Of Factories And Faith

By Jane Mountain | November 5, 2013

Good things about today:

We are on flat, well paved roads, with a fairly large shoulder to ride on. It didn’t rain. Our bikes are in good condition and running smoothly. We are both healthy, and we’re together. We have money for food and shelter. We can leave whenever we want to…

Bad things about today:

All the rest of it.

OK, not really bad, just the same.

Typical view when cycling through Sichuan.

Typical view when cycling through Sichuan.

The same grey buildings, the same dirty grey trees, the same bustle of people coming, going, and working. The same trucks and busses blasting their shrill horns at every opportunity.

Industrial Silence

One thing that was not the same is the size and number of factories we passed today. They are much bigger and there have been many many more than usual.

Stephen’s note: I started the day counting the smoke stacks spewing dark, thick smoke into the air. Some factories had three, some towns almost a dozen. Before lunch I had lost count.

Vegetables growing in the factory's shadow, Sichuan, China.

Vegetables growing in the factory’s shadow, Sichuan, China.

Up until now, most people we’ve seen have been working in their own small businesses. They run their livelihood – be that a hairdresser, a children’s clothing shop, a restaurant, a scooter shop, or a steel pipe store – out of their garage-like box, under the home in which they live.

The US Republicans are always harping on about creating opportunities for small business. They could learn a lot from rural China. Census data shows that something like 75% of rural Chinese earn their income from household small businesses.

But today, we started seeing more of the giant industry that we have been expecting all along. We passed factory after factory, each with a village engulfed in its shadow. Actually, for the factory to cast a shadow, it would require more light than the smoggy sky lets through. There is an atmospheric shadow though, and the towns underneath the factories seemed a little more sombre than those without them.

The industry briefly gives way to farmland, Sichuan, China.

The industry briefly gives way to farmland, Sichuan, China.

Usually, we assume the factory workers live in the nearby village. Today we passed one huge ceramics factory where the employee housing – long low buildings like a rundown motel, the windows covered in yellowed newspaper – was right inside the front gate. The workers there never have to leave the property.

We are trying hard not to be depressed by what we are seeing, and we are trying not to feel sorry for ourselves (we should feel lucky, right?) or for the people who will never know anything besides this life. But our legs still want to pedal as fast as they can, to get through and away and beyond as soon as possible.

I find myself building a wall between me and everything I see. It is like I am wearing blinders, and can only see the road in front of my bike. I’m not really letting any of it sink in – I’ve never felt so detached from a place before.

A Corner For Beauty

We ended our day by climbing out of The Rest Of China and into Nature China.

This river in Sichuan is part Nature China, part Industrial China.

This river in Sichuan is part Nature China, part Industrial China.

This is Emei Shan, or Emei Mountain, famous for its beauty and the Buddhist history in the area. When we arrived at Baoguo village, the setting-off point for hikes up the mountain, we had only one question: where the hell is the mountain?

The air was so thick and dark grey, we could not even see the mountain upon which we were already standing.

At Emei, all of the temples offer basic accommodation for travellers, and we were happy to avoid the hotel song and dance by checking into Baoguo Temple. Our room is in the Seven Buddhas Temple and to get there, we followed Patrick, the manager, though the incense-rich corridors and courtyards, up a huge flight of steps, through the temple where people were bowing in front of the seven Buddha statues, to our simple room.

Bikes in front of our hotel for the night, Baoguo Temple, Emei Shan.

Bikes in front of our hotel for the night, Baoguo Temple, Emei Shan.

This stay is costing us the same as a regular hotel, for much sparser accommodation, but it is worth it for the atmosphere, all misty silent courtyards and monks gliding silently by.

PS. They also have WiFi.

After getting settled, we climbed a little further up the mountain to Fuhu Temple. The path of mostly stone steps winds through the lush forest up the steep hillside. We are now in the sub-tropics and you can feel it in the air. Everything is humid, even in the relatively cold weather, and banana trees, vibrant mosses, and bamboo cover the hillsides.

red rock carvings at fuhu temple china

Red rock carvings on the way to Fuhu Temple.

There are supposed to be (quite vicious) monkeys living here, but the only wildlife we saw were hundreds of huge spiders of the kind that haunt my dreams. We also heard an endless array of exotic birds, calling to each other in the treetops.

Panda getting ready for Movember, at Fuhu Temple, Emei Shan.

Panda getting ready for Movember, at Fuhu Temple, Emei Shan.

It is curious, in China, that at these places of natural beauty, there are signs everywhere reminding people that stewardship of nature is everyone’s responsibility. The only way to save it, they say, is if we all take care of it.

Despite the spelling errors, we admire the sentiment, Emei Shan, Sichuan.

Despite the spelling errors, we admire the sentiment, Emei Shan, Sichuan.

These sentiments are great, but natural beauty in this country is completely compartmentalised. We can ride for 80 km without seeing anything resembling a pretty view; you have to travel to a place like Emei to enjoy nature.

When we visit these natural attractions, we often see that people have arrived in their Bentleys, Jaguars, and Land Rovers.

Bentley in the parking lot under the Fuhu Temple.

Bentley in the parking lot under the Fuhu Temple.

Despite the boom in Chinese domestic tourism over the last decade, around 30% of the population lives on less than $2 per day. They are not hopping on a bus or into their Bentley to go see a Scenic Spot anytime soon. Of course, the situation is no different than that of people living in, for example, inner cities in the US, where kids grow up never even seeing the stars or hearing a bird sing, let alone visiting the Grand Canyon.

Party Girls Of The Baoguo Monastery

The temple offers a simple vegetarian dinner for staff (free) and guests (¥20), so we opted to eat here tonight. We had all the rice we wanted, plus big plates full of vegetables, several we didn’t quite recognise. But, being in a Buddhist temple, we were sure they were meat-free, so we happily ate everything that was put in front of us.

At dinner, we were joined by a dozen or so women, roughly my age and a little older, who were having a grand old time of it. In China, a grand old time always involves rowdy conversation at ‘outside voice’ levels, so the peace of the temple was broken with their lively laughter and chatter.

Later, back in our room, with its paper-thin windows and walls, we were disappointed to discover that the women were all staying in the temple, right next to us. The full volume brouhaha continued unbroken for several hours, completely destroying the mystic peace of a temple at night.

baoguo temple in china

The view from our room, Baoguo Temple. Doesn’t it look calm and relaxing?

Perhaps this is a cultural bias coming through, but I was shocked that people would carry on this way in a place of retreat, sanctuary, and meditation. To me, it shows an enormous level of disrespect, both towards the monks and the women’s fellow guests.

I wonder what the Chinese guests thought of the situation? Is this just normal, or are there places where silence should be observed, even in China?

At 9:15pm, it was like someone turned off a tap. The conversation abruptly stopped, and we didn’t hear another peep from the ladies. Here’s hoping they are not early risers.

Soundtrack: Rheostatics, The Blue Hysteria | New Pornographers, Challengers | The Beta Band, Hot Shots II | This American Life Podcast | The Story Podcast  

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