22 April 2017

Fengdu Ghost town – Snow Jade Cave

We took a risk this morning. We want to go to Fengdu as there is apparently a town that was abandoned when they flooded the Yangxi, and with it a temple complex that also went half under. The bits of the temple that survived are supposed to depict Hell. Having seen all the work in the Shangri La monastery around hell and suffering, we thought it would be interesting to see this one. We had planned on spending the night in Fengdu as there is also a cave complex that is called the best cave in China, and so far it has been rare to do more than one thing in a day. The risk is that we don’t want to spend most of the day lugging our bags around looking for a place to stay so we booked in for the night where we are in Chongqing. That took a while. At 6am you think it would be easy to say we wanted to stay another night, but no, it took about 20 minutes to do this and pay. Then over to the station.

Today however there was an issue. We are used to going through fairly quickly. Not being stopped. They haven’t even x-rayed our bags so it couldn’t be that we have a nail file that we can go all Mcguiver with. After a long slow conversation we found out that our 7:15 train doesn’t leave from this station. WTF? We bought it last night from here, they never said that we would have to go to a different station. It is ChongqingBai Station, the north train station. We were at Chongqingbai. We were as confused as anything and thinking we had a repeat of yesterday. It turns out that Chongqingbai has two railway stations. They are attached to each other, so there is the south side, and the north side. We were on the south side of the north railway station of Chongquing. We needed to go to the north side of the north railway station (are you still with us?) We asked how to walk there. Now incredibly glad we don’t have our bags with us, as we only have about 20 minutes to get there to catch the train. Apparently it is not possible to walk there. What? Its the same station! Just the other side of it. No. You have to take a bus. It takes around 10 minutes. We started to loose it then. Could we get our tickets changed then? We would never make the train on time now. We had left with plenty of time to make the train, but with how long it had taken to say we wanted to stay at the hotel, and now this, then the time to catch the bus and go through security, we were stuffed.

Luckily there were a couple of young guys working that were happy to help us, and we walked all the way back to ticket hall one (which is at least 700m away from the train station as we discovered yesterday) to change our tickets. The guys explained what had happened and we exchanged our tickets for the 8:15 train. No problems, although it was a good thing that we had gotten such an early train, as most of the other trains were already sold out. The funny thing though was that it was the same woman that served us yesterday. As we got the tickets she yelled at us asking if we knew the train left from the other station. It would have been nice if she had told us that when we got the first set of tickets, so we wouldn’t have had to go through all of this! Needless to say Anna had to make sure Andrew didn’t make a smart retort that would have gotten him into trouble over that.

The guys walked us to the bus, and we drove around the train station to the north entrance. There must be an underpass or overpass. We will look for it when we get back tonight. It is nice that people think we are incapable of walking anywhere, or is it just that they don’t want to walk, and assume every one else is the same?

So now we were on the North side of the North Train Station of Chongqing. (To make it even more confusing, not only are there two separate train stations here, there are also 4 different bus stations. The South Side Long Distance Bus Station, The South Side Bus Station, The North Side Long Distance Bus Station and the North Side Bus station. I am still scratching my head over all this)

OK, so having said all of that. We would have actually made the original train (barely). So now we were stuck here for the next hour waiting. Gurrr.

The train was good. It was fast, as it went at about 170km/h and fairly comfortable.

Arriving at Fengdu we came out of the station to a massive square. You could have held the biggest demonstration in Australia on that square and still lost them in the vast emptiness. Over to one side was a small looking building that housed a few food stalls. There were only about 5 or so, and a couple of buses to the side. Walking for about half an hour we got off the square to the buses (OK, so it wasn’t that big, it just felt like it.)

It was easy to catch a bus to the ghost town, as there is a direct one from the station to the attraction. The train station is on the outskirts of town, and we didn’t take the massive highway right next to the station, as it was closed off for some reason, but wound down the hill a bit and over to the huge bridge that spans the Yangxi. Scale is something that is appreciated. It is THIS BIG! Or high, or wide etc.

The abandoned old town of Fengdu didn’t seem that abandoned. Yes there were a few crumbling buildings, but more often than not it seemed bustling with life. It also seemed as if the town was rebuilding apartments or at least new ones. The main square of town was particularly busy. We thought we would have to get off here, but a kind old woman yelled at us. We assumed it was to stay on the bus, but it could have been something completely different.

The bus did then get to the attraction in a round about way. There is a huge statue of the Jade Emperor on the hill side, with a lot of temple buildings popping up around it. The bust seemed very new and shiny for a concrete structure.

This was not what we expected. At the base of the hill was a reconstructed “Old Town” full of persistent hawkers and off the first street a lot of closed up shop spaces.

On the other side was the attraction. Yay, we made it to the Temple of Hell. Paying the 100 yuan each we went in. The beginning boded well for the entire complex. Concrete and papermache statues. Painted up stone masks, and fake old buildings.

The Temple complex is built going up the hill, and as you would expect there is a different temple or shrine on each level. These were all named for sections of the passage to the underworld or in honor of the Jade Emperor (A Confucian god, but don’t let that worry you in a Buddhist temple!)

The pictures were tacky, the temples new reconstructions, the tunnel to the underworld was just a normal path, and we learnt that the whole thing had been rebuilt in 2007! Did it ever exist? We have no way of knowing. There were sections that looked older, but they could have been faked, or plundered from other real sites.

We almost missed the famous bridge over troubled water. It seemed old, but was a tiny little thing straddling a murky puddle. Although there was a photographer here charging to take photos of you as you crossed it, so it hat could have been an indicator.

With the main temple we had to push past all the tour guides and their groups blocking every available bit of real estate just to get a look at the Jade Emperor himself ( a pretty nice looking guy actually! Ruler but not creator of heaven and the Gods) Then through and up a pagoda to find a diorama of a couple of old geezers playing chess, or checkers or something. We couldn’t tell as someone had nicked all the pieces. Back down we were going to leave in disgust. The only things we had seen depicting hell was a couple of paintings (done by 10th graders, and not the good ones) a few statues of funky looking demons and bad English translations of the different aspects of the road to hell.

We almost missed the best bit. It was a whole two sections of all the demi gods and Demons executing their tortures on Humanity. All our favorite scenes were here, the wheel, the cross cut saw, boiling alive, dogs eating intestines etc. The only problem was that the dioramas were too cartoonish. Happy cartoonish, not twisted dark and menessing at all. Again, making hell look like a fun place created by highschoolers (Note: I am Not saying that highschool was fun. IT had more in common with hell than this place did)

So to sum it up: There may have been a temple here in the past that the only surviving section depicted hell, but that has ceased to exist and now all there is is a soulless recreation that is not interesting, not fun, too expensive and a complete waste of time.

Back down the hill we also found out about the masks. On one of the construction barriers there was a thing in English explaining that this area has taken them on recently (Yes, We know there is a pagan tradition in the region with masks, but we are talking about the masks at the site). The Ghost Masks are to celebrate a person that has been making them for years. For TV SHOWS! It has nothing to do with anything here. Just that it fit into the persona of “Ghost Town”

As we went through the temple in record time (for us anyway) we would have the entire afternoon at the cave we wanted to go to. The Snow Jade Cave. Supposedly the best in China.
Not sure if we believe that now, as there is a Unesco listed cave a bit further south of here, and this one is only about 15km from town.

Thinking it could be tricky to get to it, we asked around at the information centre. Get the bus to Fengdu and ask from there. The bus we wanted never appeared. We waited for ages. Passing down a couple of very expensive rides into the city (Starting between 100 and 50 yuan a person to go as far as a 3 yuan bus trip) Eventually we got the bus to the railway station as it seemed a lot more common. Getting off just after the bridge we asked a bus driver with the translator. The entire bus chimed in, until a very nice lady that spoke some English helped us out. We would have to take a taxi to the Lower Dragon Gate Bridge and then jump into a mini bus or van to go the rest of the way.

The first taxi was easy enough to get, although we are still a bit suspicious when you have shared taxies that run on meter, and the first person gets out without paying!! (Yes, be suspicious of this)

We had no idea on where to get the mini van or taxi though. We asked the police and they said we had to go back into town to the bus station. Just another taxi ride. We decided to walk. Then we decided to walk up to the upper bridge as we had seen some mini buses there. No one was interested in helping us, as all the drivers were asleep, playing cards or otherwise absent. Finding a couple of girls waiting in one, we asked them. They helped us out by flagging down a taxi and negotiating a price of 30 yuan to go out there. Another shared taxi, but at least the price was already set.

Dropping off the other passengers one by one, we then were right to leave town. The drive took a long time, and we were getting slightly worried about where we were going. It was a lot further than 15km. This was not good, were we even heading in the right direction or not?

The scenery was stunning though, as we followed a small river up into the mountains. The sides of the hills got steeper and steeper before turning into cliffs.

Finally the driver pointed to a building on the other side of the road saying that was it. We pulled into the parking lot and paid him. Ha. Not that simple. He was now claiming 30 each. The metre only read 40 in total, and it had been well over 10 when we got in. This sparked a big debate, and we eventually had to pay 50. I know there are good taxi drivers out there. We have even met a few of them in China already, but this seems to be the norm everywhere in the world with taxis. Still, it had gotten us here.

At the attraction entrance we had to pay our 100 yuan each (China is SOO expensive in this respect, it is easy to blow $100 Australian for two people just to visit more than one site in a day) then we needed to walk over to where the ferry boat would take us over the river. There had been a bridge in the past. All the photos around the ticket office showed it, and you can easily see the pylons and wreckage in the river of where it had been. It just isn’t there now. We joked and made bets on how much that would cost us on top of the entrance fee. We settled on 90. Turns out that we were wrong. It was actually included in the price! On the other side we took the path up the hill to the caves entrance.

Here we were expected to wait and take a guide. We explained that we would take a long time. They explained that it was free. We said that we would slow them down. They said we had to do it. That was that. Not wanting a screaming microphoned person explaining in Chinese what sort of phallic thing we were looking at reminded them of, we decided we would hang back and go at our own pace. The first 10 seconds of the tour confirmed this. We were almost deafened when we went through the atmospheric barriers and she started talking. Waiting till they left we took our time walking around. The security guard got annoyed and yelled at us to hurry up. We ignored him. Sorry, but not speaking Chinese helped here. He gave up after noticing that we were not touching anything or looked like we would damage the formations. There were already plenty damaged just putting in the path. But what do you do when you expect thousands and thousands of tourists?

The cave was stunning. Wide sections, narrow sections. Brilliant straws all over the place, a running stream (that has now been diverted to allow humans through. Small helectites everywhere and some brilliant shawls. Even a massive fossilized conch shell. It was a special cave, and worth the praise. Especially the largest thing of flowstone I have ever seen. We spent hours in there going around the 1.2km long track. It took us up to different sections and you get the feel that the complex is a lot bigger than just the small section we were allowed to see. Again there was a guy set up to take photos of you at one of the most beautiful sections. It did glisten white like snow. Unfortunately with the dust of construction and other elemental effects (24h lighting causing mold to grow for one) we don’t think it will be that white for much longer. Either way, look at the gallery. It is only a small selection of photos, as we took too many. We drained all our camera batteries in here!

On emerging into the light, there was almost nobody around. All the site workers had left, just leaving a security guard to look up after the last tour groups left. (We had been passed constantly by these groups, as it does seem to be a popular place) Now we have to work out how to get back to Fengdu before 8pm! This could be difficult, but it was only 5:30 now, so even if we have to hitch we have time. Asking a few people there, we were told there would be a bus. It was a long wait! Around 6:45 a bus turned up. There was only one car left at the parking lot, and not too many going past. Hitching was starting to look like a real option by then.

The bus was a real bus. It cost 16 combined, and no issues. Driving us straight back to town, and to the small long distance bus station. This was probably the station that the police tried to send us to. They were right. However it did go past the lower dragon bridge, so the girl was right too, if we could have figured out which one to flag down. Why she didn’t just say go to the bus station we don’t know. We would never have found it walking.

At the station we asked about a bus to the train station. One elderly woman’s eyes lit up thinking she could screw us out of a fortune by taking us all the way to Chongqing kept at us. Others were trying to help. Again a younger lady that spoke some English came to our rescue letting us know what bus to catch and the direction to go (up hill of course) This got her a scathing attack from the old babbage, who saw cash walking away, and this woman was responsible for it. Not nice, but we really appreciated the help.

Walking through the stinking remains of a market street that was packing up with no room to manouver around the remnants or vehicles we made it to a main road. Breath! Then it was easy to catch the bus. A quick bite of good food from one of those forlorn food shops on the big square and it was time to catch the return train.

A good, if somewhat frustrating day. Good as we could mark Fengdu off our list, and not have to worry about what we may have missed if we hadn’t gone, and the cave was excellent.

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