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Travel Story

The yin and yang of 21st century China



Travels in Schezuan province follow a path between the ancient and modern

It’s pitch black. I can’t even see my hands in front of my face; not surprising when you consider that I am over 2,000 metres above sea level, half way up one of the four sacred Buddhist mountains in China, Mount Emei or Emeishan. From here it’s a four-hour walk to the nearest road. The air is fresh and cool. For the first time in weeks I’m not breathing in pollution and dirt, and for the first time in weeks it’s quiet, eerily quiet.

In a country with a 1.3 billion population, quiet doesn’t exist. There is always noise: horns from buses squealing around corners, bells from bicycles expertly dodging buses, women in stalls along the side of the road screaming the only English words they know at you through loudspeakers –"hello, water, hello" – and even chanting and 4 a.m. gongs from the corners of temples and monasteries.

There is always noise in China and yet here I am in silence, except for the occasional bumps and rustling coming from the other side of the monastery walls; Tibetan macaques wandering restlessly in the forest. The desire for sleep is making my eyelids heavy but my mind is racing, eagerly embracing this silence in the darkness of the mountain and I can’t help but reflect on where I am and why I am here.

I started the day in Baogou, near Chengdu in the Schezuan province of China, and spent half a morning riding buses, gondolas and hiking, until I emerged to find myself high on a forest-covered mountain, a thousand worlds away from the crowded Chinese cities I had traveled through. I was perched above a sea of clouds in awe of my surroundings, watching Buddhists lighting giant sticks of incense and monks mediating beside rocky cliffs. Off in the distance I could vaguely make out the snow-covered peaks of the Himalayas, rising out of the clouds like giants.

The beauty was tremendous, until suddenly in front of me was a giant metal crane, constructing the frame of what someday will be a temple, but currently appears more like a microwave tower; a metal monstrosity built to replace an older temple deemed not grand enough for such a sacred mountain.

Disappointed that I had arrived too late to visit the old temple, I proceeded down a path only to find a monorail, something so utterly out of place; but I had already learned that the out of place is commonplace in China. It is an ancient country rapidly modernizing and as such there is a constant juxtaposition between the traditional and the modern, between the beautiful and the efficient: ancient temples with monorails, Buddhist monks with cell phones, water buffalo sharing the road with BMWs. So seeing a monorail did not seem quite so strange, although unhappily visions of Disneyland jumped to mind.