Clambering among the caverns of Fengfeng

Sunday was one of our most active and strenuous days yet. We were promised one day off while in Handan, so instead of teaching, we piled onto a charter bus at 7:30 in the morning to trek out to Fengfeng. This mining district, 20 km to the south of Handan, is famous for its ceramics and for its system of caverns where, as far back as 900 years ago, Buddhists have been building temples to worship their bodhisattvas. They’re called the Xiantangshang caves, and they’re freakin’ amazing.

Despite being a small mountain, the climb – via stairs built all the way up the shrines – left me winded and dripping with sweat. It was totally worth it for the view, and by the time I saw my first temple, I would have gladly agreed to climb for miles if it meant getting a glimpse of more. Before you hit the actual caves, there are a system of grottos carved into niches in the rock where idols were placed at one time where pilgrims could pause and pray. There was only one, small Buddha figurine that looked quite recent, but the nooks themselves were fascinating and I wanted very much to climb inside one, but I decided against it on the grounds of potential sacrilege.

There are 32 caves in all, and we saw only 3, but they were well worth the trip. The first cave we stopped at opened onto a huge statue of the Buddha set into its own alcove that must have been at least 15 feet high. The wall behind him is colored in shades of blue, red, and orange, and all around the cavern itself (which horseshoes around behind the main altar) are about two dozen small nooks with figures in bas relief of enlightened men (possibly other iterations of the Buddha himself). The acoustics were amazing – I should know, because I was humming “Misty Mountain” the entire time, and it resounded beautifully.

We spent the rest of the day bouncing around to different museums and cultural sights where local pottery was on display. Fengfeng is known for its ceramics, and I can safely say that I’ve seen quite enough pots, bowls, and vases to last me a lifetime. They were beautiful (and some were remarkably well-preserved, ancient specimens), but the constant shuffling on and off of buses and onto sights for half an hour at a time wears on you.

Despite the excitement of the caverns and temples and the beauty of the various ceramics, I’m afraid that my patience was at an all-time low for this trip on Sunday. Aside from being exhausted and physically drained, our volunteers seemed to be doing their very best job of getting onto my last nerve. Our Handan helpers seem set on coddling us and treating us like children, which I realize is a side-effect of the language barrier and the resulting difficulty in communication. But being (literally) herded through the Xiantangshang caverns, scolded for walking too quickly, questioned when I turn my attention to anything other than what’s being presented at the moment, and rushed from place to place without enough time to really take in the sights was about all I could bear. I know that they mean well and that it’s no easy task wrangling a group of American tourists when your English is conversational at best, but come on. We’re adults, after all, and this is not our first rodeo when it comes to traveling abroad.

We’re heading into our final days here in Handan. Tomorrow, we’re being treated to a calligraphy lesson here on campus, and I’m hoping to go with a few of my students to one of the parks on Thursday. On Friday, the teachers will perform in a final exhibition, demonstrating what they’ve learned this week, and in the evening, we’ll have a big closing banquet to see us off. On Saturday, we hop back onto the fast train to Beijing and spend a few short days there before we board our respective planes back to the States.

I have more pictures to upload, so check back in shortly! I’ll post a few more entries before I head back home, and then I’m planning on writing up a few reflections posts.

For anyone interested, there’s a pretty neat interactive website all about the Xiantanghsang caves created by the University of Chicago that you can find here.

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