China - Round The World Tour 3 2004 Day 230 (40)

Chengdu

Sunday 24th October

We wanted enough time to explore Leshan but it is a two-hour bus ride away so we mobilised ourselves at a reasonable hour but still afforded ourselves the luxury of just a bit of a rest. We had decided to make our own way to Leshan today as opposed to joining a tour and so took a taxi across town to one of the bus terminals. The bus terminal is quite well organised with plenty of ticket windows and numerous gates (rather like in an airport) which each led to a specific bus that was already waiting there. Just repeating the word ‘Leshan’ to the ticket clerk was enough to convey our needs and she wrote down on a piece of paper the amount of money we had to hand over. The one-way tickets were ¥37 ($4,50) each. The tour would have been ¥100 each ($12,20). The bus was modern, air-conditioned and quite comfortable throughout the two-hour ride. To be on the safe side, however, we each downed a Cinnarizine tablet before departure.

At Leshan, we got off of our bus and stepped immediately onto the waiting, local city bus to take us across the bridge to where we could by tickets into the Big Buddha complex. We had barely sat in our seats before a half dozen or more old ladies came on board to try to sell us a ¥2 ($0,25) tourist map of the Big Buddha complex. Even though we didn’t want one and flatly refused, this didn’t stop each and every one of them throwing their Chinese sales pitch at us in turn. In fact, some of them came around again, repeatedly in fact, but this time pointing to different parts of the map just we might be convinced about buying one if we knew what else was on it. We tried our best to laugh along with them and it certainly was entertaining. They all scuttled away when the driver turned on the engine and we soon departed for a ten-minute ride through town and across the bridge to the other side.

We didn’t pay much attention to it at the time but we did notice that the bus passed a couple of different ticket windows and we just assumed that these were different entrances to the same place. When the bus did finally reach the one bus stop where everybody disembarked, we waited until the hubbub died down and looked quizzically at the ticket collector. Instantly getting the picture, she pointed us in the right direction and repeated ‘Big Buddha’ so off we set. Our student cards once again proved useful for a 50% discount on the regular ¥70 ($8,50) entrance price. What we had come to see was the Leshan Big Buddha (Leshan, incidentally, means Happiness Mountain). At no less than a gargantuan seventy-one metres tall and carved right out of the cliff face overlooking the conjunction of the Min, Dadu and Qingyi rivers, it is the largest Buddha in the world and can attract quite some hefty crowds at any given time. Once through the turnstiles, however, it became clear that not only were there very few people about today but that there was also a lot more here than just the Big Buddha. The entire complex consists of numerous Buddha and other deity effigies, some sculptured right out of the rocks and others in caves or made into statues, and is spread out over a fairly wide area of a small mountain with lots of paths and steps leading up and down in various directions. There are also numerous buildings and temples dotted around the place, all set in the hillsides amidst thick jungle-like vegetation. With some traces of mist hanging between the trees and at different elevations, the whole place had an Indiana Jones type of feel to it. Some of the climbs up and down were quite steep and strenuous at times. One thing that struck us straight away when we entered was a huge one hundred and seventy metre long lying Buddha that was etched into the side of a long cliff face. This is not mentioned anywhere in our guidebook and nobody that we’ve spoken to has mentioned seeing it. We thought we might have been dropped off at a different entrance gate a little farther along and that perhaps most people may not have strayed this far into the complex, which would also explain the lack of people here. Either way we were glad to have seen it and we were already starting to enjoy the relaxed atmosphere.

We wandered around the hillsides for quite some time, moving up and down through the thick vegetation and wandering in and out of caves. All the time, we were slowly making our way towards where Dafu, which is what the main attraction is known as, was located on the far side of the mountain, towards the river. Quite unexpectedly, we reached another ticket window and turnstile so I flashed our tickets. Unfortunately, much to our protestations, we weren’t allowed through. It turns out that there are actually two complexes abutting each other and we had paid to get into the one at the rear. To see Dafu, we would have to fork over another ¥70 ($8,50) each before being allowed to proceed any farther. No wonder there weren’t any crowds. The ticket collector on the bus that brought us to the first ticket window probably told everyone on the bus about this, but not being able to understand Chinese, we were once again left in the dark about the whole thing. This isn’t the first time we’ve been caught by this and I’m guessing it won’t be the last either. At least our student cards would come to the rescue again and we were let through after paying the 50% concession price.

The second complex is not that different to the first as far as features and terrain is concerned and we steadily meandered closer to the river. As we got closer and closer, we steadily heard more and more people. When we made it all the way, we found loads of tour groups and other tourists in their hundreds, if not thousands. We had arrived at the head of Dafu and for the patient, there was the opportunity to traverse a series of narrow, zigzagging steps down the cliff face to his feet. The need for patience became all too clear when we realised that there must have been a thousand people queuing up, row after row, to be allowed through the small turnstile onto the narrow steps leading down. Judging by the slow rate of ascent by the single file line of people making their way down, I guessed it was take at least an hour and possibly more of standing in the queue before making it onto the steps. We decided this was not for us but we were able to get some stunning shots of the Buddha from this elevation. The only real difficulty we had was avoiding continually being pushed out of the way all the time by all the rude and impatient Chinese tourists that would seemingly stop at nothing to ensure a good, clear shot of their fellow subjects with Dafu framed just perfectly in the background. The Chinese are a warm and friendly people but put one in a tour group with a camera in his hand and he becomes a noisy and lethal weapon best to be avoided at all cost.

Whilst at the head of Dafu, we bumped into a couple of Dutch girls that we had earlier met. Like us, they too had relocated from the Dragon Town hostel into Sam’s. We also bumped into another guy from our hostel and started talking with him. It was a shock all around when it transpired that he was Dutch and that we each spoke Dutch. Like the majority of other people we meet, he was convinced that I was Australian from my somewhat warped accent. This is a bi-product of living in several different countries around the world, each having its influence on the way I speak and sound. The Dutch girls went on their merry way but David, we later learned was his name, was a really fun guy that is also well travelled and we all got on very well together. It transpired that we had similar plans for the remainder of the day so we carried on with each other as we finished off exploring the park grounds. Our final destination was a dock a little farther upstream where for just ¥5 ($0,60) each, we would be taken across the river and back to the small bus depot for the ride home.

We ultimately waited at this dock for a good hour and a half until the boat finally arrived. The Dutch girls joined us half way through the wait and we sat and enjoyed each other’s company as a stray saleswoman would approach us from time to time trying to sell fruit, trinkets or whatever. Sandy eventually did by a couple of little trinkets and I bought a couple of oranges. One old woman was selling some strange melon looking fruit but wouldn’t accept my offer of ¥3 ($0,53) and struggled off with the huge basket strapped to her back again.

It was actually quite fortuitous that we bumped into David and took his advice to get the ferry instead of the local bus back. It took us just a few hundred meters away from the cliff face from where Dafu stands permanently overlooking the turbulent flow of the three rivers. Since we were travelling upstream, the ferry was not making particularly rapid progress and we managed to get probably the best possible view of the huge icon that was possible. Even the guidebook tells of the best views to be had from the water.

There was a crowd huddled and jostling for position around the one ticket window at the very small bus depot and so the five of us eventually decided to pull our resources and have just one of us queue up to buy the tickets. Judging by the lower cost of the return journey ticket at just ¥31 ($3,80) each, our bus was going to be either slightly smaller or slightly less comfortable. We’ve noticed that here in China, the price of a ticket for a given route by bus or train can vary according to the age and comfort of the vehicle in question. The route between Chengdu and Leshan is travelled frequently by bus but the range quality and comfort of the buses is quite a wide one. Our bus was, indeed, slightly smaller than that which brought us here and was no less comfortable. The only problem was that it was not due to leave for another hour and a half and this would mean us getting back to Chengdu well after dark.

To kill some time in the meantime, David went off with us to grab a bite to eat whilst the Dutch girls took off in their own direction. We strolled around town for a while and decided to give one of the local curbside eateries a try today and we stopped at one with what looked like passable sanitation standards. Noodles seemed to be their particular speciality so we all gave it a try. To say the food was prepared fresh would have been an understatement as no sooner had we ordered, one of the ladies there yanked off a piece of pasta dough from a large clump on the table outside and rather skilfully rolled the dough into noodles right there and then. Within a minute or two, she had produced a fist full of arm-length noodles and together with a huge ladle full of broth, served us each up a delicious steaming put of hot noodles with beef slices and vegetables. I have to admit that even I found the dish quite tasty. This rather filling meal cost us a meagre ¥4.5 ($0,55) each. This little experience brought home to me just how expensive we have been eating all through China so far. At between ¥50 ($6) and ¥100 ($12) per meal, eating in restaurants as we do is clearly very much more expensive than needs to be the case. If we could just be a little more adventurous, we could clearly slice right through our food budget rather drastically.

Over our noodles, David, Sandy and I discussed a mutual dream of opening up a travellers’ hostel somewhere. It seems that we each have similar ideas about this and we’ve all agreed to maintain contact with each other. Retiring with a state pension somewhere in Europe doesn’t particularly appeal to any of us but setting up a hostel, perhaps in Australia, does seem like it might very well be our destiny. We discussed some of the practicalities involved and I think we will give this idea a lot more serious consideration in the next couple of years, after we’ve completed this trip and returned back to Europe initially to try to earn some more money.

Back at the bus depot, I finally buckled and decided to give one of those strange looking melons a try. I think someone told me that they were Palmellos or something and I finally found one of the many basket toting fruit salesmen to let me have one for ¥3 ($0,35). Even though it was already half peeled, it took me several minutes to get into it. It’s sort of like a large orange but with much tougher skin. The inside is also very orange or grapefruit like with very similar sacks of sap, although much larger and lots of huge pips. The taste is quite unfamiliar but I enjoyed what I could eat of it nevertheless. I’m not sure I would go out of my way to buy another but at least I can add another next experience to my now rapidly growing list of new foods that I’ve tried.

As usual, there was a movie showing on the one ceiling mounted TV screen on the bus going back to Chengdu and we are getting quite good at following the plot even with Chinese dubbing and Chinese subtitles. We think the actress in the main role is the same Cantonese woman that we saw in the movie during the bus trip back from Great Wall at Badeling in Beijing. David knew his way around town a bit better than us and so we walked back to the hostel and we all sat in our room for a bit looking at each other’s photos. David has several small photo albums and clearly has a fantastic eye for a good composition with some truly stunning shots that put us both to shame. I only hope that when some of our best shots are finally printed, they come out half as nice as his were.

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