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June 7, 2007 - Xumi Shan, China

The Buddhas and the Bees

My Xumi Shan Driver

June is upon us.

For the students - especially the Senior 3 students - that means big trouble. Tests. Here in China students are being prepped for the college entrance exam years in advance. And today is T-Day. Three days actually of grueling tests that dictate the rest of each students life.

The test - known as the Gao Kao - is the single qualification for entering a college or university. Score well? You can hope to go to Beijing or Shanghai to one of the nationally recognized universities. Score poorly? Go to a local college and expect to work in a menial job for years to come. It's that bad.

So what do I do to prepare myself for this?

Take a little trip.

This last weekend I headed off to one of the last "stops" that I wanted to see here in Ningxia, the Xumi Shan Grottoes. Taking full advantage of the Chinese hop-on hop-off bus system I grabbed a bus to Haiyuan and hopped off at the Sanying intersection - Sanying Lu Kou. At this tiny intersection I was surprised to find a few minivans, affectionately called mian bao che, waiting for fares. Hoping in one we were off on the short 25 kilometer drive to the mountain.

The driver was an older man, thankfully not too crazed with having a foreigner in his van, the other passengers were much more interested than he was. We ran through the typical where I'm from, how much I make and if I had children conversation until everybody settled into the ride. The only excitement came when the driver frantically began motioning to the windows in the van. Everybody jumped into action and the windows went flying up - just in time too, as a barrage of bugs hit the windshield.

Large white smears covered the front windscreen and I could see swarms of large black dots flying around the van as we sped by. And there, by the side of the road, was the explanation. Row upon row of squat yellow boxes.


We drove past hundreds of bee boxes - the driver mentioned how the area was known for its exceptionally sweet honey - along with the plastic covered tents of the beekeepers as they moved through the area.

The grottoes are a bit of an oddity. Started during the Northern Wei and continuing during the Sui and Tang dynasties the large system of caves and statues were carved from the yellowish-red sandstone cliffs. What makes the grottoes strange however is their location. Situated well off the main Silk Road route to the south and a relatively far 60 kilometers from Guyuan the caves are fairly isolated. It is not known why the location was chosen but it is well suited for the nearly 150 caves - ranging in size from tiny hollows in the rock-face barely large enough to fit a small statue in to massive caves with 10-meter ceilings - that dot the area.

I met a few students from Yinchuan and we spent the next two hours climbing the steep stone steps worn smooth by hundreds of years of shuffling monks and peeking in the many caves. A dry river bed runs through the area leading up into the short mountains and ending near a large cave set into the hill. Other caves are squarish with a central carved column in the center of the room. The general layout is a four-sided middle column with carvings of the Buddha or other deities inset on each side. A matte black covering of soot blankets the ceilings and walls of most of the caves, obscuring the paintings and even some of the shallower carvings, evidence of incense being burned in homage for generations.

A stiff wind blew the whole time - flinging bits of sand and dust into your eyes and snapping the pink and yellow and blue prayer flags into frayed bits - so strong in fact that I had to hold the heavy steel chains on some of the steeper stairways. Crossing a small bridge the split bamboo flag poles whistled as the wind drove around them like giant woodwind reeds, each pole giving off a unique moan. I wondered if the placement wasn't intentional - as each was situated withs its split side perpendicular to the wind - and meant to captivate with the eerie whistling.

We were a bit late returning to the small parking lot and my friends piled on their bus back to school, however my mian bao che was nowhere to be seen. Asking the gatekeeper, he replied that one had come and waited but had left about 10 minutes ago.

Great. Not a minivan to be seen and the single bus on its way to Yinchuan - the opposite direction that I wanted to go.

Time to work my foreigner hole card.

I sauntered up to the gate where the gatekeeper was chatting with somebody on a motorbike. Giving a great big "ni hao!" and a toothy grin I asked the motorbike driver if he would mind taking me to Sanying. After a speechless moment I offered ¥20 and he returned the grin. Motioning for me to get on, he gave a big wave to all those who could see us. I got a ride and he got to chauffeur the goofy foreigner - I can tell you right off who got the better deal.

All started out well as we pulled out of the parking lot. Thats when I did the worst thing possible - I thought to myself that this was all too easy. And of course we reached the first big hill. The bike began to lose power, slowly and quite surely sputtering out, there was no way we would reach the top.

Even better. Now I was not only without a minivan, but I was on the road in the middle of nowhere on a broken minibike, trying to catch a bus back to Guyuan.

Sensing that the bike was in no condition to make it to Sanying my driver turned around and sped back toward Xumi Shan - and then right past the gate. We continued for a few minutes up an increasingly smaller dirt road until we came to - as quite a surprise in fact, a huge reservoir - and pulled over next to it. The driver asked me to hop off and wait for a few minutes, which I did, and watched him continue out of sight behind the next bend in the road.

Hmm. Now, not only did I have no minivan, I was further in the middle of nowhere, with no motorbike - not even a broken one - and still trying to catch a bus to Guyuan.

Making the best of it I walked around the dam retaining wall a bit and talked to a grizzled old fisherman. Surprisingly enough we were able to have a decent conversation about how the fish were getting smaller - many times I have a very hard time understanding older people in this area, they usually have a much stronger accent. We started getting into names of fish I didn't know - I was only catching that they were slippery and brown and ate little fish - when I hear a voice behind me.

"Ai! Waiguoren! Waiguoren!"

From the dusty parking lot my motorbike friend was calling - he'd returned, that was a good sign - but it looked like the same motorbike. He motioned for me to hop on and we pulled away from the reservoir. Take two I guessed. We had barely gone 50 meters when a motorcycle came tearing at us with a plume of dust trailing behind. As it neared us we slowed and pulled over, I was able to make out two boys on it - one driving and one clinging on.

With a chuckle my driver let me know these were his boys. Great! We were going to do a bike swap and I would be on my way.

We swapped alright, but it was only the foreigner in return for a small Chinese boy as I climbed on behind my friends son. The father made sure the boy knew where he was taking me and with a wave set off in the opposite direction.

Things were looking up. I was still in the middle of nowhere but now I had a working motorcycle and an eager kid behind the wheel - er, handlebar. As the wind whipped by us I asked him how old he was,

"Shiwu sui!"

Now some of you might have had an issue with a 15-year old motorcyclist, but this kid was a pro. Leaning into turns, downshifting and taking nice lines around the bends we were making great time - I was actually starting think I would be able to catch an earlier bus home. With this kid taking me on a motorcycle we were making much better time than in some raggedy old minivan. And I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy this much much more.

And then it hit me. What it was I had no idea.

I saw it coming from the corner of my eye - a big dull spot that grew wings as it neared - and just like that I felt a sharp sting on my cheek. And then again on my arm. With a crack and a splatter I saw a yellow smear appear across my sunglasses lens and a sudden wetness on my brow.

In front of me it was even worse - I felt the boy clench his back and hunch closer to the motorcyle - my head next to his I heard his teeth grind as again he tightened his muscles.

I forgot that as soon as my arm began to throb - a dull sharp throb that my brain slowly wrapped itself around.

The bees. Dull from the smack and sharp from the sting.

We were cutting through a cloud of bees like an ice-breaker at 100 km/hr - not so much avoiding the swarm as pushing through them with our bodies. Efficient yet foolhardy. As we cleared the first batch of bees and entered clear air again I shouted in his ear to see if he was alright. In return I got a few words about his shoulder being on fire and a laugh. Some of the bees parted with a final defiant act, some merely popping against us like tiny water balloons. Still in a clear spot I fumbled to look over his shoulder - and there, through the shirt was a thin brown needle - showing it to him after pulling it out he grinned.

I liked this kid.

A few swarms - and as many collisions later - later we arrived at the bus stop. With a huge smile and his pockets a little bit fuller he help me find a bus back to Guyuan.

The ride back wasn't nearly as interesting.

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