I want to start by saying that I do genuinely, really love Chengdu. Our neighbourhood, Tongzilin, is (in my opinion) one of the nicest in the city and as a whole Chengdu has a lot to offer, from endless amazing restaurants to relaxing teahouses to beautifully maintained parks. However, thanks to, first the madness of the Cultural Revolution which saw Chengdu’s very own version of the Forbidden City dynamited (among many other architectural gems lost) and then a campaign of destruction led by the then-mayor in the early 2000s there is almost no history left here. The atmospheric winding alleys and ramshackle low-rise communities I have read about in books are no more, replaced instead by wide boulevards and sky-high soulless blocks. Where the Chengdu ‘Forbidden City’ once stood we now have a expansive concrete square, complete with glitzy water features, a sunken mall and a towering white statue of Mao pointing out across the city. With almost no ancient bricks or beams left in place, the city has resorted to faking it! Last week Joe and I took a trip to Jinli Ancient Street, a pedestrianised network of narrow streets all carefully designed to look like the streets of the past…if you can ignore the Starbucks you come across immediately on entering. Whilst some people definitely turn their noses up at this deliberate tourist trap (and even we refused to indulge the extortionate prices and sample any of the millions of snacks and street food available) I actually really enjoyed wandering around and seeing an, albeit falsified, glimpse of the city as it would have been just a few decades a go.
Therefore it’s probably unsurprisingly that for the last couple of weeks Joe and I have been itching to see something other than high rises, surrounded by tower blocks, surrounded by skyscrapers – in effect we wanted to feel like we were in China and not just another metropolitan city somewhere. Having made the decision to keep our one university-free weekday clear of any work commitments, Fridays are now our designated “day of fun” and this week we booked to go on a daytrip to Leshan, a riverside town situated around 75 miles outside Chengdu.
After an unsuccessful attempt to go there the previous week, this time we booked our train tickets well in advance and with the help of one of our mandarin teachers managed to negotiate the ridiculous train station bureaucracy, pick up our tickets, clear copious amounts of security and hop on the new, spotless, high speed train to Leshan. Leshan is known for one particular sightseeing spot and that’s its Giant Buddha. Exactly what it says on the tin, this enormous Buddha is carved out of the cliff face at the spot where the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi rivers meet. A Buddhist monk named Hatong dreamt up this project in AD 713 hoping that the Buddha would calm the turbulent rivers and save boatmen from their lethal currents. Sadly he didn’t live to see it completed as it was finally finished 90 years after his death.
Standing at a huge 71m, with ears measuring 7m and each of his big toes coming in at 8.5m in length The Giant certainly made a very impressive sight! Initially viewed from a position roughly level with the top of his head, we then decided to follow the hoardes of Chinese tourists and descend the cliff side staircase which wound its way down the side of the Buddha, eventually reaching his feet. Although a steep climb, due to the crowds, the pace averaged around one step down every 10 seconds so it was slow going and not too hard on the knees. It was undoubtedly a fantastic sight but it was actually once we ventured further on into the park that we really fell in love with the area. We managed to shake most of the crowds and followed the steep paths around the edge of the river, arriving at an absolutely beautiful area where crayfish traps lined the edge of the river, local men sat fishing and restaurants had plastic buckets full of their very-much-alive catch which you could select for your lunch. Not quite at the stage where I can witness my food pre and post death in such quick succession we didn’t stop to eat but took lots of photos and enjoyed the view.
Venturing up even more steps – Leshan is not for the infirm – we made our way to the Wuyou Temple which was pretty much deserted, bar the occassional monk milling around. Having seen quite a few temples in recent weeks, this one was probably the most beautiful with rows and rows of bright flowers, burning candles and a huge hall filled with statues of monks in a range of poses and facial expressions…some were highly entertaining although its doubtful that was the intention.
Having wanted to find somewhere that felt like ‘real China’, Leshan ticked the boxes and made us all the more excited about planning adventures further afield and longer in length! Due to our jobs we are incredibly limited with our annual leave here (and now have two cats that we need to find sitters for!) so it’s essential that we make the most of all opportunities to travel. Western Sichuan and the Tibetan Plateau is top of our ‘Big Adventure’ list but in the meantime we’re looking forward to an April/May overnight trip just 15 minutes further on from Leshan by train to Emei Shan where a hike up a mountain should really remove us from all sights of skyscrapers!