Field of Dreams
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, north east 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.
None of the places were in any of the guide books, 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, and made the rest up as I went along, hoping that the two months intensively studying Chinese would be enough.
Back on the outskirts of Waqie, the restaurant owner knew I'd come to see the stupas. She also knew that there was only one bus a day. I needed a room. She had two. 20 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, and made my way up to the stupas...