On a recent trip to China a broken axle gave me a heavenly experience.
We cruise through the cornfields as high as an elephant’s eye, van Gogh sunflower fields, down poplar and willow lined roads past the broken down trucks, cars, vans. One white van is parked at right angles across the road a row of stones neatly placed across the road as a warning to other motorists. What a Wonderful World is being sung in accented English on the CD player when the car lurches and we are thrown into the world of the roadside breakdowns. I put my head out of the car and see the axle is broken and has been spun out of its housing.
“These Japanese cars” Steed hissed centuries of animosity surfacing, “Why do they make these axles so badly? “
Apparently it is a problem with Land Cruisers in China their back axels are always falling off. Steed has managed to almost pull off the road. Megan gets out.
Years of roadside mechanics in the Australian outback have taught me a thing or two about vehicles.
“He cannot fix it” I say to Megan.
“Yes he can fix it.” she replies obviously oblivious to the seriousness of the collapsing vehicle.
She is dispatched to put out the jack and a cardboard box with a rock in it as the breakdown ahead warning.
I make myself comfortable in the shade of a willow growing next to a dry irrigation ditch, “You sit there and write,” I am instructed.
A truck is broken down fifty meters away. The drivers with oil blackened hands and faces arrive to inspect our predicament. They tell us this straight stretch of road is bad for breakdowns, it is too straight, two of their wheels have fallen off and they are waiting for someone they have rung to help them. Steed is on the mobile. Thank China Mobile for almost total mobile cover. A police truck will come for the car to be taken for repairs. A taxi for Megan and I has been ordered to be take us back to the Xining Tian Nian Ge Hotel without air conditioning “to relax.” It is hot humid and I doubt my ability to relax in a room where a sign on the window warned:
“Harass for making you avert a mosquito saying or asking again to make sure when being ventilated ioen the right hand edge sash and cose a screen window please.”
While I wait scribbling in my journal and sending text messages to family and traveling friends who are having their own travel crisis in Saigon. It is comforting to know I am not the only one in a predicament.
The traffic streams by all indulging in the national sport of horn tooting. Big potatoes (Chinese term for VIP’s) in black Mercs with darkened windows and their police escorts zoom by trucks, 4WD’s, sedans, motorbikes, tractors all whiz by in a barrage of horns. Just as I begin to wonder if my ears will ever be the same again a young man arrives with the taxi. His black tie undone, shirt hanging out and the taxi driver smoking, his shirt rolled up to his nipples. They look at the damage. They light up and look at the damage. Steed remains on the mobile. I sit in the shade.
I am summoned by my guides. Grottoes which this morning had been deemed too damaged during the cultural revolution to be worthy of a visit now assume a whole new dimension. I will find them “very interesting for you”. We are going to the Matisi grottoes, in the Yugu minority area. Relieved that I have been saved from relaxation in the hotel, Megan and I are piled into the green taxi. The taxi takes off in what feels like an attempt on the land speed record as we sweep through a verdant agricultural landscape. I am in the front. The seat belt which was specially cleaned, probably because no-one has ever used it before is firmly done up. We are in an oasis created by Han people 2000 years ago. Poplar, willow, corn, wheat, beans, hemp, potatoes, sunflower are all in full summer growth. Women in coloured headscarves harvest wheat with sickles in the small fields stack the cut wheat into stooks. In the afternoon they will load up a donkey or three wheeled truck or tractor with dry grain to be taken to be thrashed either on the road by passing traffic or by a tractor or beast pulling a stone roller. The grain will be winnowed by hand and wind, thrown into the air from large flat woven baskets. Debris from this process hangs in the air like a small local fog and I have to reach for the hayfever medication.
As we fly, as I am sure all four wheels are off the ground at times, through this abundant landscape the taxi driver tells about a nearby village when on arrival you are given a bottle of wine, the hosts begin singing, the guests must finish the wine at the same time as the song if not they are given another bottle and so on until they get it right. Sounds like a good way to get your visitors drunk before they cause any problems while everyone else remains sober and singing. We burst out of the oasis into desert with a backdrop of snow capped mountains. For some mysterious taxi driver reason we slow down, we pass Muslim graves in the stony ground, most simple post markers others walls and small mausoleums. We drive slowly around curves and up inclines but when we plunge back into a village we speed up and our fearless driver assumes his city driving style over taking all vehicles including a vehicle in the process of overtaking another vehicle as well as animals and pedestrians on the road with a Toot! Toot!
Past the melon farmers pulling their wooden carts to market Toot! Toot!
To the woman pushing her bike carefully balancing a large cardboard box, Toot! Toot!
At the three wheeler loaded with bricks from the brick factory where bricks are hand made. Toot! Toot!
To a cart so overloaded with fresh cut hay it looks like a mobile haystack. Toot! Toot!
At two men on a motorbike the passenger firmly holding a disgruntled sheep. Toot! Toot!
To the roadsweeper chatting on her mobile and leaning on her brush broom. Toot! Toot!
Past the truck laden with capsicums bulging from their plastic packing cases like green pimples Toot! Toot!
Past the docile steer being led to pasture Toot! Toot!
But when we hit the open road again we slow down. After so many death defying overtaking moves in small villages with human, vehicle and animal obstacles to overcome now on open road our driver seems totally intimidated by open space. Finally my curiosity leads me to ask Megan to inquire about this unique driving style. His reply like so many answers in China is even more mystifying. In the country on the open road the wind is strong and we must slow down. Seems calm to me. Also the gradient of the road is steep. Seems particularly flat to me. While I am trying to figure this riddle out we approach another village and Toot! Toot! flock of sheep Toot! Toot! old woman doubled over with a load of corn stalks on he back. I wind down the window and bucolic aroma of human and animal waste waft in. We pass a grove of marijuana plants with leaves as big as dinner plates Toot! Toot!
The Matisi grottoes were built in the eastern Jin dynasty 317 – 420. Buddha and his acolytes were carved into the red sandstone cliff faces in 21 grottoes seven stories high arranged in the shape of a pagoda. Thirty three layers of heaven are represented in the 100 metres of carved niches. It is a neck craning sight and Megan and I set our sights on the highest grotto.
As we approach the number of police cars increase. A big potato is visiting I am told. Police direct us to our parking area one officious policeman with glowing white shirt , startling white gloves and smart precise hand signals, the next sitting on rock waving his cigarette vaguely in the direction of the car park his tie askew and shirt hanging out. Megan and I set off on foot leaving the taxi driver to socialize and gamble with cards with the other drivers. We by pass the Chinese Disney world of tourism and cut through a vacant land to reach the road to the grottoes.
We climb stairs to the foot of the sandstone caves crane our necks upward before entering the enormous grotto at ground level. It once housed a huge Buddha in the centre of the cave but he fell foul of the Red Guard during the cultural revolution who after smashing as much as possible thought it would be fun to camp in the grotto preparing food on open fires and smoking the murals of one thousand Buddhas and causing further damage. His acolytes carved into the walls continue to look benign although they have had their hands and feet smashed off and their eyes gouged out. I find this disquieting.
A family of Yugu people in traditional dress long dark del with large hot pink sashes and long black plaited hair decorated with strips of colourful fabric are carrying yak fat for the lamps. They make their way clockwise around the broken grotto murmuring prayers and making offerings, teaching their children how to pray. After visiting the lower grottoes Megan and I begin our ascension to the highest. We have to climb and crawl through tunnels dug out of the cliff face. It is narrow and dark, the walls polished smooth by centuries of pilgrims bodies, hand holds carved into the walls to help heave yourself up uneven stairs. Occasionally a window is carved to give a glimpse of a distant stupa as well as provide light in the gloom. Half way up and we are in a passage open to the air and a veranda built of wood which hangs out from the face of the cliff. We look out at the police below eating noodles in a lean-to.
We continue pulling ourselves through the rock. At the next grotto I ask “Is this the highest?”
“Yes,” says Megan but then we enter the labyrinth again, going up, up, up. We come into a square grotto with a picture of the Chinese panchon lama on an alter surrounded by silk flowers. This must be the highest we stand on a little veranda where incense burns and prayer flags wave. A bell suspended from the eaves tings gently on the mountain breeze.
“Is this the highest ?”
“Yes,” says Megan. We can see the family of Yugu people below heading for a stupa and a police car making dust as it makes its way up the road. Megan finds another stair case and we squeeze our way up into a grotto with Buddha and yak fat lamps burning, white khadags of the Tibetan people are tied in various locations.
“Megan you said we have been at the highest twice before so tell me Megan is this the highest?”
We go out onto a tiny veranda where the wind ruffles prayer flags and a soft bell sounds. Everything below is very small but we can still see the Yugu people circling the oovoo we did not notice before. Some Chinese are taking photos of each other in front of the stupa. The police are smoking at their post and a rooster struts across the car park. In the distance are clouds in a dense blue sky, mountains capped with snow. There is no sound, except for and the ting of a bell. The touch of the wind is cool on our faces. A waft of incense is in the air. In the corner of the small verandah is a chair covered in cloth. We both look at it and without speaking know that a monk has sat in this spot high above the world and meditated. For centuries monks have been here in all weathers hearing only the wind, the bell and the flap of prayer flags, fingering beads and praying om mani pad ma hum sending prayers up to the heaven which surely must not be that far away. Both of us feel the presence of good, prayer, devotion and love.
We are silent so close to heaven.
“This is the highest,” whispers Megan. My eyes fill up I cannnot speak I can only nod to agree.
We descend, squeezing our way through the birth canal of dark stair cases until we tumble back to earth. The light is bright. We are newborns. Dogs bark, birds cry, children shout, food is cooking. Everything looks new, smells new, sounds new. I feel new. We clamber down a slippery dirt path to the car park. I know today I have experienced heaven.