For the last three days school has been out, for us foreign teachers at least. National Exams have been taking place and, while the services of local teachers are required to invigilate, the services of foreign teachers are not. So, rather than twiddle our thumbs here in Baiyin we decided to take a trip to Tianshui - the second largest city in the province. I am reasonably familiar with Lanzhou - the largest city - and I don't like it very much, so I wasn't sure what to expect of Tianshui.
I needn't have worried. From the moment I got there I liked it.
It's like the difference in how I feel about New York and Chicago. New York is too big, too busy, too noisy, too impersonal. Everything about it is too something or other. Chicago is like all the nice bits of New York without the things I don't like. It's the same when comparing the noisy, dirty busy-ness of Lanzhou with the friendlier, cleaner, all-round nicer Tianshui.
On Wednesday afternoon we tried to book a day out with the travel agent based in our hotel (the rather nice Peace Hotel.) They spoke no English and Erika's repeated "San ge ren. Xing qi wu. Hen hao." (Three people. Friday. Very good.) was understood about as well as might me expected. Nil desperandum. The girl in the agency phoned a friend and so we were introduced to Lu Yong Xiang who owns his own travel agency business and speaks excellent English. We were quickly fixed up with the required tour for Friday and under any other circumstances, in any other country that would be that.
Not China though.
On Thursday, after a day sightseeing on our own we were going out to dinner when we bumped into Lu and two of his employees in the street. After exchanging pleasantries we started to walk on but were called back and invited to their annual staff party. It was a boisterous affair in a very nice hot-pot restaurant and we were treated as guests of honour, wined and dined, photographed repeatedly with everybody present, taken on to a really nice bar with live music and bought beer all night.
When does ANYONE ever book a day trip and get invited to the staff party?
It's typical of China though.
Also typical of China is the rockstar adulation that you get from children as you are just walking down the street. I left the hotel to walk across the road to the store to buy a bottle of water. My timing was impeccable. As I exited the doors an entire school of primary children were* just passing by. There were lots of cries of "hello", some shy, some confident; a few tentative queries of "how are you"; and one very brave child who came up and said, "May I ask you a question?"
I agreed that he could. "Where are you from?" he asked. "I'm from England." I said. He ran back to his friends and the whole class gave him a round of applause for being bold enough to speak to the foreigner.
Actually if you need directions it's always best to ask a kid. They all learn English in school and they all want to try it out. The adults have usually forgotten all their English and are shyer of practicing. So that's what we did when we wanted to find the Fu Xi temple. We asked a kid and he told us to take the bus that was just arriving. We jumped on, paid our one yuan fare and looked out of the windows for road signs. Soon enough we saw signs that said Fu Xi and when they indicated that we were almost there we jumped off.
There was a slight delay to our sightseeing as, at Erika's urging we went into a coffee shop. It didn't look like much from the outside but it was wonderful inside: beautifully decorated, cool and shady, a menu in English. We looked at the menu. There were dozens of coffees and teas and a page full of elaborate ice-cream confections. There was also an extensive collection of full meals that included both western and Chinese dishes. We drank our coffee and tucked into a "rainbow ice-cream" (ice cream, cream, cherries, dragon fruit, melon, oranges, two flavours of jelly, chocolate sauce). We decided to come back later for dinner.
Outside a short walk across the square and along the road brought us to the Fu Xi temple which is a large complex of buildings and statues. The temple itself is delightful and the surroundings are a pleasure to wander around taking in the heady mix of locals enjoying a sunny day and Chinese tourists visiting what must surely be the nicest city in the whole of Gansu.
The only person we met of who was less than completely courteous to us was a German tourist who met our cheery greetings with a surly grunt and continued taking pictures. This would normally go without comment but in Tianshui it was quite a shock. Everyone else seemed to want to be our friends.
As an example, on the way back to the restaurant after our wanderings we bumped into a complete stranger on the street who engaged us in conversation. After a few minutes of polite chit-chat we invited him to come to dinner with us one evening. He deciined but immediately said that he would like to invite us to dinner at his home to meet his wife who was an English teacher. Sadly we couldn't find a day to go but he gave us his phone number with instructions to call next time we are in the city.
Back at the restaurant we examined the menu in detail. While we were tempted by such dishes as "Lotus sweet Japanese mountain thief godmother sauce" in the end we all opted for more familiar items - pizza and steak.
Thursday we were off on our own. Enquiries told us that the number 6 bus outside the hotel would take us to Mount Maiji and the famous Buddhist grottos. As it turned out the number 6 took us to the station where further enquiries led us to the number 34. It was about an hours ride but through such pleasing countryside that it seemed much shorter. Baiyin and its surroundings, even at this time of year, can be a little dry and brown but Tianshui is further south and the trip out to Maiji was through lush and verdant hills. In places the patchwork fields almost reminded me of home.
At the grottoes we decided first to visit the botanical gardens, pausing only to eat a lunch of the remains of last night's pizza in a shady stand of trees. The path to the gardens was long and fairly steep but with steps all the way. The gardens, when we reached them, had no flowers to speak of but had extensive acres of trees in enough varieties to satisfy the most dedicated arborialist. We walked around for ages and then made our way to the grotto entrance.
On the face of the cliff there are hundreds of small niches in which there are carvings of the Buddha. An elaborate network of steps and platforms allows you to climb and view them - though we couldn't work out how at least two thirds of the structure was reached. It must have been reachable because we could see people on it but we could find no entrance or path to it. We explored the section that we could enter and it was interesting but personally I enjoyed the gardens better.
The next morning, the morning after our unexpected dinner party, Lu and one of his staff were outside the hotel promptly at eight and we headed off for our first attraction of the day - Daxiangshan - the Giant Image Mountain. The main attraction, and the reason for the name, is the twenty-three metre carving of the Buddha and its unusual blue moustache but there is much more to it than that. You ascend through a series of active Buddhist and Taoist temples that are all breathtakingly beautiful until you reach the foot of the carving itself. By far the most interesting is the first temple which has a number of rooms with carvings. They are all interesting but the final one is amazing. A circular path leads through a cave and floor to roof an both sides is carved with representations of people and animals. They range from the beautiful to the grotesque but all have been done with a stunning attention to detail. The tiger near the entrance looks as if it might bite.
Towards the end was a statue of what looked like a monk and a baby. Erika asked why there was a baby and Lu translated. The monk who had accompanied us laughed. The answer, translated back by a laughing Lu, was that it wasn't a baby. It was just a very small monk.
After lunch we went on to what was supposed to be our other visit of the day - Lashao Si where there is a monastery and some spectacular cliff paintings. I say "supposed to" because we didn't actually make it. Oh, we reached the gate OK, paid our money and took the cart up the twisting path to the actual site entrance. And that's as far as we got. While we had been eating lunch there had been some heavy rain. The path we were supposed to walk across from the car park to the temple was gone. In it's place, about twenty feet across and several feet deep was a fierce torrent of water - brown and fast and destroying riverbed and bank even as we watched. There was no way to cross it and the suggestion that we should attempt a steep and muddy path that led, we were told, through waist high soaking vegetation to the bridge further up the hill met the answer it deserved.
We headed back down only to find that where the water had outrun us it had already destroyed part of the road. We made it across before it crumbled completely and soon passed the headwaters as the torrent raced down the hill. It was, in its way, as amazing a site as the actual temple would have been as we watched it tumble viciously over the sandstone bed, visibly destroying it as it went.
We headed back to town having not had quite the day that we expected but happy with everything nonetheless.
So all in all it was an excellent way to spend our time off but there is so much more there to see and do that I shall definitely return next year when I get a short break.
(*Note for grammar mavens. You may think this should be "was" not "were". I disagree. YMMV)
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