D20: 延安 - Me China Red - CycleBlaze

April 7, 2021

D20: 延安

If I'm going to be brutally honest with myself, I have to admit that I really didn't want to go riding today and that I'm actually quite glad the bike shop gave me the excuse of having a grotto to visit. Among other things, it lets me do my laundry. With the weather being what it has been, the wide variety of clothing types that I have with me is mostly pointless as I wear the same thermal bibs over and over again.

I know it won't take much before everything stinks all over again but it will be nice, when I start out again tomorrow, to have at least one morning where I'm fresh and clean.

For something that's located in the middle of a city for which tourism (admittedly of the patriotic sort and not the historic sort) is big business, the general lack of information online leads me to believe it's going to be a short trip of not much interest so, even though its not that far away, I take a cab. That way, if I decide that I'd rather go visit one of the city's museums, I won't have wasted my bad leg's limited ability to just go walking for the sake of walking on the not very long journey from my hotel to downtown.

After a total inability to get the local Covid related contact tracing app¹ for tourists to accept my being a foreign passport holder, the staff wave me through unregistered and unticketed; and, I have a revelation about why so many of the Big Famous Mountains and tourist sites of the kind that I avoid are being reported in travel groups for turning away foreigners. Although xenophobia or a lack of critical thinking skills (regarding the fact that non-Chinese who are in China have not only generally been here since the pandemic began but also aren't the ones who are likely to be spreading Covid²) are a big part of it, it's actually because the dipshits who programmed the apps are the same dipshits who, back in 2012, were responsible for online banking that couldn't handle allowing a person with a name that wasn't in Chinese to see their bank balance.

Add in a general unwillingness on the part of most people (I'd say most Chinese people, but its not limited to just Chinese people) to decide that its okay to bend the rules in this very specific instance and... bam... you've got a situation where people who don't have Chinese ID cards and Chinese names can't make use of services that pre-pandemic were available to us.

Grotto #6, the first of the grottoes after the entrance, shows indications in the form of post holes and the like that, even before it became the home of a certain revolutionary and his wife in the 1930s, it had probably already existed as a half natural/half constructed structure. It's not really all that interesting in and of itself but I've not had the opportunity to go into very many actually dug-into-hillside yaodong and I manage to find it interesting.

Grotto #5 is famous for being the site of the first Xinhua Bookstore and has displays on that topic. That it also has thousand year old carvings (many of which are in good condition) is more or less an afterthought though to the displays and info boards all about the far more interesting and important fact that this was where Xinhua Bookstore was founded in the 1930s. I spend a substantial amount of time in Grotto #5 as, despite there still being four more grottoes for me to visit, I'm reasonably sure that the site is going to live up to my low expectations.

Grotto #3, which is locked, and right next to Grotto #4, does in fact live up to my low expectations. Although the outside is a wonderful faux building of the sort that tells us a great deal about the architecture of the era in regions of China where the architecture was actually made of wood rather than being dug into a hillside, the inside is bare stone and randomly stored junk that someone hasn't bothered to throw away yet.  

Grotto #4, on the other hand, wow. I start with being impressed by the statuary on the outside of the grotto. It's mostly just little niches with three or five figures that are probably Buddha plus two attendants or Guanyin plus two attendants. However, because the local stone is soft and presumably sandstone, years of wind and rain have melted the statuary into lumps that are barely recognizable as having once been human forms. As my friend David said when watching one of my videos "I probably would have said something about how this 'perfectly illustrates the Buddhist concept of the impermanence of worldly things' but your 'wow, wow, wow, wow' also does a pretty good job of getting the point across.

The centerpiece of Grotto #4 is an obviously repaired Buddha (if the head and hands are originals, they've been badly glued back on) on an altar that once had four fake columns 'supporting' a ceiling which is the carved representation of painted tile. A fair amount of the wall art and low relief statuary is stuff that I recognize from my visits to modern temples. Just 1,000 years old, and carved into rock that has since started to melt into stalagmites. But, you know, other than that, it's recognizable. 

The best way to think about grottoes in this region is to realize that they're basically ordinary-for-the-era temples which may or may not have been taken care of. In a place where flat land is at a premium and houses tended to already be dug into the soft earth, it's pretty understandable why so many temples are also in caves. And while I don't know what the afforestation level was like around here before the ecological disasters of the 20th century, having been through the unpeopled mountains where there are relatively large numbers of trees, I completely and totally understand why they were carving faux interlocking wooden dougong and fake ceiling tiles and doing bas relief instead of fresco. It's then a funny twist of fate that these then turned out, even with weathering, to be substantially more permanent than the items which they were aping.

The grottoes are numbered from east to west and, because of the way the stairs go, the next one I come to is actually #1. I manage to get a few photos but not anywhere near as many as I'd like. Somehow, despite my now having three camera batteries and two battery chargers, and my knowing that I was hopefully going to be going into dark holes in the ground, I've run out of battery on my camera. I also didn't bring the powerbank with me and both the new phone and the old phone are starting to notice the effects of my regularly using their cameras and flashlights. Besides which, there's an official sign posted that says "no photography" and, after my first twenty minutes or so in the Grotto, someone following me to make sure I realize that "no photography" does not mean "no flash photography" or "no annoying other tourists by setting up a tripod" but does, in fact, mean "no photography".

I follow a paid docent and a handful of people out of Grotto #1 to #2, #3, and eventually most of the rest of the mountain. Most of what she's talking about is standard tour guide stuff and I tend to tune out a lot of it but, occasionally, there's something interesting. Like the fact that the three Buddhas in #1 are faithful reproductions of the originals which went missing in the 1930s after being removed for safekeeping as the city was being bombed. This, along with a bunch of the other patriotic winners of the Chinese Civil War type stuff tends to sound a bit 'off' to me but I don't know enough about the actual history to dare to argue.

Grotto #3 is perhaps the strangest of the bunch. Dominated by an absolutely enormous laughing Buddha on a gargantuan sized lotus, he appears—despite dating to the Ming Dynasty and easily being 500 years younger than the cave walls—to be a natural part of the cave. I can only assume that this means there was some other statue here before him and that he is what happened when they carved that statue down. The other odd thing about Grotto #3 is the story which the docent tells about how Chiang Kaishek was enamored of the (frankly not very impressive) artistic qualities of the laughing Buddha in Grotto #3 and how he wanted to cut it out of the grotto to ship back to his home province, but didn't because it's a multi-ton piece of rock and a war was going on.

I continue to follow the small group around for the next hour and change which does lead to my getting to see a few other parts of the mountain that I probably wouldn't have if I had been on my own but which also, after the splendor of the grottoes, had no shine to them.

¹ Whether they are automated, honor system, or something else, I find for me that the various contact tracing apps hit the uneasy sweet spot between "really cool public health solution" and "disturbingly overreaching method of tracking people". I mean I really really like being in a basically Covid-free country and I get that the reason this happened is the 'nuke it from orbit' approach to controlling the spread of disease. However, liking the results does not equal liking the methodology by which those results were achieved.

² In point of fact, while the only person I know in China who had Covid is a foreigner, and that foreigner is someone who got Covid overseas, the vast vast majority of imported cases of Covid came from Chinese citizens who decided that overseas was looking like a bad place to be right now, and who—like the foreigner I know—were caught during their Quarantine period.

Today's ride: 5 km (3 miles)
Total: 712 km (442 miles)

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