Finding Nemo

Monday, June 6, 2011

Ginormous Buddha

It was a Tuesday, and that meant that all those hard-working Chinese should be safely away from this place.  I would have it all to myself.  So when I topped the stairs, I was looking forward to communing peacefully with the largest carved Buddha in the world, the Great Dafo.  What I saw can only be described as an ocean of Chinese, elbows, and long-lens cameras, all pushing and shoving and piling on top of each other like an Asian Ultimate WWF Smackdown Cage-Fight.

A Chinese man backed slowly up to me, hair messed up, sweating.  He turned and his defeated face said, "I tried, I failed."  He was wearing a big circle button that said A19.  I looked at the mosh pit next to the railing, and noticed everyone was wearing big circle buttons with various letters and numbers.  Apparently that denoted which tribe of tourists you belonged to.  Frantic guides, bellowing Chinese into microphones which connected to blaring speakers at their waists, shouted over one another in an attempt to corral their herd of cats.

I waited.  And waited a bit more.  And then, on cue, the herds started queuing at the Stair of 9 Turns, a set of stone steps that took you down the cliff-face to Dafo's toes.  The mosh-pit vanished and soon their was only a handful of the rebels, small packs of friends that daringly went without a guide.  I walked up and finally got my first gander at the stone giant.

Who dares wake the great Dafo?!
In 713 AD, a Tang Dynasty monk by the name of Haitong decided that the best way to take care of the nasty swirling shoals of the Min River was to fill it with cliff rubble.  So what the heck, might as make what was left over into a 71 meter high Buddhzilla.  The first thing you see when you approach is his 7 meter high ear, dangling below an enormous spaceship-sized head garnished with the crown of studs that denote an enlightened being.  His eyes are lazily half-lidded, completely peaceful and oblivious to the hordes of tourists duking it out all around him to get pictures.  From the top its difficult to even see his feet, they are too far down and the occasional tree blocks the view.

I gritted my teeth and prepared for an assault on the Stair of 9 Turns.  At this point I had gotten used to the idea of Chinese line etiquette, which is basically survival of the rudest.  Foreigners who don't push are considered inept and stupid, and are quickly over-run and stepped on.  So I joined the mob elbow first until I hit a solid 5-foot wall of meat.  There was no way forward, and the line wasn't moving.  I started to sweat.  The mob surged forward, then fell back, and I realized that perhaps this wasn't a good thing to be doing while descending a vertical cliff.  Guides barked orders on the mics, I imagined them saying, "Put away doubt and fear and your long-lens cameras, this is for honor and country!  On my signal, charge!"

I retreated back to the top.  After consulting the map, it became clear that there was another way.  As I descended this narrow secret staircase carved directly into the rock, small packs of Chinese began huffing and puffing up the other way.  Soon the trickle became a stream and then a river.  Like a valiant salmon, I swam through against the current and let gravity assist me as I hurdled and smashed through hordes of sweaty men, old ladies with canes, and monks.  In the back of head I noticed my karma meter was dipping into the red, Dafo probably wasn't too happy with me.

Begone insects!
Finally I emerged from a tunnel to behold Dafo's giant toes.  Seven people can stand on his big toenail according to the guide-book, but unfortunately they were roped off.  So much for that picture of me sunbathing on a car-sized toenail.  I looked up at the Staircase of 9 Turns where I had been defeated and noticed it was now nearly empty.  Doh!!  Instead of waiting a few minutes and having a nice stroll down, I had fought the pack in both directions.  That deserved at least two forehead slaps.

Looking up from the bottom, one can begin to appreciate Dafo's giant bulk.  He literally is a Buddha mountain.  People up on the railings looked like little insects buzzing in his ears.  As a man walked up between his feet, I imagined Dafo looking down and wondering if it was even worth squashing such a tiny bug.  He would definitely be able to take the Statue of Liberty in an arm-wrestling match.

I walked back up to the top to what would have been a very peaceful Chinese garden, complete with scenic waterfall, meditative pagoda, and pond of colorful koi fish.  There was only one problem.  "Blawk blawk zai nar xi xiang chu fong doi!!!"  There were 3 tribes of tourists, each faithfully listening to their guide out-scream the next group's as they described what I assumed was how amazingly peaceful this place was.  The Chinese nodded their heads in agreement and loudly "hmmm"'ed and "shir shir"'ed, at least the ones that weren't yelling on their cell phones even louder than the guides.

As I wandered back to the bus stop, I tried hard to imagine what it must be like on the weekend.  Heaven help the foreigner who experiences it.

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