by Carla King

The Big 40 meets the Big Buddha, and 50,000 More

Me and my Buddha

Another big Buddha

Outside the caves is a wide sidewalk, and there is a lump on top of the hillthat used to be a pyramid.

Forget the Buddhas, here's a foreigner. These gals were so astonished by my presence that I don't even think they looked at the Buddhas. They're worth a look or two. Here are a few:

There are about 100 tiny Buddhas on this wall.

Peeking out.

A carved pagoda.

A fortune teller outside the gates. if only I could speak Chinese.

4 May 98

According to my Chinese tourist brochure, the Yungang Caves were built as a result of the struggle between Buddhism and Taoism when Buddhist temples and pagodas were burned in 446 AD, during a period called the Chinese Persecution of Buddhist Monks. Emperor Tai Wu, responsible for the persecution, fell ill soon after the decision. In typical royal style he blamed his advisors for everything, had them killed, repented, and allowed Buddhism to thrive again. He died anyway.

No matter. Now began a revival of Buddhism supported by subsequent emperors, probably because the head monk (I interpret) had the smarts to regard emperors as Buddhas, too. "The Emperor is sagacious and loves the Truth, he is the living Buddha. We monks should pay homage to him... I am not paying homage to the emperor, but to Buddha."

Now this is the way to raise funds for your project. And this was a big project.

The site was chosen, surmises my brochure, 1) because of political reasons, 2) because the remains of ancient cave dwellers were found there, 3) because their location provided a quiet sanctuary away from the capital city, 4) lower cost, 5) because caves are warm in winter and cool in summer providing (again) the ideal environment for meditation.

Personally I think that the site was chosen because the cliffs are made from a very carveable rock, which had already begun to be carved out by the cave dwellers and provided a head start to the process. Plus, it's probably the first place the Indian Buddhist monks stopped when they came to China on the Silk Road just past what is now Inner Mongolia. But this is just a guess. At any rate, the monks proceeded to carve out a one-kilometer long stretch of caves with very large Buddhas, many of which just happen to resemble the emperor du jour. They all look like nice guys to me, in fact, I think I'm a convert.

Timing is everything. Yesterday I arrived in Datong,China's ugliest and dirtiest city, tired and dirty and ready for a long sleep in preparation for my fourtieth birthday. The Yungang Hotel looked just great. Hot water and everything, and a business center where I could send dispatches on my adventures of the previous days. But at 7:30 in the morning I was wakened by a constant hammering that was soon joined by the noise of an even bigger hammer and then a drill.

I picked up the phone, and after being passed to someone who spoke English, was told that they would stop the work. Needless to say, it didn't stop. I guess this is one of those places where they tell you what you want to hear instead of the truth, being afraid to disappoint you by going contrary to your wishes. The last place I encountered this was West Africa, where I was careful to phrase my questions so that they couldn't be answered with a simple positive.

Put me in a quiet room, I demanded. Impossible. The fifth through seventh floors of the hotel, I was told, are being remodeled. There are no quiet rooms. Needless to say I just about hit the seventh floor. I could have been told when I was checking in! Are people actually paying to hear this crap? From 7:30 in the morning to 8:00 at night? During which time there is also no electricity? Perfect.

I showered in the electricity-free zone of the windowless bathroom and went to find another hotel. Only the Bei Yue, behind the Bank of China, was in my price range at 144 yuan a night. They were just thrilled to see me. So thrilled that I think I am the first westerner ever to have stayed here. There is still hammering, there is always hammering in China. Actually there's a guy outside in the parking lot hand chiseling an old cement statue to pieces. At least it's not directly over my head. He's got so much rebar scattered around, too, that it's like an obstacle course for tires.

They don't pass out keys to guests in Chinese hotels, either. You have to get the girl on your floor to open it for you when you come in. When you do this you are usually interrupting her rolling toilet paper on the cardboard centers. There are no full rolls in the room, only the amount you might use.Maybe less.

The toilet paper here, if there is any, is stretchy stuff like it was woven with lycra, but once you stretch it out it doesn't snap back, it stays stretched or breaks. It's two-ply, too, but they never seem like they're the same size so it's always wrinkled.

On the plus side, they always give you disposable slippers and a big thermos of hot water and tea bags. And they're very cheerful to have you, especially if you've paid tourist price. The days of the (higher) foreigner price has gone, so they say, but I walked into a high-class hotel, was quoted a price of 400 yuan, said no and they asked me well then how much. When I told them 100 they couldn't even begin to bargian. That's how I was sent to the Bei Yue.

Evaluating Chinese hotels was not exactly how I'd imagined spending my 40th birthday. Tired, sore from riding mountain roads for two days, depressed, and with that travelers loneliness that hits harder sometimes than others I rode to the caves on a road crowed with overburdened coal trucks dropping half their load on passing cars and motorbikes. A half hour later I was just as black as the locals and sad to see that the caves were just off the road past a parking lot with horse and camel rides. The surly camel bit the long slitted skirt of an elegantly dressed potential customer, causing her to shriek in horror and run for her life in four-inch velvet high heels.

I paid my 15 yuan entrance fee and walked past the temple, which is now a souvenier shop, and into the pale hot sun, weakened by the dirty soot from the coal mine across the road. From the front, the caves looked like just a bunch of holes in the cliff. I prepared myself to be very disappointed. Following the designated tour, I started with a group of four caves. I entered one at random and was faced with a huge Buddha, sitting, he was 10 meters high, and standing on each side of him were two figures, 10-foot tall bodhisattvas.

Except for a Chinese girl sitting cross-legged in a niche sketching the Buddha and paying absolutely no attention to me (this becomes a notable distinction when you've been blatantly stared at for a week), I was alone. This Buddha was built in the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). Not the oldest guy in the set but old enough to feel very very old. I sat down on a protrusion carved out of the front wall and began to relax. The face of this Buddha is very kind, smooth, and plump. His eyes met mine, I breathed deeply. The air seemed cleansed in here, impervious from the horrible coal-belching world outside. I know a stone statue can't have life, but he breathed life into me. Suddenly I felt unburdened, my discomforts seemed silly and trivial, I felt tears streaming down my cheeks.

I'm just tired, I thought, but I couldn't leave until about 10 minutes later when a group of Chinese tourists came in talking loudly and smoking. Not the respectful hushed tones of a place of worship. One of them was eating an ice cream cone and threw the paper on the ground in front of the Buddha. I noticed for the first time that there was trash all over the place. I must have become used to it in this short time.

The next caves were just as surprising, one after the other. Some of them still had color. Blue hair and gold faces and hands. Others were stone, like my first Buddha. Everywhere there were little niches carved out with little Buddhas sitting inside of them. Some of these were also colored, but most were worn back to the original stone, and a lot of them bore the weight of coal dust on their knees and shoulders.

If there weren't carvings on the walls, arched doorways, and antechambers, there were paintings. Delicate and flat after the three dimensionality of the sculptures. Rich in ochre, mustard, turquoise and deep dark reds they floated, celestial beings, musicians with lutes and three-stringed guitars, devotees and animals like deer, dogs, and cat-like creatures.

The count goes like this: there are 48,000 images of Buddhas and buddhisattvas. Thre are 3,000 images of flying celestials, worshipping bodhisattvas, celestial musicians and guardian deities. Behind the 53 main caves there are 1,100 smaller caves. Many were roped off. I was dying to get inside but I understand their caution.

However... I saw a metal gate leaning against a statue. The hoses of a dozen fire extinguishers sat so they rubbed the ancient paintings on a wall. There was no barrier between very delicate sculptures and a public who smokes and spits and who leave cigarette butts, ice cream wrappers, film canisters, and other trash inside the caves, and I even smelled a heavy stench of urine in the last caves. There are no guards, as in a museum, and there ought to be guards at least to keep people from perching themseves on a stone knee for a photo, from leaning against a painted wall, and surely from smoking and spitting and peeing.

The coal mine across the street

This is not to mention the coal dust from the mine across the road. The Buddhas are getting a washing off, I read in a Beijing newspaper, last week, because tourists are complaining that they look like coal miners. I hope they have the sense to have the archaelogists do it, and not just have them hosed down by laborers. What to do then? I was the only foreign visitor in the place for a day and a half at least. Nobody wants to come to Datong. There are coal trucks everywhere. Your clothes and skin are black by the end of the day. There is nowhere much to stay, there is nothing much to do. There are only the caves. But for me right now, that was quite enough.

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