Day 128: Teaching in Tianshui & More Buddhist Grottoes at Maiji Shan
I was disappointed to leave Xiahe, but also excited at the realization that I only have a handful of days left before it’s all over. I fly out from Lanzhou on the 15th for Hong Kong, where I’m going to chill (and stock up on yummy yum cha/dim sum) before I fly back to San Fran on the 18th.
I caught the 7:30am bus back to Lanzhou, getting there around lunchtime. After being screwed around by a taxi driver (and short-changed by an Aussie union staffer I decided to share a taxi with, tight-arse…) I got from one bus terminal to another and jumped straight on a bus to Tianshui, my penultimate Silk Road destination, in eastern Gansu province.
On the bus I was befriended by a friendly young Chinese guy called William (his English name of course). He wanted to practice his English so we had a chat about this and that. When we arrived in Tianshui he was nice enough to check me into the hotel, saving me the extra 20 yuan I’d have to pay as a foreigner if I walked in myself. He then offered to take me to his grandfather’s apartment for dinner with the family, which I gladly accepted. After a superb dinner of home-made dumplings, and after meeting all of his lovely family, he topped the night off with an offer I couldn’t refuse – the chance to speak to his class at high school! I’ve always wanted to do this on all my travels… And last night was the night!
It was a great experience talking to the class. I had about an hour with them and gave them a bit of my history, a bit of info about Australia etc., and then opened it up to Q&A. It was all pretty kosher until the teacher left the room, and then the students really let fly with all the juicy bits of info they wanted to know: do I have a girlfriend, what music do I listen to, how much money does x and y cost, what do I think of China etc. Actually that last one got me in a bit of trouble, as I was pretty truthful in my assessment and opinions of China. I was in the middle of describing some of the differences between a democractic government and a communist regime when the teacher walked back in. He gave me a dirty look and I was asked to leave sortly thereafter! The kids loved it though… 🙂
The were great kids and I had a lot of fun with them, but the experience did leave me doubting the quality of Chinese education. These guys were around 17 years old, and this is their last year of school before they hopefully go off to university, but rote learning methods (memorizing and regurgitating information on demand) were clearly de rigueur. Get them thinking? God forbid! Their English was OK but their vocab severely limited – most didn’t know the word "China" in English, and even words describing their own country (like "communism") were beyond them. And for all those people fearing Chinese world domination, don’t. It’s not their fault but these kiddies don’t know much about the world outside China (e.g. couldn’t find Europe on the map, had never heard of Britney Spears or U2, didn’t know what an iPod/mp3 player was) and weren’t at all up-to-speed with the internet and email. But at the end of the day they’ve all got their big dreams, so good on them and good luck to them.
All that fun aside, I came to Tianshui to see Maiji Shan, one of the four largest Buddhist cave groups in China (the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang are also on that list – so I can tick two off now!). I caught the bus out there this morning, and after all the deserts and arid landscapes I’ve seen recently, the lush green forests and hills of the countryside out of the city were a welcome change.
Maiji Shan means Haystack Mountain, although I didn’t see the similarity in its shape when I saw it. What’s amazing about the place is that there are hundreds of Buddhiust caves covering one side of the mountain, with most of them dating from around the 4th and 5th Centuries AD. But how they ever constructed the caves I have no idea… The caves are built into an overhanging cliff face, with the highest probably a good 200 vertical metres above the base of the cliff. I learnt that the stone for the statues isn’t even from the local area and would have had to be brought there (the stone in the mountain is too soft to carve).
While the caves themselves weren’t anything near as spectacular and exquisite as those at Mogao, exploring the caves was infintely more exciting! For once I didn’t need to take a tour and could roam the area by myself, and best of all I could snap pics along the way. Yay! Scaling the many stairs and platforms plastered to the overhanging cliff was definitely a little vertigo-inducing (and admittedly had me questioning Chinese engineering standards), but it was heaps of fun and a good way to spend a few hours.