I was looking at a 70-metre statue of the Buddha. More accurately, I was looking into his right ear, so immense was His Holiness, I had to start with a small piece of detail and go from there. About three thousand tourists were there to share the experience with me. They are loud, these Chinese tourists. And unruly. In a country reputed to be ruled by firm law and order, the one thing you will not find at a Chinese tourist site is law and order. There is only chaos.
As I looked at the Buddha’s kind stone face, the raucous masses jostled each other for a perfect spot on the iron railing for a private photo with the big man, trying to go for a shot which would show them completely alone with absolutely no one else around. Of course, they weren’t alone, and if they lingered more than a few seconds for their photos, they were rudely barged out of the way by the next group of pushy divinity seekers.
It had taken a couple of hours on an ancient, rattling minibus to the town of Leshan to get to the Buddha. I certainly wasn’t the only non-Chinese tourist that had come here to look at a giant effigy of Buddhism, but I was completely outnumbered by the local day-trippers who were also keen to get a look at the giant Buddha. They swarmed around the top viewing platform like angry bees and then the mass moved to one side and disappeared from view as the people made their descent to the Buddha’s feet via the staircase at the side of the mountain.
This crowded walkway leads from Buddha’s head and zig-zags its way down the deity’s right. I didn’t think it was possible to fit three thousand people into a very narrow caged walkway at once, but it was indeed so. From the top, the logistics of people-moving seemed completely impossible, but I suspected the people weren’t simply throwing themselves over the cliff to get down. No, there seemed to be a divine mechanism at work which made this Escher illusion physically possible.
Putting the moment off for as long as possible, I eventually joined the moving throng to make the descent myself. Unlike the panda sanctuary in Chengdu, there were no police officers here shoving everyone along the line. There was none of the usual yelling and screaming to keep moving here, just a friendly amount of rough barging, jostling and pushing, much like a queue to get on a train for which everyone has reserved seats. Tightly jostling crowds are a part of daily life in China, and any groping on one’s person is not to be taken personally in any way.
The steps down were uneven and very steep and I had to hold on tightly to the metal handrail to keep my balance. There was no danger of falling, since there would be at least several hundred bodies to buffer my fall. I let myself drift along with the human flow, pausing occasionally to pose for a photo as the locals couldn’t resist getting a picture of the Laowei and the Buddha at the same time. Laowei is the term the Chinese give to anyone who is not from their country and literally means Alien. It also implies full license for the whole population to stare intently at the foreigner, point in astonishment at one so pink, and take photos at will, often physically dragging the hapless tourist into the middle of large group photos, presumably as a funny-looking mascot.
Apparently, I was the second most interesting thing on this mountain, but I was used to that in China.
Since the population of China is well over 1.3 billion consumers, and there are limited numbers of non-Chinese tourists in the country at any one time, the chances of spotting a real foreigner in the flesh in a remote part of the country are slim. Not that Leshan is in any way remote. It’s understandable that the locals occasionally flip their lid at the sight of a white guy, especially one so hirsute. I had grown a beard and my resemblance to George Clooney was uncanny. The three giggling teenage girls descending the perilous steps in high heels immediately in front of me seemed to think so in any case. Just as I had been calculating how many of them I would need to use in the event of an emergency landing, one of them turned around and clicked her mobile phone in my face. Then her trendy buddies did the same and I was soon pulled into a foursome selfie at arms’ length whilst at the same time trying not to break my ankles. When the girls had gotten their fill of photos, the four-headed digital octopus which had been our happy group disbanded again, and the girls set about posting their snaps on whatever social media is sanctioned by the Chinese government to inform their friends about the incredibly sexy Westerner they had just groped. After another 20 minutes of slow human descent, I eventually reached the Buddha’s feet and again had several square metres of personal space all to myself.
That is a lot of personal space in China. Being able to see the ground in front of your feet for a metre in any direction is a major achievement. If the word crowded exists in the Chinese vocabulary, then it must surely be accompanied by descriptive adverbs such as very, totally or insanely. Perhaps the people here didn’t notice they were all squashed together like sardines. It is entirely possible there actually isn’t a word for crowded in the Chinese language, but only words which describe the opposite. One would comment on the lack of people or the spacious state of a particular piece of ground rather than to comment on the unfathomable density of the crowds.
I was beginning to feel the sapping effect a Chinese tourist attraction has on the soul, and I craned my neck to ponder the gigantic likeness of His Holiness in full once more, and perhaps gather some inner strength for the journey back to my hotel room. I wondered if there was such a thing as divine intervention, because I was going to need a bit of that to get home. There was a donations box near the exit, so I left some money behind in the hopes it would improve my bus Karma.
Getting on a local bus in China is usually a fight to the death. I was psyching myself up for the imminent melee and flexed my muscles in preparation to be elbowed out of the way by pensioners, kicked in the chins by small children and beaten with umbrellas by mini-skirted mothers carrying their infants for the privilege of getting a seat for the 10-minute ride back into town.
The Buddha continued to gaze benevolently over the thousands of people and the river beyond. I had gotten my fill of divinity and made my way back to town, readying myself for combat as I approached the bus stop at the end of the long trail leading away from the teeming crowds. In this part of the country the people pushed and barged in a more good-natured way than their city cousins, probably because they believed that the Buddha was watching them very closely. I managed to board the bus without major lacerations and then we all slowly made our way back into town.
An hour later, I ordered a cold chicken salad at Leshan Bus Station, which was a mistake, because there were bits of the chicken in there I hadn’t expected to see in a salad.
The next morning, I asked the English-speaking staff at my hotel for some hiking advice and got some good tips about which trails to take in order to avoid the crowds. They giggled a little as they said this and I wondered why. They advised me not to visit the Golden Summit of Emeishan today, as it was just another relentless tourist magnet attracting day-trippers by the thousands. I had made the mistake of picking a popular tourist attraction yesterday, and that can quickly be overwhelming in China.
No, today, I wanted to walk the path less travelled. Away from the teeming temples and smoggy viewpoints. I wanted unspoilt nature and solitude, both commodities were extremely hard to come by in China. Miraculously, I soon found myself in a patch of forest, on an ancient stone path with not a soul within earshot. I couldn’t hear a single jackhammer, concrete mixer or bulldozer, and it was quite a disconcerting experience. Was I still really in China? I had obviously become acclimatised to the amount of racket in China. Then I wondered why I was the only person on this trail and began to worry I might have made a terrible mistake. Surely, there had to be someone around.
Hello? 凡他妈的是每个人? Nothing.
Hiking is probably not a word in normal Chinese sporting vernacular, mainly because all of the trails in China seem to be neatly poured concrete and actual contact with nature is kept to a minimum at all times. Instead, there are usually a lot of signs along the way, telling you what do and what not to do. It’s incredible, this need to have signs and instructions everywhere. Then again, in such a populous place, a single sign could prevent a lot of awkward question-asking later on. Not that the request not to litter, smoke, spit or defecate in the national park did anything to prevent just that, but at least this part of the trail seemed to be free of globs of phlegm and other unspeakable things.
At the start of my walk, a few vendors hassled me to buy a walking stick to ward off the local monkeys, and I soon relented, buying a bamboo for a dirty Kwai from a gnarly old granny who tried to upsell the walking stick by offering to sell me cigarettes as well.
The paper money used in China has got to be amongst the most abused of currencies in the whole world. I had seen yuan notes that were worn, torn and ripped almost beyond recognition. The one yuan note, or Kwai to the locals, I handed over now was laughable, but the old woman didn’t bat an eyelid, snatching the money and adding it to her own wad of cash. Everyone in China carries a neatly sorted stack of money and the aim of the game is to pass on the dirtiest notes to someone else while retaining the cleanest bills in hand. I’d soon gotten the hang of sorting the money and selecting the dirty money first whenever I paid for anything.
Some of my purchasing decisions had been directly influenced by my need to banish my dirtiest Kwai and I found myself buying pork dumplings more often than was strictly necessary. Whenever I pulled out my neatly arranged pile of currency I would hear gasps of astonishment and murmurs of approval from the locals. A foreigner who had his Kwai in order was clearly to be reckoned with.
The nice thing about the country is once any bargaining has been done, the agreed to sum is duly paid, and very rarely does anyone make “mistakes” when giving change. The opposite is true in India, and since my visit there, I had become accustomed to adding any shopping total in my head before paying for it to make sure the number I was quoted was the right one. I hadn’t needed to do that in China at all, but the force of habit still appeared occasionally.
After a quick chat with the old woman, in which we clearly established that we couldn’t understand one another at all, I bought the walking stick she proffered, not to keep away the monkeys, but to keep away the other monkey stick vendors. After a few hours of walking, I noticed it was actually quite nice to have a walking stick. However, today there were no monkeys on Monkey Mountain, just other hikers, and soon I was again in a throng of people looking for monkeys in the time-honoured Chinese method of yelling as loudly as possible.
I moved past the crowds, and when I was nearly clear of the throng I was overtaken by a group of local high school students. One shy-looking girl chanced a quick “hello” before looking away and hiding behind her friends.
I wasn’t going to let that go, of course, and directly addressed the girl and asked her a lot of complex questions such as “What is your name?” and “Are you having a nice day?” She turned bright red and almost seemed to explode with embarrassment at being confronted by a real Laowei like this. Her friends came to the rescue and between them, the small group summoned enough words to enable communication with me. There was much giggling and more reddening of faces, but soon we into got the swing of things and I was able to ask them a few questions.
“Do you learn English at school?” I asked one girl.
“Yes, every day. We study very much.” A few solemn nods of agreement from her friends.
Apparently, one of the most bitterly contested subjects at school was English. Competition for class honours was fierce, and the brightest students in the class were those who excelled, not in Maths or Nuclear Fission Studies, but in my own native tongue. One of the boys said he was Class Leader because he had topped the class in the last English grammar test, and it was his job to make sure everyone stood to attention and greeted the teacher in unison whenever he walked into the room.
Then I told them I, too, was an English teacher, and I had the pleasure of seeing about a dozen teenage jaws drop simultaneously. The Class Leader was the first to recover from the shock of this piece of news and the air was suddenly full of questions. He asked me if I taught school students.
“Most of my students are business professionals,” I answered. This caused more astonished wonder from the students, and they echoed the widely-spread conviction in China that knowledge of the English language brought anyone who was skilled enough instant wealth and fortune. This is partly true, of course, as most of the population does not speak any English at all, but this is changing very quickly. At one point the government released a staggering statistic which proclaimed that there were 300,000,000 people, almost a quarter of the country’s population, who were currently learning to speak English. No doubt, this had been a directive to increase China’s competitiveness in the world market, but I had heard stories from other English teachers that the level of proficiency in the language was very poor, largely attributed to rote learning and tactics to pass exams. The youngsters standing before me seemed to be an exception to the rule. However, I had encountered many instances where perfect English was spoken at hotels and banks, but as soon as a question was asked which hadn’t been prepared in advance, all methods of communication had broken down instantly.
I disentangled myself from the school group and after another hour of walking through the forest on my own, I was again amongst the thick crowds of Chinese tourists, congregated at the national park’s entrance gate where there was an overabundance of souvenir shops and restaurants.
Large groups of happy campers sat at open tables lining Emei’s main restaurant arcade and watched as several buskers bashed out a few numbers. They were well equipped, these buskers. About half a dozen circled the large area, each with a headset microphone and guitar tightly cabled to the large amplifiers they carried on their backs. Ingenious as ever, the Chinese. The only thing they lacked was the ability to sing, and so the resulting sound was somewhere between a screaming teenager and a deranged chicken. Also, it didn’t seem to bother the buskers that the nearest competitor was standing only a few metres away. It didn’t seem to bother the diners either, this blend of ballads, rock classics and Chinese pop songs, all done very badly.
It bothered me, so I left the noisy chaos behind and returned to the sanctuary of my hotel room. I had had my fill of nature, but now I was back in the middle of the usual Chinese tumult permeating most of the country and the best way to deal with that is to be otherwhere. I don’t think that the Chinese have a word for quiet or cosy, if so I have yet to find an expression of those words in a country which seemed to thrive on noise and crowds and chaos.
I emptied my pockets of dirty, torn banknotes, and sorted them by denomination, put them all facing the same way and arranged them in a neat bundle. I put the dirtiest, filthiest pieces of currency on top, ready to be spent at the next opportunity. I thought of the Buddha and wondered if he had ever done the same thing.