The Spring Temple Buddha is the 22nd on my list of Wonders, a number reflecting simply the original order I'd expected to visit each Wonder rather than the actual order visited (and nothing at all related to any ranking). It is also one of the more enigmatic. Perhaps it is a feature of gigantic statues, but the three tallest in the world garner very little in the way of written material. The Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha in Burma has barely no information - in English, at any rate - on it whatsoever online; in fact, I'd go as far to say that my review is perhaps the best source currently available. The Ushiku Daibutsu has a little more, but largely in the form of personal accounts of visiting it. These are the second and third tallest statues on earth respectively. The tallest is in the middle of nowhere, miles from an unknown city called Pingdingshan, in central China: the Spring Temple Buddha.
This isn't a formal review, because certain criteria need to be fulfilled before I write one. Two of these criteria were not: I only visited once (Every Wonder must be visited at least twice) and I visited alone (I must be accompanied by a reliable partner for at least one visit). To make his hospital appointment, Burness chose to fly to Beijing direct from Yichang, the city where the Three Gorges Cruise ended. I had to go it alone therefore, taking a seven-hour hard-seat train from Yichang to Pingdingshan, and hoping I could figure things out from there.
Online information on the Spring Temple Buddha is sparse. Wikipedia is the best source, and gives an excellent summary: the statue was built in the wake of the Taliban destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001, it is 153 metres tall including its pedestals but 208 metres tall including the reshaped hill it stands on, and it cost $55 million to build, being made from copper. Other sources online verify this, but anything deeper is lacking. A Google translation from a Chinese webpage seems to suggest that it is a government-sponsored project, something backed up by a Readers' Digest article, which seems reasonable. But there the hard information ends.
Even its location was troublesome. The Spring Temple Buddha is in Lushan County, near the town of Lushan. Good luck on finding out much about either of these. A larger city called Pingdingshan also appeared to be in the area, after some Google Map investigation, and this city also had a train service (Lushan also does, it appears, but none that were of use to me). The Lonely Planet didn't acknowledge the existence of either the Spring Temple Buddha or Pingdingshan, so wasn't of much use, and even its online forum made only one reference to it, in the form of an unanswered question. All I could do was arrive in Pingdingshan and take things from there, armed only with a picture of the Spring Temple Buddha, the Point-It book, a hotel reservation, and about three words of Chinese (hello, thanks, and the number 2).
It was a poor start. I'd been pretty pleased myself at first, catching the last train from Yichang, and with all my required information carefully copied into Chinese. What I'd overlooked was that the Pingdingshan West train station was in fact nowhere near Pingdingshan. The hotel booking site map made it look like a brisk walk - it turned out to be a 45-minute taxi journey. Arriving at my hotel after midnight, it transpired that there was no record of my booking, and virtually nothing in the way of English spoken, but I managed to convey the concept of a room for two nights and after seven hours on a tough train was very relieved to get some rest on a soft bed.
The following day's mission was simple: visit the Spring Temple Buddha. Ordinarily I would have prepared in some way as to how to go about this, but given the lack of information available I didn't have much to go on. I only had one day at my disposal, so didn't want to spend half of that fannying around working out buses in a city in the middle of nowhere, so opted for commandeering a taxi instead. I walked to the train station first - not the one miles away, but the actual train station serving the city - and booked a sleeper train to Beijing for later that night. Then I waved down a taxi and the fun began.
The taxi driver, an amiable middle-aged man, looked at me in surprise when I brought out my picture of the Spring Temple Buddha. He knew what it was, but he seemed disbelieving I actually wanted to go there. He spoke no English and my three words of Chinese didn't go very far, but with a pen and paper he got across the point that the Spring Temple Buddha was two hours drive away, I expressed surprise, and we managed to negotiate a price for him to take me there, wait, and take me back to the train station. The final figure we agreed on was 400 RMB (£40), which in the end was pretty reasonable, given that 90 RMB of that was in motorway tolls. The taxi driver seemed greatly amused by these proceedings, and it was one of these occasions I really wished I spoke more of his language as he was a pleasure to deal with, and made the process - haggling, explaining, driving - straightforward and fun.
In the end, he managed to trim the two hour journey to about an hour-and-a-quarter, mostly due to very empty stretches of motorway and the accelerator pedal. Around Pingdingshan is pretty industrial, and on a smoggy morning looked anonymously grim. The wide empty motorways gave the impression of remote emptiness. But later on, in what I believe is called the Fodushan Scenic Area, the flat expanse of land began to see bumps, and became more mountainous and much more appealing. All of sudden, a giant appeared - the Spring Temple Buddha.
From start to finish, the Spring Temple Buddha never failed to impress me. In the middle of nowhere, it is a remarkable sight to see this massive golden man towering over the surroundings. I paid a 60 RMB entrance fee and the taxi dropped me at the entrance. Far head of me stood the Buddha; before was some temples and a lot of steps.
A lot. One stairway alone, so a notice records, has 365 steps, one for each day of the year, divided into twelve monthly sub-sections, at a total length of 999 metres. There are many more similar stairways from the base of the hill to the Spring Temple Buddha's feet. Let me not understate this, visiting the Spring Temple Buddha is not a case of turning up, admiring the height, and leaving - it is a physical experience. Sure, the old and infirm and the plain lazy have an option to take a small bus which goes up a small side road to the various plateaus and fixtures leading to the Spring Temple Buddha's podium, but the majority walk it. Up a series of wide and fairly steep stairways, each leading to a plateau and features such as monasteries and altars, and all the time the huge figure of the Buddha growing closer, waiting for you to arrive.
It's a fairly tiring climb, nothing too exhausting but certainly demanding a degree of effort. And it was surprisingly time-consuming. Ok, my approach was very leisurely, but to actually reach the Buddha perhaps took up to an hour. There was a healthy smattering of other sightseers, invariably all Chinese, making their own way up or down, and quite a few of them seemed pretty surprised to see me, a Westerner, there, offering up friendly hellos, or in one case requesting to pose with me for a series of pictures. Although one of around a hundred locations given the maximum AAAAA tourist attraction rating by the Chinese government's tourism authority, I don't think the Spring Temple Buddha is a major attraction in China. For the Chinese, out of my small sampling, most appeared to recognise the statue from a picture, but it's pretty out of the way and on a bright spring Wednesday was crowd-free in a country of a billion that is getting increasingly into domestic tourism. No tour groups, no tour buses, and as far as I could tell no local buses servicing the site. I lie - there appeared to be a small tour of about eight people taking place - but this pales compared to most other sights I've been. Anywhere around Beijing, for example, is packed, and the Leshan Buddha also packed in the numbers. But the Spring Temple Buddha is pleasingly peaceful. It's not a big tourist attraction for the Chinese, and is virtually unknown on a global level. The latest Lonely Planet doesn't acknowledge it existence, or that of any of the town or cities in the surrounding area, and instead erroneously describes the Leshan Buddha as the biggest in the world. Despite being a giant of the countryside, the Spring Temple Buddha keeps a very small profile.
Eventually, after the year's worth of stairs, I arrived at the base of the mega-statue. Overlooking the countryside, the view from here was terrific, a scene of green hills and mountains backed by the blue sky upon its triumph against the fog. It was warm now, so I enjoyed a juice, enjoyed the view, looked up at the statue above me - and went in.
The Spring Temple Buddha stand on a lotus throne which is itself placed atop a pedestal in the form of a squarish building. Through a door in this building you enter, leading to an unworking escalator which takes you up to the lotus throne. This is the first sign that the Spring Temple Buddha is a work-in-progress. Not just the still escalator, but the entire interior of the building resembled a building site, or perhaps to be more precise it evoked a sense of being inside a multi-storey car park, without the cars. Dingy, concrete, dusty, it's apparent that the Spring Temple Buddha might shine on the outside but has yet to glow inside. Nothing much seemed to be happening the day I was there, with only a series of large posters hinting at what is one day intended. I'm sure it will be nice - eventually. I get the impression that now the statue is built and looks great from the outside, the work inside is proceeding with a little less enthusiasm. Up the escalator and by the lotus throne, work was also underway, in the form of three Chinese guys standing about looking at stuff.
But these are mere details, mere finishing touches. They will be nice when completed, but for now don't much inhibit the enjoyment of the Spring Temple Buddha. Somehow I managed to avoid - entirely unintentionally - paying what I think was a fee to go inside (the ticket collectors perhaps not daring to challenge the lone foreigner) and went up seven levels in a lift. There I was, by the feet of the statue itself, as families took photos of each other by the toes, sharing the space on the bronze lotus throne. By the Buddha's feet, it's really too big to take it in, the families and I being the equivalent of insects milling around, though with far less industry. The overwhelming impression is that's a very big toe. Given that the Spring Temple Buddha is the biggest statue in the world, this may very well be the biggest toe in the world.
Well, in fact, very possibly not. I'm not sure if there is an independent panel that adjudicates on such matters, but what constitutes actual statue height? Surely, the purist would argue that the actual statue is the figure represented. The height of the Buddha is measured from head to toe. By this means, the Spring Temple Buddha is "only" 108 metres, which is in fact shorter than the Bodhi Tataung Standing Buddha at 116 metres, and just marginally taller than the 100-metre-tall Ushiku Daibutsu, and even the Leshan Buddha would be about that size if he could be bothered to stand up. Breath life into these big boys and line them up and suddenly the Spring Temple Buddha is not the biggest. However, does the podium count? If I stand on a box, it doesn't make me taller than Michael Jordan. However, in fixed-position statue terms, it certainly adds to the overall impact. Standing on level ground, the Spring Temple Buddha would still impress, but not as much as it does in its current position, on a throne on a building on two pedestal-shaped hills. Perhaps when the "Independent Statue Adjudication Committee" is formed (I'll happily front it if someone can come up with the funding), the Spring Temple Buddha will be demoted from what appears to be an unofficial position as tallest statue in the world. But as far its consideration as a Wonder goes - it doesn't at all matter. Because Wonders are judged mostly on impression made, and the impression made by the Spring Temple Buddha on its various platforms is a genuinely breathtaking one.
The Reader's Digest last year ranked the Spring Temple Buddha as its number one of Seven Wonders of the 21st Century, and it's not difficult to see why. It is immense. Its position on a hill and on its various platforms with hundreds of steps leading to it is a commanding one, giving it a real presence. Near or far, it looks great. Of all the statues I've seen, it is probably my favourite and when I eventually visit it again, accompanied, I think it will gain a pretty respectable position on the overall league table. But its existence worries me. If not for being given the (possibly suspect) accolade of tallest statue in the world, would I have heard of it? Likely not. Therefore, what else is out there? What other fabulous but obscure monuments are there in China and in the world that might not have an alleged world record to their name, but nonetheless are deeply impressive works? It is questions such as these that can keep a Wonder hunter such as myself awake at night (if I didn't drink myself to sleep).
On the way down from the Buddha, there was the small matter of another "biggest", in this case biggest bell in the world,the Bell of Good Luck, as confirmed by Guinness it seems, in the neighbouring Foquan temple down a small side road. Yeah, it was pretty big.
That was my passing glance at the Spring Temple Buddha, a bonus preview if you like. My friendly taxi driver took me back into Pingdingshan and I rested for a few hours at my hotel. As if to confirm my novelty status as a foreigner in an unknown Chinese city, minutes after arriving at my 17th floor room (the lower floors were mostly offices) I had a knock on my door. It was the receptionist. Would it be ok if she took a photo of us together?
So, a pleasurable day out at one of my most obscure Wonders, and in one of the most obscure places I've been to date. It might not be an uncontacted tribe in the Amazon, but Pingdingshan, a city of up to a million people, successfully flies under the radar. I rather liked it. And I really liked its Wonder, which I already look forward to returning to. Was that a wave goodbye?