When we last left off our heroes were hopping a flight from Beijing to Chengdu. For those of you who aren't super familiar with Chinese geography, Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan province (if you're from the States you've probably eaten food that claims to be Sichuan or Sechuan but trust me it's not even close).
Sichuan province is famous for a few things. For one, the food! Of all of the cuisines I tried living in China, Sichuan was my favorite hands down, bar none. Almost all of the dishes that I love include Sichuan pepper as a spice. Sichuan pepper comes from a plant in the citrus family (so not related to traditional peppercorns) and causes a sort of numbing spiciness with citrus undertones and is absolutely fantastic and probably unlike anything you've ever tasted before. Enough about food, the second thing that Sichuan province is famous for is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding. This is basically the headquarters of Chinese giant panda breeding and is most likely the top tourist destination in Chengdu.
We only scheduled one day (two nights) to be in Chengdu, which was a huge mistake; I really loved the town (if you can call a city of four and a half million people a town) and want to go back. Obviously the pandas were on our agenda. The other stop was a town about 90 minutes away by car called Leshan. Leshan is famous for the Leshan Giant Buddha. When the Chinese use words like giant they really mean it. The Leshan Giant Buddha is the largest statue of Buddha in the world. It stands at 71 meters (~233 feet) and is literally carved into the side of a cliff. In order to get to both places in a day we hired a car (~$200, we probably got ripped off because we don't speak enough Chinese but I still think it was worth it for 12 hours of driving).
The car picked us up first thing in the morning and the first stop was the pandas. I had never seen a panda before so when we walked up to the first one the first minute of so was pretty surreal. Now I'm a pretty manly man, flexes muscles while typing, so when I use the term cute I'm not playing around. Pandas are the cutest things I have ever seen! I basically just want to go up to them and hug all of them. We got there first thing in the morning so it was feeding time, meaning piles of bamboo for the munching.
The next stop was the young pandas. There were a couple areas where there were multiple youngsters in the same pens and boy were they rambunctious.
The last stop was the red pandas. These little mouth breathers were just the icing on the cake of an adorable morning.
After spending an adorable morning, we got picked up and headed toward Leshan. We made a little pit stop along the way for lunch which was fun, especially the part where the brought out the fish they were going to kill and cook for us so we could take a look at it and approve it like a fine wine. After lunch we got dropped off at the temple complex of the Giant Buddha. There was a bit of a hike up and around to the Buddha with a few scenic pit stops along the way, including the confluence of the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers. The story goes that back in the day this area was plagued with turbulent waters at the confluence, so they decided to build the Giant Buddha to watch over the boats coming down the river and to protect them. It turns out that all of the rock that was dumped into the river from the excavation of the cliff during construction changed the currents so much that it indeed made the river safer for boat travel. Thanks Buddha!
The confluence of two of the three rivers in the area
The White Stupa
Oil candles at the temple just above the Giant Buddha
Finally we got our first glimpse of the Buddha. Giant is a bit of an understatement; this thing might be the single most impressive man-made object I've ever seen.
There is a two foot wide staircase carved into the side of the cliff that you walk down to get to the feet of the Buddha and along the walls there are small Buddha carvings everywhere. Some of the more delicate ones are now behind bars to protect them from being touched by the millions of tourists that visit. There are also some great views of the Giant Buddha along the way too.
Finally at the bottom, the full grandeur of the statue comes into focus. Like I said, I'm not sure I have ever seen anything more impressive and awe inspiring in my entire life.
At this point it was starting to get late so we caught back up with our driver who took us back to Chengdu as we napped. When we got back to the hotel we grabbed a bite to eat (have I mentioned yet how I love Sichuan food?) and rested up for the first leg of our journey through Amdo. The next day we would be catching a bus to Jiuzhaigou but that is a story for another time.
Until the next time,
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