Off to China – 2017

Modern Technology Makes Travel Almost Easy

Slightly prior to the one year anniversary of last year’s trip I am off to China again. This time, JoAnn has her own agenda and is not accompanying me. It has been a fortunate coincidence that my retirement was last Friday, Sept 29 and I the trip to China was planned to start on Tuesday Oct 2nd.
I was invited by the Dunhuang Academy to spend a month at Mogao working on the cave presentations with the English Speaking Guides. The best time for training is when no one else wishes to visit, so alas, my trip is not during pleasant weather. The best bargain was November. At least not the dead of winter.
This allows three weeks in October in Beijing studying with Margaret at the Mandarin Zone School. I will start with a side trip to the Shanxi Museum in Taiyuan and then to Datong, to see the Yungang Caves, the last of the major Chinese Caves I had not yet seen.
Off on Hainan Airlines flight HU482, non-stop between Boston and Beijing. This is a wonderful development. That longer routes are being flown, and non-stop from Boston, saves four hours. Avoids the stop-overs required by other carriers. Further, their planes are newer and cleaner and the service is quite good. Yes, a bit conflicted about not using a US carrier, but the benefits with Hainan are too significant.
Planes are numbered, a fact I had never considered and the Boeing 787-9 on this flight was Hainan Number B7667. Amazing; anything you wish to know seems to be on the internet. Without many clicks I found that the Boeing number 62720 and it was delivered in July 2017. Only three months old.
Last year we postponed our trip for a week because it coincided with Golden week, an autumn week long holiday in China. We were warned that everyone in China is travelling and sightseeing that week, but this year I had few alternatives.
The flight, in the middle of Golden Week Holiday was not completely full. Many families, with small children, returning to China. Yes, lots of crying during the flight making sleep on board difficult.
Retirement brought the change of medical care that is highly charged in America. Off the corporate health coverage onto a mix of Medicare gap insurances, dental insurance, vision and hearing insurance, and Plan D, pharmacy coverage. Did I miss something in the list? Possibly! New rules, co-pays, different coverages, donut holes, etc. it is quite confusing, but possibly worthwhile so that we understand our costs and coverages. Truth be told, we did spend the month of September visiting all of our caregivers for last minute procedures, prescriptions, etc. Going into retirement and Medicare coverage, we feel we are as healthy as possible.
Preparation was quite hectic for us both, JoAnn and me. Two months away for me and JoAnn planning her month in London. But quite amazing what has become possible in this modern world. Finding flights, trains and organizing connections are an at home compute project. Hotels, homestay, any sort of accommodation rentals, are at the control of the mouse. Maps, reviews, competitive information, Google maps to see the neighborhoods all in advance of a decision. I can price as well as the local travel agent.

It does extract a toll. I was mentally exhausted with I boarded.
Further amazement at this modern world, arrival in a foreign country, place your plastic card in an ATM, enter your identification and within less than a minute you have made a withdrawal from your account and are handed local currency.
The taxi driver has a GPS with exquisite address and location information, down to feet. An obscure address of a residence can be located with this technology and I am securely left at the door of the hotel, not down the street, on a dark night.

Bingling Si

Bingling Si

Leaving Xiahe, we drive to take a boat to Bingling Si.  The caves which are on the Yellow River have been partially flooded due to a dam built across the Yellow river creating a large lake.  Our guide Lydia knew of a dock closer to the temple that wold make shorter boat ride and lower cost.  To find it, we had to navigate an unpaved, rutted dirt road off the main road.

Off season rates, or maybe special consideration for our guide, the cost was only 500 RMB for the round trip, 20 minutes each way.  The day was calm and the ride was very smooth and we cruised at about 30 kts.

Arrival at the Bingling Si dock we decided to have lunch on the permanently docked boat.  The food wasn’t too bad, Joann had an eggplant dish and I had the beef noodles.

At the ticket gate we tried the “We work at a museum in America, let us in for free,” approach, which did not work.  We then went for the “Old person” discount, which gives us discounts and at BingLing Si was half price.   Thing have changed over the past years, or maybe my Chinese has improved.  Previously they demanded the Chinese card for old age, but now they look at my passport and give the discount.

BingLing Si is a very peaceful and serene environment.  Sandstone cliffs, obelisks surround the canyons below.  This Buddhist site is clearly prepared for tourists with marble fences and tiled pathway.  Beneath the walkway, which is probably filled with water at high water season, is marshy grass and reeds.  So cool and serene.  Very calming.  I can see how monks would choose this space for meditation.

After a few minute’s walk you glimpse a silhouette of the giant Maitreya statue and then you come upon the carved niches in the mountainside.  They have good descriptive labels, and they are numbered in sequence from our start, starting with number 3.  Earlier niches were carved lower in the cliff and have been damaged by the waters of the reservoir.

We have arbitrarily agreed that niches do not qualify as caves in our goal of “30 caves in 30 days.”  The art and architecture are from the same periods as earlier caves and they are great examples seen up close.  There is a greater degree of carving and statue at Bingling Si. The style shows a great influence of Indian art in the clothing and body positions.

Cave 3 – Tang Dynasty.  Central stupa, typical Tang architectural item.  Niche in left hand wall had statues, barely seen, but quite Indian in style.  Wall painting well preserved.  Stories in blocks as in Kuqa, not free form as in Dunhuang.

Cave 4 –   Tang dynasty.  Buddha seated not in Lotus position. Nicely draped robes over legs.  Ananda quite slim and fit figure.

Cave 5 – A nice niche with a seated Buddha.

Cave 10 – Tang dynasty.  Buddha with disciples.  Not only are there disciples painted on the wall, looking over at Buddha but we found images of disciples in Buddha’s aureole.

Niches 17 – 47 are a series of sculptures and reliefs along the wall of the cliff.  They are wonderfully stylized.  Much Indian influence in the postures and clothing of the women.

Cave ? – A sculpture of Avalokitsvara with five heads and eight arms.  She was repainted later.

Niche 134 – A wonderful small composition of Buddha, disciples and attendants.

Maitreya – Best seen from across the canyon to appreciate her size and artistry.  She is not completely Chinese, with a nose, eyes and lips more central Asian than Chinese, but with an oval face. Her not too complex drapery of the clothes indicates an early stage effort.

Unfortunately being off season, the upper floor caves and niches were closed to the public.

The pathways back crossed Grotto 16, from the Wei Dynasty which had a clay sculpture of Buddha in Paranirvana.  In this case, Buddha had feminine lips and face.

We returned to the car and drove to Lanzhou.  Rush hour in Lanzhou was a third world experience.  One of three major North-South routes was under construction and was reduced to a one lane unimproved road.  Lydia, our guide said that all roads in Lanzhou were under construction.  This seemed more third world than economically developed nation.  China still has a way to go.  One mile took one hour.

Hotel in Lanzhou, a Crowne Plaza was certainly five star.  Unfortunately we were there for one night with little time to appreciate. The accommodations.