten her bag. I thanked her before leaving; I hardly ever travel with food as the additional weight is unbearable. As I walked down the stairs, and onto the street, I realised that some nations don't have the luxury of paying that little bit more for additional comfort.

After breakfast I tracked down the number eighty-one bus. In truth it wasn't that much of a hunt as the receptionist had told me where to board from; I got on the bus and showed the driver a piece of paper indicating my destination. He gave me a smile, and a nod, so I sat down and started to read about the Longmen Caves. As I read I hardly noticed that bus stops were being announced in English; these are the first English speaking announcements I've heard, within China, and Louyang isn't even a tourist town. I eventually finished reading; I put away my book to find the bus full. All seats were taken and a handful of people were stood within the isle; as if on queue a group of old ladies boarded and I reluctantly gave up my seat (I can't wait to be old). For once the old lady seemed genuinely grateful and, as people departed the bus, she always looked around to see if I'd found another seat. Once stood up I had to bend down slightly to see the world outside; it was a mixture of urban development and smog. As you can tell it wasn't that pleasing on the eye and the amount of dirt, plastered on the sides of huge skyscrapers, didn't help. As I looked at the old lady I realised that she wasn't on her own; it would appear that she was apart of a group of seven consisting of three elderly ladies, two mental middle-aged men and a normal looking woman (who, I guessed, was the groups minder). I could tell that the group was discussing my misfortune of, now, being the only person still standing; I honestly didn't mind but, on two occasions, the lady in charge came to me and offered her seat. I smiled but refused; she got up again and pointed to an empty seat I'd failed to see. She, wondering why I hadn't taken it up, got out of her seat and walked in it's direction. I noticed her actions, spotted the empty seat, and sat down. She seemed content and so she returned to her seat and not another word was mentioned.

It took an hour to reach the terminus; the English announcement let me know that I'd arrived at the Longman Caves though, once off the bus, I'd wished it had instructed me in which direction to head. I started to walk in one direction before turning around and, after seeing a sign, walking in the other. It was a long walk, with the river to one side and an endless row of souvenir shops on the other. I hoped that a repeat of yesterday’s tourist trap wasn't going to occur and, fortunately, the tourist shops ended at a huge stone platform with a rock in the middle. Taking a closer inspection of said rock I could see Chinese writing written upon it; obviously I had no idea what it said though, from the fact that individual Chinese people wanted their photo taken with it, I reckoned it must have marked the start of the caves. As I looked around I was a little at a loss; with the heavy smog in the sky I couldn't see a ticket office, entry gate or anything touristy. All I could see was the river, a half built multi-story car park and a European style bridge and it was at this point that I wished the row of souvenir stalls had continued; it would have made getting to the entrance much easier. In the end I followed a Chinese couple towards the river front.

After a few steps I could see, in the distance, a ticket office. The ticket office was positioned on the west side of a huge stone square; said square seemed to be filled with banners. Like an army preparing for war these banners attracted people, and individual units were being deployed ready to enter the site. My pace quickened; there were more tour groups here than at the Shaolin Temple and my aim was to enter the site before they did. In my haste I didn't have time to query the increase in entry price (my guidebook said 80 Yuan whereas the price displayed was 120 Yen £12), I asked for one ticket and raced to the ticket barriers, sliding to a stop in front of the tour groups. Once inside the complex I moved quickly, taking a few photos of the river before walking to the caves. As I approached my heart sank; in front of me banners could be seen waving in the wind and I realised that a vanguard of tour groups had already been deployed. Determined for them not to ruin my day, I went up a set of metal steps to the view the first lot of caves

The Longmen caves weren't what I thought they were going to be. I'd visualised a cave with many Buddhas carved into the stone walls, however it wasn't really a cave at all. Niches, of various different sizes, had been chiseled into the mountainside and in each sat a stone carving of a Buddha. There were thousands of small compartments, lining the side of the wall, and then in three places, stood large niches able to hold Buddhist statues that were seventeen meters in height. The small statues weren't that interesting; a lot of them had been disfigured due to either looting, weather or the cultural revolution. The most interesting aspect about these smaller niches was the sheer amount of them.

The three areas of large statues all had a set of steps you had to ascend up. The first and third sets of figures were interesting but time had lessened their features; it was the second set which required more attention. With three men, on each side of her, the seventeen meter high Vairocana Buddha statue dominated the scene. Her features had hardly been touched, by time, and it was nice to see that, where repair could have been done, she had been left alone adding a hint of realism. The statues, to her immediate flanks, hadn't fared as well as her but the outer guardians were very impressive; almost as tall as Vairocana these four outer statues had more life, within their poses, than she did and one, in particular, grabbed my attention.

In the distance I could hear the beating of drums, the sounds of battle horns and the flags over the horizon (well, popping up from behind the stair case). I realised that this was my queue to leave the area and so I surrendered the territory, I'd gained, to the tourist groups and headed back down the steps to continue walking along the mountain side. Things were starting to feel similar with the same water flowing behind me, the same type of sculptures erected and the same breeze preventing me from getting warm. I therefore walked the final yards before stepping through the exit; since viewing the temples of Angkor nothing Buddhist has captivated me in the same way. I realised then that the Cambodian temples were both a pleasure and a curse; a pleasure to see such magnificent structures and a curse in that, anything I seem to view afterwards, never excites me in the same way.

To get back to my bus stop I had to cross the river and walk up the east bank. Along the eastern shores were three secondary attractions including more sculptures, a temple and a tomb. As the ticket barrier, to the remaining sculptures, was the first in view I presented my ticket and was allowed through. The sculptures were very similar to the ones I'd already scene, just a lot less of them; the joyous aspect was that it seemed to be missed by many tourists. For the first time, within the Louyang caves, I found myself alone and I enjoyed the walk up the mountainside and through the trees. The carvings were quite worn and so they held little interest; the view, on the other hand, was decent enough so that I could see the whole western mountainside. Thousands of small holes could be seen with the bigger sculptures easily identifiable.

Next up stood a mountain temple; I was a little out of breathe when I handed my ticket to the ticket inspector. Inside there wasn't anything new to compare with the other Chinese temples I've already seen. It was at this point that my camera memory card became full; I had a spare card but, normally, I would have gone back into town to purchase another spare ready for when this one became full. With less than two weeks left I felt that another memory card wasn't necessary; just another small reminder that my trip was drawing to a close.

Once down from the temple I went through the eastern exit barrier; I guessed that I must have missed the tomb and, as I was preparing to head across another bridge back to the west bank, I saw a ticket barrier to my right. I ventured forth and realised that the tomb lay within; for the final time today I presented my ticket and was allowed to pass. The tomb site was actually a small park with many sets of stone steps – that shone due to the sheer volume of traffic – winding up the side of a mountain. Part way up I noticed two pools with fish in each; as I continued to stare the fish remained still. None were floating on the top – and Chinese tourists were taking photos of them – so I guessed they weren't dead; maybe they were sleeping? As I continued my walk I asked myself this very important question ... do fish sleep? I tried asking the Chinese but they didn't know either.

The tomb was located at the highest point of the park; there wasn't much to see, just a large stone circle filled with earth. On top, the earth had been landscaped into a mound and plants grew. There were stone tablets within the area but they held little interest. The time was 11am and so I stopped and found a seat to eat the Chinese cake given to me by the Malayan girl. It was nice but still quite bland. As I was still hungry I ate a few biscuits before completing the perimeter of the park and heading out the way I'd come in.

Once across the bridge I again walked past the half built car park, and through the souvenir stalls, before stopping at my required bus stop. The driver of the first eighty-one service waved his hand to prevent me from boarding. It didn't matter, not long after another bus arrived. After I'd boarded I noticed that the old ladies, from this morning, were also heading back into town. We said hello, in our individual languages and, this time, we all got a seat. The journey was as eventful as this morning and, at around 1pm, I alighted outside of my hostel. Before finding lunch I had a couple of jobs to do; firstly, as I was only booked-in for three nights, I wanted to extend my stay for another night. I didn't think this was a problem as, so far, my dorm had only ever been occupied by myself and one other. Secondly I wanted to purchase a train ticket to Beijing (my final stop) for Sunday before asking for souvenir advice. Once back in my dorm I noticed that almost all of the beds had been taken; this would make a nice change (as long as they all weren't Chinese) however, I was a little concerned about being able to extend my stay. Once in reception the extension didn't seem a problem, however the train to Beijing did. Booked, booked, booked; every single soft sleeper was booked for the next ten days. I sat back not able to believe it. I therefore had no other option, I asked the lady to find me a hard sleeper for either tomorrow, Sunday or Monday night. She made a phone call and asked for some money; she said that she would see what she could do and I would have to come back later. I'd given her times but, at that point, I had no idea what I was going to get. If the hard sleepers were full then the only alternative was to take a train back to Xi'an, and transfer there to Beijing, as they had a lot more departures but it meant losing a day.

If at all possible I didn't really want a hard sleeper; firstly this was my last train journey and I wanted a little comfort. Secondly, and most importantly, a soft sleeper has four beds whereas a hard has six. Being able to sit up on a hard sleeper was impossible and there was bound to be more luggage. The luggage aspect was more of a concern to me than height (considering most trains departed late in the evening and arrived early within the morning) due to the fact that I'll be carrying additional clothes, and souvenirs, that have to be stored with my usual luggage. With four people to a birth it shouldn't have been a problem, but with six? I decided not to worry about it, what will be will be. The beds were quite long and so I could scrunch up a little to gain extra luggage space.

After lunch I went to buy souvenirs. I can't really comment any further on this as it will spoil the surprise once home; all I can say was that I spent the next hour, or so, talking to a guy who could only say, in English, 'please sit down' and that the smell of the retail outlet was pleasant. I left, two bags in each hand, wondering how on earth I was going to get all this lot home. Yet again I decided to cross that bridge once I came to it.

It was getting late and so I went back to the hostel to upload my photos, have something to eat and check upon my train ticket. No movement had occurred with my train ticket – which was a little annoying – and so I decided to head for an early night as I was shattered. The plan for tomorrow is to have a lie-in before photographing Louyang. This shouldn't take too long and, after, I plan to start my clothes shopping. I'm also planning on purchasing another bag – of some sort – to help carry the load. I think a taxi will be needed at Beijing train station.

Toodle Pip!


2) World Trip

China – Luoyang

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