D6: 白水→五里 - Me China Red - CycleBlaze

March 24, 2021

D6: 白水→五里

Although I suppose my visit to the Great Buddha at Leshan in 2004 probably counts as the very first time I visited a Buddhist Grotto (for definitions of 'grotto' that include statuary carved into the rocks), I consider my very first set of grottoes (which I plan to revisit near the end of this trip) to be a cliff I happened upon by chance in 2012. It was one of those bits of road magic where someone local saw me, knew that I was going to want to see this place, and was pulled over with his motorcycle to make sure I realized I needed to turn here. 

What with here having a sign telling me there was something to go look at it, and here only being about 200 meters off the road, there's a strong chance that I would have gone for a look anyways, but it had been a long hard morning of pushing my bike up something that definitely wasn't a road to a tunnel that was barely more than a natural cave on the tail of a night spent camping and, it's just as possible that I might have skipped it had I not been told to STOP and LOOK.


Pretty wow, isn't it?
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Although attached to one of my detours for the sake of detouring, my second set of grottoes was also road magic as I never would have known they existed if not for getting into a conversation with the monk at the astonishingly boring modern temple I had unhappily found at the top of a steep climb. As of 2018's revisit, those grottoes were in the process of becoming part of a large park suburban forest park and I suspect that they are no longer open for the public to just wander into either for the purposes of prayer or to 'fix' problems like dirty walls or missing heads.

Inside of the first cave. The replacement heads are modern and of the artistic style generally referred to as "enthusiastic".
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It's probably because the statuary can't easily be moved or removed but grottoes are probably the only place in China where it's easy to just stumble across old statues. Forgetting all the modern stuff that's happened to Chinese art in the 20th century with the collapse of empires, civil wars, and revolution, there's a human tendency to replace old and worn out stuff with bright new shiny stuff.

And if the old stuff that gets replaced with something better just so happens to have artistic value to someone other than the person who thinks that they are improving things, chances are good that it eventually ended up in a private collection somewhere rather than just being in a small local temple by the side of the road.

Prior to this trip, I'd visited the Leshan Big Buddha (2004), the Five Finger Mountain Cliff Carvings near Zuoquan (2012, 2018), the Zuoquan Stone Buddha Temple's Buddha Caves (2012, 2018), something modern near the border of Sichuan and Chongqing (2012), the Xianfosi Grottoes in Hubei (2017), a set of grottoes and some cliff carvings in Chongqing (2017), the Zhongshan Grottoes to the north of Yan'an (2018), the Xumishan Grottoes in Ningxia (2018), and the foot of the hill beneath Ningxia's Songyaowan Grottoes (2018).

By the time this trip is over, I'll have more than tripled the number of places on this list. Starting today with the Anmenshan Grottoes of Baishui County.

Located about 3.5km down a dirt trail at the top of Yanmen Mountain on the border between Baishui and Yijun Counties, the Anmenshan¹ Grottoes barely exist online. I wouldn't have even known they existed at all if not for my beloved paper maps with their excess of detail. Absent from any electronic maps, when I started looking for info on them there were only two articles online. Within the past week a third article and two TikTok videos also showed up.  The third article is how Tyra found someone who knew how to find them.

Though 'knowing how to find them' mostly meant being told "go to the nearby village and ask". Which, despite yesterday's taxi driver apparently knowing about the grottoes (or at least doing a very good job of pretending he knew about them) was not as effective as I'd hoped; she kind of just stared at me like I'd grown a third arm or a second head. 

However, just across the road was a Forest Fire Management Station and those guys (along with road maintenance workers and rural police) are among the absolute best to be asking questions of as their job literally involves going around places on patrol. Which is how I ended up on the back of a motorcycle being taken up the mountain to the unsignposted intersection that I never would have twigged on to as someplace I ought to go. 

For one thing, the number of people who had decided "thank god, I'm at the top of the mountain, let me stop, stretch my legs, and wander down this trail for a secluded shit" would have strongly discouraged me from wandering down that trail for anything other than a secluded shit. (Today, by the way, was the first outdoor shit of the trip.) Particularly, once we'd gotten more than a dozen meters off the road, it seemed as if some of the trail shitters had gone out of their way to find a spot that didn't have a landmine before squatting down to do their business. Goat poo didn't start outnumbering human until a good 250 or 300 meters down the trail.

Compared to all the other grottoes I've been to in China with the exception of perhaps the ones I couldn't get up to because of a landslide, Anmen was pretty tame. Everything had originally been cliff carvings with, in some cases, an external awning like structure sticking out from the cliff wall. The largest and best preserved of the holes was now inside a stacked stone building (that could have initially been made at any time in the past 500 years) that was rebuilt in 2014 at the same time that the floor was concreted and the grottoes became a County Level Historical and Cultural Relics Preservation Site.

On our way back down the mountain which I was soon enough going to bike back up, my guide wanted to take me to a small modern temple which further reading tells me is supposed to have a stone stele that might have some information about the grottoes. Problem is the person who took photos of the stele in 2016 took them at a distance and only with the caption "I can't make out what this says". I demurred as I could just as easily stop at the temple myself. And, I might even have stopped at the temple myself if not for the parked car indicating that someone was probably using it for its intended purpose (i.e. prayer rather than tourism).

My hope had been to stop in Leiyuan Township at the end of the descent off of Yanmen Mountain as, despite not showing any lodging, it did show a police station and that meant it was probably big enough to have a guesthouse if one knew where to look. But the police station was a construction site without any police, and the guesthouse that existed right next door to the police station told me over the phone in a fuck off and go away tone of voice that they had no rooms (my problem may have been calling from an out-of-province phone number). 

There was a second guesthouse with a phone number but it looked even less promising than the first and it was only another 1o or 12km from here to an intersection where I could choose from three towns with marked-on-maps guesthouses (one apiece) and I figured I'd get close and ask somebody "are these places open" and perhaps acquire a phone number before picking the intersection to turn down.

Great plan, in theory. But theory would have required Leiyuan not to be at the bottom of a valley, theory would have required my bad leg not to be twinging from the 7km walk I'd done to the grottoes, theory would have required my stomach not to choose now to start roiling with the gaseous certainty that whatever was going to come out wasn't going to come out solid.

I probably only did 90 minutes of biking in the dark. Not real sure. Ended up choosing Wuli because a minivan with its blinkers on by the side of the road was the perfect person to stop and ask about lodging and he not only knew a guesthouse in Wuli, he also had a phone number to call and confirm them open. Gave me the phone number even so I could ask for directions when I got close as he was very certain that the name wasn't the same as the name of the guesthouse my Maps showed.

Never found out if this was in fact the case as the GPS took me right to the front door of the obviously open-for-business guesthouse where, for the princely sum of 30y, I got a first floor room just the other side of the courtyard from the squat latrine, plenty of quilts, and an electric mattress pad.

¹ Although the initial character in Yanmen Mountain (pronounced Yanmenshan) is written differently than the initial character in Anmenshan, they are near homophones in Mandarin and it's safe to say that the two places should have the same name.

Today's ride: 62 km (39 miles)
Total: 315 km (196 miles)

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