Blessed to be a witness

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Saturday, March 12th

Call that a big Buddha?

There was an English bloke I used to work with in Hong Kong, who was a rather odd chap. He was a bona fide original hippy, and had been living in Goa since 1975 until his arrival in Hong Kong. He was called Beaky Dave, on account of his nose, and he had long greasy grey hair and a straggly yellowing beard. Anyway, Beaky Dave used to sit with me on the ferry to work in the mornings, drinking beer, and he knew better than me about pretty much everything, because he'd been everywhere and seen everything already. Especially at the border between China and Pakistan.

One morning in winter it was a bit chilly. "I'm a bit cold," I said. "Cold?" said Beaky Dave, "It's not cold. You want cold, you should go to the Pak border." Another day, I was admiring the mountains of Lantau Island in the sunrise, and said "wow, look at those mountains". "Call them mountains?" scoffed Beaky Dave. "They're not mountains, they're hills. You want mountains, you should go to the Pak border." I kept my amusement to myself, but the phrase "Pak border" became a private joke between me and my friends. "This is a nice omelette." "Call that an omelette? That's not an omelette. You want to see a real omelette, you should go to the Pak border."

Anyway, the point of this digression is to say that from now on, if someone bangs on about a big Buddha, I can go "call that a big Buddha? That's not a big Buddha. You want a real big Buddha you should go to Leshan." Because the Buddha at Leshan is bloody enormous. Alas, M still felt too unwell to come with us, so I and a few people from the hostel took a jolting two-hour drive in a minibus from our hostel in Chengdu, arriving in the city of Leshan around lunchtime (never heard of Leshan? Nor had I. It's got a population of 6 million, though. China's huge). We had some cheap and tasty Chinese food at a local restaurant, then set off into the big Buddha park.

I had hoped that by driving 140km away from the city, and being up in the mountains, we'd escape the air pollution, but smog hung over us the whole time. We walked in mist up the side of a steep hill, and into a fascinating complex of jungle-hidden Buddhist temples. Cool and sedate, with streams, pagodas, caves and ponds appearing out of the mist on the hilltops, this was the repose of poets and scholars more than a thousand years ago. Or so I gathered, since neither our guidebooks nor the Chinglish signs really gave much away. Still, it was peaceful and beautiful, and it was good to get off my arse and do a little bit of exercise. Eventually, by accident rather than design or signage, we got to a temple from which, over the edge of a precipice, I looked down on the top of a huge head, hair in neat tufts, with a bald patch, the size of a transit van. The big B himself.

We found the path to walk down the side of him, and were genuinely awestruck. Forget your Thai reclining fellas, this guy was sitting cross-legged, hewn from a gigantic cliff in the 700s A.D., Mount Rushmore style. He's 71 metres from the tip of his toes, which are the size of dinner tables, to his enormous head. It took 90 years to carve him. The path down the cliff is the most vertiginous thing I've ever been down, made the more entertaining by the hundreds of Chinese tourists stopping to take pictures and shoving each other. Each picture they took of each other had them posing, holding their hand out towards his distant head, presumably to look like they were patting him (or sticking their finger up his nose or something). Way, way down below us people were prostrating themselves between his feet.

At the bottom, staring up at his lovingly carved triple chin and cartoonish face, my perception of the scale of the dude was finally complete. Big. Woe betide you if you try to tell me about any other big Buddhas. They're not big. You want big, you should see the one at Leshan.

After a few more hours of pagodas and temples, we drove bumpily back to the guesthouse where our charming Singaporean host, Mr Sim, took a bunch of us out to his favourite Singaporean restaurant. The food was delicious, and embarrassingly, he paid (see "cheng"). A charming man with a charming family, with a wonderful guesthouse. Their goal is to be the best in China, and so far they are indeed the best I've ever seen in this country. I wish him all the success in the world, and he's going to need it: the building is an old Kuomintang headquarters that is now owned by the People's Liberation Army, on a plot of land that is worth a fortune. He has a five-year lease, but he can be kicked out at any time with no compensation. The PLA has given him a few months' respite, so he's got workmen feverishly building six new rooms - that will almost certainly be demolished soon - on the flat roof above ours to try to make enough money during the summer to afford to move. It's such a shame to think that all the attention to detail that he and his wife have put into decorating and maintaining the place could be destroyed so soon. Such is the nature of business, especially in China.

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