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Remote Church Worth the Journey
There are many reasons to take a trip. The reason for my recent journey to Bailu Town near Pengzhou, a city in Southwest China's Sichuan Province, was a photo.

On the photo is a white twin-spired church. Erected in a courtyard and surrounded by lush green mountains, it truly looks impressive.

The caption reads that the photo is not from somewhere in Europe, but rather a remote valley near Bailu Town.

There is a majestic church deep in the mountains of the country's hinterland. But why there? When was it built?... It piqued my curiosity.

When a friend of mine offered to drive me for an one-day excursion last week to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, I was happy to accept.

The highway from Chengdu to Pengzhou is pretty smooth. It took us about 40 minutes to reach the city, where we had to ask locals for directions to Bailu Town. We were told that it was 40 kilometres northwest of the city.

But no one knew whether there was a church. Obviously, it is not a heavily visited site.

About 20 kilometres out of the city, we saw the rolling mountains in the distance. Soon, the road started winding and we began entering the Longmen Mountains.

The vegetation on the mountains became lush as we drove; the river by the road was clean. We are going the right way, I thought.

Our car passed an old pagoda and a scenic area in the mountains, before we crossed a bridge and turned right onto a narrow road to Bailu.

The stream became muddy. We saw several small coal mines scattered along the way.

Finally, we arrived at the country town, hidden in a river valley. There, a newly built church stands by the road. Small and shabby, it was not the object of our journey.

The locals told us that the church we sought, which they called Shangshuyuan (Upper Academy), was still 6 kilometres away.

After we made the short journey, however, we saw no spectacular church, but rather a shabby coal mine. The asphalt road was replaced by a muddy and bumpy dirt road.

We had to ask for directions again. A passing miner told us that we were right there. The church was about a 10-minute walk away, on the other side of the hill and opposite the road.

So we parked our car in front of a teahouse at the bottom of the valley and walked towards our destination.

Crossing a drawbridge spanning a shallow stream, I found that the water was polluted by the mine.

It was noon already. Was it here we would find the secret garden the photo shows? I could feel butterflies in my stomach.

At the other side of the hill, the scene changed. Corn grew rampant on the lower part of a gentle slope. Groves of bamboo and lush forest dominated the upper part. Several black tile-roofed houses dotted the slope.

A narrow entrance opened on a dilapidated wall facing the corn fields, and was shaded by several old pines and cypress trees.

Standing at the entrance, we knew we had found the right place, though the twin spires were still out of our line of sight.

A long three-storey building stretched on the flat ground, and was surrounded by green corn fields. Straight eaves, square columns, wide balconies and casement windows, and curved stairways revealed its exotic origins. A stone stele by the entrance said that the empty compound was "Lingbao Xiuyuan (Monastery)."

Along a stone-paved lane, we descended to the corn-covered square. At the centre of the square, we found a marble-paved stairway overgrown with weeds and winding to the bottom of the valley.

A plaque at the main entrance of the building's second floor reads "SEMINARIUM ANNUNTIATIONIS 1908."

The second floor connects to a rectangular courtyard, where the church we were so fascinated with stands facing the building. Framed by green mountains under the scorching sunshine, the white structure looked gorgeous.

Even though I was impressed by the photo, I was still stunned by the elegance and beauty of the structure, and moved by the power of the alien culture and religion which had created such a magnificent building in this remote valley.

Inside the European Gothic church, I found it virtually empty inside. The monastery's windowpanes were all gone.

The three-storey building consisted of two two-storey wings flanking the courtyard. At one corner of the building, several local farmers were having lunch. The group included Long Anfu, the caretaker of the abandoned monastery.

Long, 54, is a farmer living in nearby Huishui Village. He told us that construction of the church started in 1895 and was completed in 1908. It was designed by a French architect and built by hundreds of Chinese craftsmen, labourers and followers of the Catholic faith.

As a Catholic monastery, it used to be a school for Chinese missionaries from throughout Southwestern China.

There are eight classrooms on the ground floor of the two wings. Rooms on the first floor of the main building served as store rooms. There are dozens of rooms separated by timber boards in the second and third floors. They used to be missionaries' bedrooms.

When it was completed, hundreds of pine and cypress trees were planted around the compound. At present, only a few of them were left at the entrance of the monastery.

In 1934, landslides destroyed the buildings at the left and right sides of the church. After the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, French missionaries left and the religious services were stopped. The monastic complex was used as office buildings for the local government, and as a storehouse, hospital and primary school off and on. Now it is the property of Chengdu Catholic district, and is protected as a historical relics site.

The church we passed in Bailu Town, called "Lower Academy" by the locals, set the farmers the task of taking care of the Upper Academy.

"I get no payment," said Long, a Catholic. "But I can grow corn on the empty ground."

There are more than 500 Catholics in Bailu Township. "We usually go to the Lower Academy to attend the services given by our pastor from Chengdu on Sunday," he said.

The other farmers I saw there that day also live in the village. They were employed by the church to renovate damaged roofs on the building.

"Water leaked into and rotted the timber floors of some rooms," said Tang Yuanting, one of the workers.

Together with Tang and Long, we climbed to the third floor. I found that the timber floor was surprisingly stable. A hole rotted by the rain on the floor showed why; the floor was actually made using two layers of timber boards, with solid timber frames between them.

"My father told me the bricks used for the church were made from limestone, sticky rice and cotton," Tang, 70, said.

I stepped to the balcony overlooking the valley. The breeze was pleasant and the view was refreshing. Though I was only three hours away from the clamour of Chengdu, I had found peace and serenity.

On the way out of the church, I saw three clusters of lilies atop a dilapidated wall. At this forgotten corner, the flowers were in full bloom.

(China Daily July 10, 2003)

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