Waiting for Buddha

Enlightenment is just a short queue away – by Elijah Dove


It began innocently enough in Chengdu, Sichuan, during the spring festival holiday. There were four of us: Jacky, Patrick, Tyler and myself – English teachers and Americans all. We were going to visit Leshan, to see the largest stone Buddha statue in the world. Because nearly everyone travels during spring festival, our return train tickets were standing room only.

When you leave a train station in China, you’re typically accosted by taxi and “black cab” drivers on all sides asking where you want to go. It’s how I imagine high-profile convicts feel when they’re led from the court room, surrounded by shouting faces and with microphones pushed into your face. The forty minute drive into town cost us 150 yuan, jammed into some guy's car.

Our first stop was the local bus station – just to check prices, of course. None of us exactly relished the idea of standing on a train for four hours, and we figured it couldn't be much more expensive than catching a ride back to the train station. Ten minutes later, we walked out with four bus tickets, 47 yuan apiece. The bus left at 6pm, an hour earlier than the train, but no big deal. Surely this Buddha wouldn’t take that long.

Once we arrived at the park and bought the entry tickets, we entered and found ourselves wandering along a sylvan mountainside. It was like a page pulled from the Jungle Book, with ancient statues and carvings half hidden behind layers of moss and vines. The very air felt ancient and rarefied, as though pollution avoided the place out of respect. You could wander those paths for hours, and we did just that, letting our feet move us inexorably upwards, towards our ultimate goal.

We eventually summited a path and found ourselves on a nice plateau with a temple, tea tables and a lovely view. It was lunch time and, with nothing else to see beyond the Grand Buddha (and that just ahead), we decided to relax and enjoy a cuppa.

An hour of cards and tea later, we headed towards what we thought was the end of our journey. Instead, we rounded a corner and were confronted with an entire new set of sights to be seen. With the clock rolling past one, we opted to head straight for the Buddha. Following the signs took another half an hour. The paths grew more and more crowded along the way until we wandered smack dab into the line.

The line.

It didn’t seem all that bad at first – just your average back-and-forth queue. It couldn’t be that far to the Buddha, surely. Fifteen minutes and twenty five feet later, we could glimpse the back of Buddha’s giant head. Which meant his feet were somewhere far below. Two other foreigners passed by, and one asked us if we knew how long the line would take. It seemed an innocent enough question until she showed us pictures of a long, winding, many-legged beast that twisted and writhed every which way before snaking its way down, down, down the cliffside to the feet of the waiting Buddha.

Where we were was just the prelude. What awaited was an entire movement of treacle-slow timpani, as though the percussionist had grown bored and forgotten to set the pace. Movement might be too generous a word – there was a lot of non-movement going on. This was a bit like waiting in line for the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland in the middle of the summer rush, only without friendly signs giving you a time estimate.

We found the line around 1:30pm. 2:30 rolled around, and we had wrapped around the back of the Buddha’s head. There was a huge mounted TV, with Mr Bean skits interspersed between the Leshan promotional spots. 3:30 approached, and we were third and fourth guessing this. To catch our bus, leaving no later than 5 was a very good idea. But we still had our train tickets, an ace up the sleeve.

By the time we started wending our way down the cliff face, it was after 4, and anxiety was stirring in earnest, like a dragon being roused from slumber. But from where we now where, we could do little but stare down at the river, where boats approached from the main city on the far side. The passengers were like bright signal flags taunting us with their mobility as they rode the current close enough for a glimpse of the Buddha. No line for them.

Things continued on at a snail’s pace. We switchbacked to and fro. Buddha was in full view now, creeping up and up until it rose majestically over our heads. The anxiety dragon was fully awake, twisting tight around my gut. Twenty minutes until five.

Finally we approached the end of the line, where we discovered the cause of the long wait was a set of very steep and narrow steps for the last fifteen feet or so. This discovery might have been incredibly depressing if we weren’t in such a hurry. Take pictures, go. Take pictures, go. A brief moment to enjoy toes taller than us, and to appreciate the incredible workmanship.

And what workmanship. Hundreds of feet of pious detail lovingly carved from the earth, imbued with the sweat and dedication of the devout. It was living history, weathering the changes of the mortal world with stoic serenity. For that moment, as I stared up at the Buddha's placid face, time seemed secondary and malleable. I imagined the millions before and the millions to come who would look at this face, and felt connected to them.

Then the spell was broken and off we went, jogging to the exit. Fifty minutes until our bus’s departure. Cutting it close, but the twist in my gut loosened a little. Then I looked around, and anxiety re-wrapped itself. Everything was unfamiliar. Where were we? On the opposite side of the mountain? Where are the taxis?

A lady approached us with her siren call. “Chengdu? Chengdu?”

That caught us off-guard. You mean we could have caught a bus straight from here? It seemed foolish not to at least ask. “How much?”

“Fifty yuan a head.”

Only three yuan more than our bus tickets. If only we’d known about it earlier. I clutched our bus tickets in my pocket. There was still time to make it, or so we hoped.

A guy with a van offered us a ride to our bus station. After a moment of deliberation, we settled for the van. He drove like the wind, breezing around other cars like a passing zephyr. At the station we hurried inside, and were immediately unsettled. It was a bus station, all right, but it sure didn’t look the same. Less crowded, bigger room, cleaner floors. Where were we?

Hoping for the best, fearing the worst, we showed our tickets to the staff. Sure enough, wrong station. Quick to assure us we could still make it if we hurried, they ushered another van driver inside and told him where to take us. Once again we piled in, and sped off. When we we got there and ran up the steps, it was ten minutes until our bus. Sweet relief. This time, we had really made it. There was no way we were not getting on that –

“Does this look like the right station to you?”

We glanced around, trying to match the place to how we remembered it this morning. It looked all right to me, and honestly, how could we get it wrong twice? Look, there were even people boarding a bus for Chengdu. That had to be ours. We handed over our tickets to the lady punching them. A soft bus seat had never sounded so good. It was going to be fine.

The ticket lady stared at our tickets, then at us as though she couldn’t believe we had the gall to try to pull a stunt like this. Wrong station, she said curtly as she shunted us aside.

Devastation. How could it be the wrong station? How had we managed to get the only two drivers who didn’t know the way, even when we showed them the stupid tickets? How many bus stations did this town have? Why did we come here again?

After failing to find a new ride to what may or may not have been the right station – and being quoted ridiculous prices to get to the train station – we decided our best option was to buy new tickets from this bus station to Chengdu. We spent the hour until our bus at a noodle stall nearby, eating spicy Sichuan noodles that left my lips as numb as everything else.

As we sat there, vacant-eyed, I contemplated the day's events. The line, the tickets, the taxis – all of the rushing around, and the bad money we had thrown after good. And all of a sudden, it seemed so petty, and I found I was just too exhausted to feel anything.

Nirvana at last.

Elijah Dove teaches in Heilongjiang, and keeps a blog called Dove Tales. All photos by the author

Edited by Alec Ash