This entry is actually more about the city of Leshan, two hours away, than it is about Chengdu itself. But:
A. Many people (though not us) just visit Leshan as a day trip from Chengdu
B. I really like this title
We’d bought our bus tickets to Leshan the day before as it was May 2, still part of the May Day holiday and we were a bit afraid of their not being available on short notice. As it turned out this wasn’t so much not a problem as kind of irrelevant, as any ticket was usable on any of the buses that leave every fifteen or twenty minutes from the Chengdu south station for Leshan.
I must admit that I didn’t pay much attention to the trip down, but it looked mostly like uninspiring motorway anyway.
Sarah and my mom with the Leshan Grand Buddha
On arriving in Leshan we were faced with our semi-regular problem of not knowing neither where we were, nor how to get where we wanted to go. Because it might interest some people, and because I feel like writing about it, here are some of the methods that we often used for dealing with this, listed from most to least effective:
-Look around for a map posted on a wall somewhere (happens sometimes.)
-Go for a short walk around the area and see if you recognize any of the street names
-Ask for directions from passersby in poorly pronounced Chinese.
-Look at the list of stops for various routes posted on a bus shelter and see if you recognize them (happened with surprising regularity given how little Chinese we can read.)
-Consult the maps or directions in our guidebook
-Ask a tourist information official (these are few and far between, and seem to be places that sell bus trips more than anything else.)
In this case, I did none of the above. Instead, I threw a bit of a tantrum, complaining to Sarah and my mom that everyone expected me to do all of the planning and always know everything, and that I was sick of it and that they could figure out how to get to our hotel.
As it turned out as I was stomping around i happened on a map showing bus routes, and with relatively little trouble thereafter we actually DID manage to get to our surprisingly flashy hotel on the riverside near the centre of town.
The riverside street in Leshan
Though we’d left Chengdu a bit later than we’d planned, we still had a while to go for a walk on the river. It was quite nice. There was a walkway on top of the retaining wall that formed the western bank. The weather was nice. A bit misty, but that temperature that makes it feel as though the air around you isn’t even there. We were far from the only ones enjoying a stroll, and even though we left it ’til well late in the afternoon we still had some company when we sat down at a riverside tea garden to while away the rest of the afternoon.
Our afternoon tea garden. As we sat and sipped vendors cruised by on bicycles and electrobikes. We went for some yummy spicy cold noodles, but passed on an odd frozen jellylike dessert
Tour boats on the river
After dark we headed a bit further away from the river and had dinner at one of a few popular looking streetside restaurants with outdoor tables. We were looking forward to another great Sichuan meal but, sadly, this was one of the few occasions when combining our very limited knowledge of Chinese characters with random pointing at menu items failed us. We ended up with pig intestines and mushrooms (which I’ll fully admit was only a failure from my perspective. I was getting a bit tired of them, but Sarah and my mom were just fine with them.)
A gate in the riverside wall by night. There were brightly illuminated buildings and searchlights playing across the river while we walked, part of a mass music and dance and light show, a la Yangshuo’s Impressions Sanjie Liu
The next morning it was time for Leshan’s main attraction: the grand Buddha. At 71m he’s the largest Buddha statue in the world (interestingly, I’d always thought that the Leshan Buddha only gained his “largest Buddha” distinction after the Bamiyan Buddhas in Afghanistan were dynamited by the Taliban in 2001. This actually wasn’t the case, as the two standing Bamiyan Buddhas were 37m and 55m tall.)
The Grand Buddha was hewn directly out of the reddish sandstone hillside, with a few details being added with the use of stone quarried from nearby. Constructed between 713 and 803, it was said that it was built in order to placate the angry currents of the rivers, which led to many shipwrecks. Intriguingly, it was reported that after its construction the river currents DID become more amenable to navigation, possibly due to the huge volume of rock that was excavated and dumped in the river in front of the statue.
When you first arrive at the grand Buddha park it you walk up a long sloping pathway, passing by the XXX temple on the way. We went for a look around the temple, and quiet enjoyed its peaceful surroundings and the views out over the river back towards Leshan town.
You often aren’t allowed to take photos inside Buddhist temples, so where they’re permitted you might as well take lots
This guy is one of four guardians that flank the entrance to many Buddhist temples in northeast Asia
Back on the trail towards the Buddha it was anything but peaceful. Indeed, on arriving at the top of the trail you can see the top of the Buddha’s head, but only just as it’s so inundated with visitors. It was kind of entertaining to see the tour group leaders pulling out photo albums illustrating how their char cogesuld take a wide variety of those cute optical illusion photos (e.g. “Here’s me tickling the Leshan grand Buddha’s ears,” or “here’s me patting him on the head.”)
We headed down the cliffside trail which was nice as a few of the (much) smaller Buddha images carved into the rock on the way down were in good shape. It was NOT nice, as it was a narrow and fairly steep trail that was jam packed with people who insisted on stopping to take photos and/or were barely physically capable of climbing down the stairs. The last time I hadn’t felt so frustrated while on a walking trail since visiting Huangshan over Chinese New Year.
Down at the bottom the Buddha loomed over you. His feet were on short pedestals that placed his 3m long toes up just above eye level. For all that, I’d somehow expected it to be bigger. Yes, it was big. Very big, even. But this statue was still on a human scale. I was expecting to see something that left me wondering how it could possibly have been done, kind of like the (roughly) contemporary Aya Sofia. This may sound like I’ve become very hard to please when it comes to my manmade tourist sights. I suppose there is some truth to that, though please don’t take my comments to mean I didn’t enjoy the visit to the Grand Buddha. I certainly did. Though much of this was because the tour groups pretty much stayed to take their obligatory cutesy photos at the top, walk the cliff trail to the bottom, climb back up the other side, then be whisked away on their buses for lunch.
The head of the giant Buddha. True his ears are elongated as those of Buddha images often are, but it’s still impressive that they’re over 20 feet long
The madd(en)ing crowd on their way down the cliffside trail
People like ants around the grand Buddha’s feet. It’s a good thing that, as a Buddhist, he’d prefer not to step on ants. I reckon he was more impressive from up here than from below staring up at him
Once they’d gone their way, we were allowed to go ours, which was southwards on a delightful wander through the quiet, verdant (tree ferns abounded, almost like being back home in NZ!) grounds. Even the souvenir shops and tourist restaurants at the south gate were kind of pleasant, as they served interesting food (fresh crawfish, frog and turtle amongst others) and the owners leaned more towards inviting than pushy.
San Sheng Xiang
We headed from there across to a small island in the river and the splendid Wuyou temple at its top. We had just enough time for a quick look around the grounds and a slightly more thorough inspection of the five hundred or so ceramic Arhat statues. These last weren’t quite so detailed or over-the-top as the ones at the Bamboo Temple in Kunming had been, but they still had plenty of character, including one with monstrous eyebrows that reached the ground.
An entertainingly expressive Arhat
Just after we left the Arhat behind we got a call from our friends Molly and Andrew who we’d met in Tiger Leaping Gorge. This was particularly welcome as we’d made plans to meet for lunch (they lived in Leshan) but, having agreed to meet a few days ago, we couldn’t get hold of them as we’d just realized that morning we had no credit left on our phone. Molly gave us some directions that we thought we could probably follow so that we could meet up in 40 minutes or so.
We left Wuyou temple by the back entrance and walked through a quiet, almost rural-village-like section of the island before finding ourselves a bus stop. I still believe that everyone we asked directions of thought we were heading somewhere other than where we actually were. But someohow or other we still made it.
We enjoyed a fabulous meal of dry pot, spicy meat (beef and rabbit in our case), potato and vegetable in what was essentially a big frying pan brought to your table. This delicious dish, flavoured with cumin, chilies and a bunch of other seasonings I couldn’t pick out, was one of our top restaurant meals in China. Sichuan cuisine had redeemed itself.
Dry pot… Note the yummy fresh coriander and lots of lotus root
It did so even further by providing a bubble tea for the ride home, then ANOTHER one, this time one litre in volume before bed that night back in Chengdu. Bubble tea is a hard thing to overdo, especially if you’ve spent a while in Taiwan and managed to habituate yourself to it, but I think I managed it that day.
All in all, Leshan gave the impression of a very pleasant place to live. Nice riverside views and promenade. Lots of trees. A decent size in its own right, but still not too crowded. And with the big city just a couple hours away if you needed something beyond the capacity of Leshan itself.
Speaking of the big city, we had one more day there before catching our train out of town.
We decided to spend it at San Sheng Xiang. This former town, now suburb of Chengdu, was famous for its flower fields and markets. So famous was it for these that they became major tourist attractions. Between this and its proximity to Chengdu, it became a tremendously popular place to go and spend a weekend.
We took an hour or so’s ride on a city bus to get out there and shortly after hopping off, found the flower markets for ourselves. They weren’t on the scale of Aalsmeer in the Netherlands (not even close… they were really more of an oversized garden centre) but with the Bougainvelia in bloom they were brilliant (literally and figuratively) places for a walk around. This impression was added to when we managed to find the one small street of restaurants where shoppers and shopkeepers alike went for lunch (or at least had their lunches delivered from.)
Flowers for sale in San Sheng Xiang
A veritable curtain of Bougainvelia at its best and brightest
As good as “our” restaurant in central Chengdu was, this place at San Sheng Xiang produced the best meal we had in Sichuan province. The cauliflower dish in the middle was absolutely fabulous. Chilies (fresh green and dried red), Ma Jiao, Star Anise, a good whack of salt and I don’t know what else went into it
After lunch we checked out the other half of San Sheng Xiang and weren’t quite so charmed by it. There wasn’t much to it other than a few narrow streets and a whole lot of low and sprawling hotel complexes (over 200 hotels in the immediate area apparently!) About the most pleasant thing about it was the fact that there wasn’t much traffic on the streets. It seemed as though the area’s flower markets had made it such a popular tourist attraction that many of the farmers had given up on flower farming, converting their farms to hotels. More and more did this until there were virtually no flower farms left. But in one of those oddities of the Chinese domestic tourism market, the simple presence of all these hotels was enough to attract visitors in its own right.
All of which means that San Sheng Xiang, while pleasant enough to wander around, has relatively little to recommend it as a destination for foreign tourists (except for the spicy cauliflower at the second restaurant on your right as you head down the “lunch street,” of course.
Back at our hostel we spent one last night and a lazy morning in the lounge and garden before catching the subway to Chengdu’s north train station and on to the city of Xi’an in Shaanxi province, a 16 hour journey to the north.
The river in Chengdu by night
Chengdu railway station. All aboard!
Mom, me and a litre of bubble tea
Tags: Chengdu, China, Grand Buddha, Leshan, Llew Bardecki, Sichuan, Travel