It’s always nice to start the first day in a new city a bit later in the morning. When there are a ton of things to do and see, the natural inclination might be to be efficient and get out and going at the crack of dawn. But having a few moments to appreciate the tinier details of wherever you’ve landed often makes for a nice base from which to appreciate the upcoming wonders of the day. Given our busy night that ended late – packed with travel, beer and rabbit heads - we’d made a plan to start our adventure around 10AM which meant I’d have a chance to sleep in a bit and plenty of time to fully graze the famous breakfast banquet at my hotel. More importantly though, it would allow to get out for a short walk around the neighborhood.
The weather didn’t bode well for our planned trip to the countryside to see the famous Giant Buddha at Leshan. It was sprinkling and completely overcast and of one of those indeterminate temperatures that makes it hard to choose a coat. Too damp and cold for nothing but warm enough that any garment is going to cause an uncomfortable body sweat if you get moving. I suspect that this is the nature of Sichuan, a broad flat plan served by four rivers and locked in tight enough against the budding Himalayas to stop any movement of the clouds. “Si” means “four” in Chinese and “Chuan” of course means “river” whose character is one of those that makes it clear that long ago, written Chinese was born in drawings that depicted the natural world – 川. Sichuan has four major rivers that meet to form the Yangtze, hence the name.
Outside and across the street a riverside promenade lined with Plane Trees was my goal but somehow I managed to pick the busiest corner in the vicinity and had a hard time getting across, even by Chinese standards - some bad combination of feeder streets, traffic lights and everyone being in a rush. I spent a long time standing on the yellow line hoping that a break in the flow would present itself and when one did I had to run to make it. Once across I took a short stroll along the river stopping here and there to watch small flocks of Black-headed Gulls dance on the surface of the muddy brown water, picking at bits of floating trash for a morning snack. A quarter mile or so downstream a string of what looked to be red, yellow, blue and green prayer flags were hung from a bridge. A few people passed me, walking or riding scooters no doubt on their way to work. I took the opportunity of an actual pause in the traffic to cross back over, this time taking a street that wrapped behind my hotel. A small entertainment district had sprung up here no doubt drawn by the captive tourist population. What was strange though was the architecture - anchored by a Pauliner German Brewhaus all the buildings were done in a sort of gray stone chalet style, dropping a bit of alpine Bavaria right down on this side street in western China. Three manikins stood on a small balcony jutting out from the front of the bar. Two blonds in traditional German beer hall waitress costumes and a man in sports clothes wearing what would best described as a yellow Appalachian hillbilly hat. I didn’t notice a corncob pipe as I passed by.
Susu showed up promptly and we headed out into the morning traffic on our way to collect our friends Ben and Sahsa at her parent’s house across town. While I’ve been in this country for two years and spent countless hours conversing with Jiang my driver, I’ve always found it a challenge to be alone with a new person. In our time together I came to understand Jiang quite well, no doubt some combination of his patience and our familiarity. This was different though, an unfamiliar person with a different dialect and speech patterns. I made do though with a combination of my smartphone translator application, the vocabulary I had and an endearing willingness to just say the wrong thing. We chatted about the lack of sun as we inched along with the traffic. She told me that the sun was sad to not be shining down on me today. How very Chinese.
Ben took the wheel for the drive out of town; the ladies claimed the back seat in order to effectively manage the snacks and I sat up front watching the world go by. We made great time on spacious expressways for perhaps an hour before coming up against a big snarl in the traffic, no doubt an accident up ahead. Traffic jams like these in China can turn catastrophic very quickly, at least relative to your schedule. In the fall of 2010 there were numerous instances apocalyptic jams caused by accidents acting in concert with road construction, the most famous of which lasted 19 days. Stories of entrepreneurial villagers making fortunes selling instant noodle bowls to starving travelers were found regularly in the English language dailies. It wasn’t something I wanted to experience and I had a hard time steering my mind away from the possibility, sitting there hemmed in by blue flat bed lorries and cement trucks. Ben took charge though and deftly worked the car across the lanes until we found clear sailing on the shoulder which led miraculously to a nearby exit. We got out of the deadlock and continued on our way.
Unlike the US, getting off the highway in China can be a perilous experience. There are no maps and often the pattern of the roads is dictated more about getting peasants to the local towns and less on a cohesive alternate to the main route. I learned this lesson many times while cycling in the north, using my GPS to plot what seemed a reasonable course only to find myself far afield of where I wanted to end up. Traveling in this country requires asking lots of questions and using a series of ever-narrowing approximations if you have any hope of getting where you want to go. Exiting the highway we took off on a perpendicular tangent to the main route and took the first major right turn in order to continue with what might be the proper direction. Gasoline was a priority now due to the time we’d spent stopped and so we began a long series of glancing passes at stations trying to find one with an adequate supply of the proper octane fuel. Each time we were told “the next one” until it seemed there would be no more. Such is the problem of driving a luxury car out in the wilds where the gas supply is tailored more towards little three-wheeled cabs equipped with rototiller engines. At one station Ben had to perform some handy maneuvering to get the car through a lot that was choked with trucks only to find out that they didn’t have what we needed. On leaving, we passed a several mile long line of their friends, parked by the side of the road and apparently waiting or the station to receive its diesel delivery.
Although these little nameless towns were unremarkable, the road between them was something to remember. I’m not sure that it even met the concept of “road” because aside from broken patches of concrete and a general trend in a certain direction there was little road-like about it. For a time it followed the basic rules of civilized driving – oncoming cars on the left and our car on the right. The edge of the pavement was defined by little rock cairns composed of broken bricks and cement blocks, designed to keep you from driving off the sharp edge and onto the dirt and debris to our right. Some of the pieces and parts of the cairns had found their way into the lanes and so everyone had to counter their presence by swerving back and forth whenever there wasn’t someone coming straight at you. After a few miles of this we shifted further to the right in a quick jog only to find ourselves with oncoming traffic on both sides of us, a third “optional direction” lane had suddenly appeared where before there had only been the debris field. This lane eventually petered out and we continued on until we hit another town and found another route back towards the highway.
Once back on our way and having failed to meet the gasoline challenge we stopped at the first rest area we came to. Somewhere in the course of our off-road adventure we had passed into tea country and the hills here were covered with terraced plantations. This roadside complex was in fact some sort of a tea-themed welcoming suite featuring tea gifts and tea history displays in addition to rest rooms and food stalls. I watched young women heating the special tea pots I’d seen once before in Shanghai. A small copper pot with a three foot spout, the server holds the pot high above their head and shoots a stream a couple of feet into your cup. One girl in traditional dress was intently practicing her routine, doing a set of Tai Chi motions mixed with ballet and delivering a steaming shot of tea at the apex of each move. On leaving we pulled into the shiny new gas station only to discover that it was not yet open. A young man told us to go around behind the tea pavilion where they had a temporary pump set up. It turned out to be installed in a Tuff-Shed and manned by three young women who were in the middle of lunch. They told us that they didn’t have any gas either.
We eventually made it to the town of Leshan and exited. On the way into town we stopped to ask directions from a couple standing at the side of the road. They were so excited to help us that they even offered to get in the car and go with us for a small fee. We thanked them for their generosity and went on, finally locating some fuel after only four or five more stop and goes. As they filled up the car, I got out to take a photo of a sign pointing to the Buddha; in true Chinese fashion it had arrows pointing both straight ahead and to the left.
The Leshan Buddha sits serenely staring across the confluence of the Dadu, Minjiang and Qinyi Rivers. Known locally as Da Fo (literally “Big Buddha”), it is said that he was built in hopes of calming the churning waters that made river traffic very difficult and dangerous. As it turned out, the desired effect was gained perhaps by his presence but more likely due to the debris from the carving being dumped into the river below. Originally started in 713AD, the Buddha was completed in 803 by the followers of Haitong, the hermit monk who originally began the work. This mountain is also the home to hundreds of Han Dynasty tombs indicating that it has been sacred for far longer than the time during which Da Fo has stood. One of these tombs, looted in antiquity, served as Haitong’s home during his work there. It remains today on the crest of Lingyun Shan just above the Buddha’s left shoulder. Da Fo is 233 feet tall and is the world’s largest carved Buddha. His shoulders span 92 feet and a single eyebrow is 18 feet long.
We drove south following a road along the river towards the Buddha passing many tourist buses parked in front of a seemingly endless supply of shops and restaurants. Both of the ladies had been here before and had no interest in doing the hike again so we followed the signs to the far eastern entrance which we were assured offered the complete package. I kept my mouth shut when I saw that we were heading towards the “Buddhist Theme Park”, assuming that this was probably nothing more than a bad translation. They dropped us off and we agreed to meet at the northern entrance in a few hours time.
The park beyond the entrance gate was very beautiful with many trees and manicured gardens. Although it was fall, the place still felt vibrant and alive and it was nice to be out in the woods after the long drive. Being a workday it was not overly crowded. A large wooden sign near the entrance provided a map to the sights – there were a lot of them, the place was loaded with Buddhas. We decided to head to the left in order to loop back around before catching the trail up and over the mountain to the top of Da Fo. As is typical with most Chinese parks, the trails were well built and spotless with plenty of fake log benches for the weary to rest upon. Thankfully this place did not have the all too common piped in music you find in many parks. As we rounded the first corner we came to a magnificent reclining Buddha tucked into a niche in at the base of a tall pink limestone rock face. As I stood there appreciating it I was nagged by the feeling that I had seen it somewhere else before. We took a look at the sign and finally snapped to the fact that this Buddha was identical to one at Longmen, the famous carvings south of Xi’an. Ben read the sign and it did mention the similarity between the two. The English translation was slightly more cryptic but the little light bulb finally went off – the “Buddhist Theme Park” was indeed just that - a park full of Buddhas copied from other famous sites around the world and constructed with colored concrete sprayed on wire frames. We were in the midst of a host of fraudulent Buddhas!
At moments like this you have a couple of options. You can be offended and feel ripped off or you can just smile at the irony and absurdity and go on. We shared a laugh and kept walking, glad in fact that we could get to the more pressing business of climbing Lingyun Shan in order to see Da Fo. Of course this little twist in our day meant that we had paid a much dearer ticket price and would have to walk much further in order to see our true objective. But the twist in our choice of entrances had not yet fully played out and so on we went beginning our climb with an enormous set of stone stairs leading to a temple on the ridge.
The weather had not changed much in the course of the day and the work of climbing the hill resulted in the over-heating I had expected based on my choice of outerwear. I took off my jacket and stuffed it in my satchel and continued up. The walk was challenging and was made no easier by the fact that the trail designers had chosen to go down about as often as up. For every 10 ten feet of gain, 8 were given back just around the corner. A “two steps forward, one step back” proposition in real-life practice. Up above the valley the trees changed to pine and the area to the sides of the trail was carpeted in pale brown needles. We passed many old tombs carved in the rock walls as we walked, emptied by some thieves long ago. In some sort of odd local tradition, the openings were covered with tiny sticks standing on end. After a solid hour of walking and dreading each rise in the path, we came to the top of the hill and the crown of Da Fo’s head. Off to the right was the architect Haitong’s home, an empty tomb carved perhaps 2500 years ago. I went inside and looked around – it was just what you’d expect to find in an ancient, damp rock hole in the ground except that the humanity of the place was touching. Tiny half circles on all the surfaces, the last marks made by the people who carved it. And a short platform in the side wall, the resting place of the person originally interred here and subsequently the rough bed of Haitong as he slept so many nights during the construction of the Buddha. Soot still blackened the ceiling, the last remnant of someone spending a night here.
Da Fo stands in a niche that runs from the top of the mountain to the riverbank below. He is seated with his hands resting on his knees and his feet on tall square platforms and you look directly into his eyes at this level. His head is covered in the carved representation of tightly curled hair; I suppose what you would expect from someone originating in India. His ears show the elongation associated with wisdom and age and the whites of his eyes have retained their color. Overall a pale pink-orange in color, his nose today is blackened, attributed to the air pollution from the factories of Chengdu. The feeling you get from staring down is both stunning and sublime at the same time. A huge monument shocking in scale but serene in its presentation. We took our time walking around the back side of his head before angling through a small crowd on the far side. Here, there were corrals for the visitors allowing for an orderly serpentine line that began where the other (and much shorter) path came to the top. I was instantly grateful to visit here in the off season as it appeared that during the peak, there would be huge crowds and a restriction on how long you could stand and look. I wound my way through the Chinese who were busily taking cell phone pictures of their girlfriends standing in front of the Buddha, arm outstretched to create the illusion of having their hand on his head.
An iron stairway led down to the river and we took it, mistakenly thinking that it was the right way. Hundreds of small eroded sculptures filled niches in the wall to which the stairs were attached. Much like those I’d seen in Datong, many were little more than nubs in the rock telling a tale of what they had once been. Those out of reach or perhaps carved from sturdier stuff were in reasonably good shape. At the bottom you truly appreciate the size – Da Fo sits there towering far above you and the tiny prayer benches set at the bottom.
We continued through a cave system underneath the hill we had climbed. It came out along the river where tourist boats were chugging along to the vantage points around the bend. We were once again on a set of trails heading up and down at the same time, this time though our path was made up of stone stairs carved in the cliff side. I kept having those fleeting thoughts you get when you don’t really know the place well enough to make a definitive assessment yet your innate sense of direction tells you that there is no way you’re headed the right way. Eventually the path wound its way back towards the forest and we found ourselves at a trail junction we had passed hours before – we had clearly gone the wrong way and our options now were to either go back the way we had come or continue on to who knows where. After considering the downsides of both choices we chose the way we had not yet explored and struck out along the river, knowing that we would have to deal with the car and the ladies being somewhere else.
The reward for our adventurous nature was a nice museum dedicated to the Han Tomb Complex carved deep in the rock in the woods along the river. These tombs date to 250BC and the artifacts removed were quite impressive, especially the pottery horses characteristic of that era. The place was so far off the beaten path that I imagine that it must rarely see visitors. You enter through a peaceful garden at the base of a wide carved stone portico, details still showing in the lintels above the tomb entrances. The side of the hill here was choked with vegetation, conveying the feeling that you had just stumbled upon these artifacts while out for a walk in the jungle. After getting a bit off track and ending up on a set of concrete steps that served as a landing for the men who fish the river, we passed through a village that I suppose was sort of a living history museum populated by the guys back on the steps. It was sad – dark, wet and depressing in the way that only these fake places created to allow people to continue with a dying livelihood can be. Half dead fish floated in buckets, waiting to be served to anyone who happened by. Tiny shops sold cheap trinkets incongruous with the place, less about an ancient fishing village than what some local factory had on hand. Old women sat by the path tending to pots – fish stew for the crowd I’m sure was just around the bend. They paid no attention to us as we passed by
One last down slope took us down to the level of the water. Off in the misty distance, a classical Chinese bridge spanned the river. Red, with three arches and intricately decorated with dragons, tiles and eaves; it stood there timelessly in the mist. Finally the marginal weather was giving something back. The bridge could have been 10 years old or it could have been 500. It didn’t matter; it was one of those classical Chinese scenes that you find in travel books, aimed at convincing you that the whole country is decked out in this ancient style.
Ben finally had a cell phone signal so he called Sahsa and told her where we were. I could hear the “what?!” in the background; he hung up and we walked on. Another mile or so down the road we passed through the exit gate and into a muddy parking lot where Susu and her BMW were waiting for us. A man jumped out of the passenger side and held the door for me. Ben told me that he was a restaurant owner from the village near the entrance to the park. He told Ben that no one uses the exit we where we had ended up and so we were lucky that the ladies had chosen his establishment. Lunch was ready for us when we arrived, a big spicy red Sichuan soup featuring a fish that we were told was illegally caught and very rare. It was delicious and only barely troubled my sense of right and wrong.
A more urbane evening was awaiting back in town, a welcome change after the forest slog and the long drive of the afternoon. Dinner was arranged at a fancy place featuring local cuisine that was impossible to get into without the proper connects which we luckily had. It was located in Kuan-Zhai-Jing Alley which turned out to be one those places that you know you could spend a lot of time in and would truly regret not having another chance to visit. Kuan means “wide”, Zhai means “narrow” and Jing means “well” as in healthy and happy. The area was built in 1718 during the Qing Dynasty as a home district for Manchu soldiers just returned from a foray into Tibet. In the intervening years it became a working class district along the same lines as the hutong that ring the Forbidden City in Beijing. Following the same lead as Xintiandi in Shanghai, today it’s an upscale restaurant and shopping district with each alley having a slightly different mix of stores, cafés and bars. It reminded me a lot of Lijiang in Yunnan Province where I spent a weekend during the spring, sparkling clean restored buildings lining old stone paths; cafés and shops spilling out onto the walkways. The most incredible Starbucks I’ve seen was housed in a beautifully restored traditional courtyard house. Three stories of stone block and wood, I would have been happy to stay there and make coffee for the rest of my life. Ben told me that someone had bought the building for a song at the beginning of the restoration period and today it was worth a fortune.
The restaurant we went to was situated in an old stone mansion. We had a table on the second floor against a railing that overlooked a stage on the first floor. It was noisy and busy and not made better by the table of drunks sitting next to us. Thankfully their visit ended when one of the guys stood up, lost his balance and fell face first onto their table which was covered in dishes, glasses and pots. He broke a lot of glass and was now bleeding from a cut on his forehead. His male friends tried to get him upright so that they could walk out and once he was more or less perpendicular to the floor they hustled him out. The women sat there looking pouty and mortified. Drunks were part of the scenery at this place, odd considering that it was clearly upscale. As we sat and enjoyed our meal a lot of young and old men were shuffled outside, barely able to walk. Drunks are common in China but the level of intoxication among these patrons really surprised me.
We ordered dinner and beers and popped open the bottle of bai jiu that Susu had brought along. Bai jiu is a Chinese white grain liquor that is probably best compared to Tequila although opposite in that the better it gets the less flavor it has. The cheap stuff is very bad and the expensive quite smooth. I’d had glass or two of both types before and this one was probably the best of the bunch. From a drinking perspective it was going to be a long night –the Chinese love to toast and my companions were solidly keeping that tradition alive. “Ganbei” or “dry your cup” was the phrase of the evening. Our first course was a wonderful plate of carbs made up of steamed corn, turnips and two kinds of yam accompanied by boiled peanuts all served in little wooden boxes. We made our way through those and a few stir-fried dishes and dumplings before the much vaunted lamb chops appeared. They were without a doubt better than any I had ever eaten, even better than the ones my mother made one Easter long ago when my father brought me home drunk from an afternoon trip to a bar. I got in trouble for those, these I just savored.
As dinner wound down the floor show appeared. Sichuan Opera in traditional dress and featuring the ear splitting voices that characterize the Chinese version of the art form. A duet between a young man, a solo erhu player and finally a beautiful young woman wearing a headdress featuring two four foot long pheasant tail feathers. I sat and kept pace with my toasting companions until it was time to head home. We took a slow stroll, stopping for a desert of steaming hot sesame balls. I love these, a battered ball of red bean paste rolled in sesame seeds, deep fried and served on a stick. You have to be careful not to blister the roof of your mouth. Walking along I fell into a conversation with a group of young women who were surprised to see a lao wei in this part of town. We alternated in Chinese and English as we walked along under the lights in the trees, talking about nothing in general. Eventually they turned off and we went our way back to the car and I off to my hotel, a truly remarkable day behind me.