The bus dropped me off at the junction, next to a collection of identical, nondescript roadside restaurants, then disappeared over the rise in a cloud of diesel smoke. The village I'd come to see was about a kilometre away. I strolled over to the nearest restaurant, and in slow, textbook Chinese, enquired, "Waqie you fandian mei you?" (Does Waqie have any hotels?) The owner shook her head. Mei you. (Not have.) Not a promising beginning.
A few days earlier I'd been in Chengdu, browsing through a Chinese book of Sichuan landscape photography, when a particular image caught my eye. One hundred and eight white, gold capped Buddhist stupas, neatly arranged in nine rows of twelve, in a field, glowing softly in the light of the full moon. I had no idea where they were, but I knew I wanted to go there.
One of the hostel staff translated some of the text for me. It was in Waqie, northeast of Chengdu. Two hours of googling produced a ten-day route with at least five other photographic opportunities, including rivers, grasslands and an ancient ethnic minority village.
Not in Guidebooks
None of the places were in any of the guidebooks, but they weren't exactly "off the beaten track" either. The ubiquitous Chinese tour groups mean that there isn't really anywhere in China that is. A couple of travel blogs mentioned that westerners had stayed overnight, but didn't say where. I got as much information as I could, made the rest up as I went along, hoping that the two months of intensive Chinese study would be enough.
Back on the outskirts of Waqie, the restaurant owner knew I'd come to see the stupas. She also knew there was only one bus a day. I needed a room. She had two. Twenty yuan bought me a bed, a plastic bowl and a thermos of hot water for washing. Dumping my rucsac, I grabbed my camera bag and tripod, made my way up to the stupas.
My first views were obscured by two Chinese tourist coaches in the car park. Walking round them revealed what looked more like a construction site than a tourist sight. The original stupas, now neglected and wildly overgrown, were surrounded by barbed wire, hidden by several ramshackle wooden corridors containing Tibetan prayer wheels. Larger stupas were in the process of being constructed, the whole complex was surrounded by dozens of Tibetan prayer flag tents. The photograph I'd been entranced by was simple, elegant, stunning. This was a mess.
Chinese tourism is very regimented – unbelievably regimented. In my first three months, I met precisely two young, independent travellers. The rest go on organised tours, wearing identical baseball caps, or T-shirts, or huge name tags advertising the travel company they're with. Sometimes they have all three. Led by a guide with a flag, they dash from site to site, stopping barely long enough to have their photograph taken in front of whatever it is they came to see. Then they go shopping. If there are four sites on the itinerary, there will be at least five shopping stops. And the guides get BIG commissions.
Chinese tourists don't walk the breathtaking, mostly unrestored ten-kilometre stretch of the Great Wall between Jinshaling and Simatai, for example – because all there is to see is the wall. Instead, they go to the completely reconstructed, less than fifty-year-old stretch at Badaling, with its cable car, amusement park, restaurants, cinema and shops. They walk maybe one hundred metres along the wall, have their photograph taken, buy the obligatory "I climbed the Great Wall" T-shirt, cap, keyring, pen, mug, pencil case etc., then off to a jade factory.
In one of the few English conversations of this part of my trip, the custodian of the stupas explained that the Chinese tour groups now stopped there on the organised trips from Aba on the way to Chengdu. They wrote on the monuments, broke or took the mani stones. Hence, the barbed wire. The more there was to see, the more there was to have their photograph taken in front of, the longer the groups would stay – which explained the frenetic construction.
I half expected Kevin Costner to poke his head from behind one of the stupas, saying "If you build it, they will come".