Story and photos by Barbara Angelakis

China Giant Panda

Giant Panda Country
Sichuan Province, China

It’s hard to imagine the seemingly unending wealth of treasures that is  China... a land of diverse cultures, wise and peaceful religions, awesome  natural wonders, people of astounding talent, and a history that is  older than records. Politics aside, China is awesome!

So it was with great anticipation that I boarded China Southern Airlines  flight 300 to Guangzhow (previously known as Canton) on my way to  Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province. Sichuan, in central south  China, is renowned for its spicy cuisine and splendid natural wonders...  not to mention a Giant Panda Research center.

China Chendu

Chengdu is the third largest city in Sichuan Province and a huge sprawling  metropolis of some 14 million souls. Like all major Chinese cities it is a shopper’s paradise with top of the line shopping malls and boulevards of internationally famous-named designer shops brilliantly displaying  their wares. As we drove through the city from the airport a tall  building stood out architecturally from the others and to my delight it  turned out to be our hotel, the Minyoun Royal 5* hotel. The exterior is a work of art; the first 32 floors are the Mingyu Financial Plaza  Building while the hotel is located on the 33rd to the 47th floors. The rooms are spacious and comfortable with every amenity  offered en suite. The bathrooms are well appointed with the latest  state-of-the-art fixtures. The staff is young, friendly and  multi-lingual.

China Panda on Tree

Chengdu Giant Panda Breeding Research Base

Our first order of the next day was a visit to the Panda base. With less  than 2,000 panda bears living in the wild, the facility was founded in 1987 for research and protection of this precious endangered species.  The panda is part of the bear family and despite its cuddly adorable  appearance, it is an unpredictable wild animal and viewing areas are  strictly controlled. The panda spends its time eating bamboo shoots and  sleeping - due to the low nutritional value of its diet the panda sleeps a good deal of the time when it’s not eating. Pandas are not social  animals. In the wild they only come together to mate but in captivity  there is no competition for food or mates so they are a bit more sociable. Nevertheless, each panda has its own enclosure and their interaction is closely monitored. The panda has 6 fingers; well, a  thumb and 5 fingers, and lives around 25 years but more in captivity. In 1867 a French missionary “discovered” the “new” species and it was  quickly recognized as the world’s cutest animal. Six cubs were on  display behind glass and were fast asleep when we visited but we were  able to catch a few adults still eating and entertaining themselves and us.

China Lunch Food Lazy Susan

Wuhou Temple complex and Jinli Street Folk area in Chengdu

After a massive lunch of some 22 Sichuan specialties served family style  (dishes piled high on a central lazysusan and everyone helps  themselves) we walked to the famous Wuhou Temple Complex to view the  super sized statues of Emperor Liu Bei of the Three Kingdoms period  (A.D. 220 - 280) and his court. The layout of Temple Complexes include  several individual buildings housing statues of religious figures,  Emperors, Generals and other dignitaries along with gardens featuring  flowing water, ancient shapely trees, large rock formations and  landscaped walkways connecting the various buildings. We were reminded  that we were visiting houses of worship for locals and pilgrims and  cautioned to be respectful and not take pictures of sacred icons or  people at prayer.

China Jinli Street Folk Area

From Wuhou it is a short walk to the Jinli Street Folk area. The ancient  street is one of the oldest and busiest streets in Chengdu. It is filled with artisans plying their wares; treats from carts; and souvenirs for  sale.

China Entrance to Dujiangyan

Dujiangyan and Qingcheng Mountain

When I heard we were going to visit Dujiangyan, the world’s oldest grand  water conservancy project built in 256 BC, I was curious as to what  attraction this project would hold for tourists. Well I found out! The  city of Dujiangyan looks like a Hollywood set of old China -- it is a  fantasy but a remarkably appealing one. Many of the buildings are  original but after a devastating earthquake some years back the ones  that were damaged were rebuilt to maintain the “look”. Spend some time  wandering through the streets before heading out to the UNESCO World  Heritage sites of the water conservancy and Qingcheng Mountain.

China Bridge over River Minjiang

By using the natural topography, the engineer Li Bing and his son some  2,200 years ago, devised an irrigation system that would tame the mighty River Minjiang and control the devastating annual flooding without  having to build a dam. It is a monumental construct of outstanding  creativity, re-channeling the forceful river at a time when the only  technology was picks and shovels. A rope bridge is slung across the  river to enable access to the many temples carved out of, or built into, the mountainside and while we did not have time to climb the mountain  and explore these temples we did cross the bridge holding on for dear  life. Apparently it is good fun to make the bridge swing and to avoid  flying off; it is advisable to hold tight. As a seasoned New York City  subway rider I had little trouble keeping my balance but laughing and high 5ing the locals did take concentration.

China Tea Cup

Stopping for tea before arriving at Qingcheng Mountain we were treated to a tale on the history of the beverage; true story or myth, you be the judge.  The Chinese drink hot water... not tepid or cold as we do in the west -  regularly to this day (probably a holdover from when boiling drinking  water was a necessity). One day some 3,000 years ago a servant of the  Emperor Shennong was boiling water under a wild tea bush during a rest  period from their travels. By accident a few leaves floating on the wind dropped into the pot and the Emperor found the flavor pleasing... ergo tea drinking was born... lucky for the servant.

China Qingcheng Mountain

On to Qingcheng Mountain, home to many Buddhist and Taoist temples. A legend tells of Taoist Master Zhang Daoling; after years of dedicated  preaching, dying on the mountain and ascending to heaven, making this  one of the most famous and sacred Taoist mountains in China. There is a  steep climb to a short ferry ride than a cable car will take you half  way up the mountain and the last 1,200 feet must be climbed, if you want  to reach the peak. All along the way are temples, palaces and pavilions  to visit, spanning centuries and dynasties. A major attraction is Tianshi Cave where Zhang purportedly preached. Should you find the  climb too daunting there are porters stationed along the path that for a fee will carry you before your legs give way on the steep sometimes  hazardous path.

China Leshan Giant Maitraya Buddha

Leshan Giant Maitraya Buddha

There are many historically significant sites to see in Sichuan but surely  one of the most impressive is the largest carved stone Buddha in the  world, the Giant Buddha of Leshan (pronounced Lu Shan). Carved into the rock face is the 71 meters high (about 233 feet) seated Maitraya or future Buddha. During the Tang Dynasty around 713 AD a pious monk named  Haitong wanted to help the people who earned their living around the  turbulent waters at the confluence of the three rivers: Minjiang, Qingyi and Dadu. The force of the water caused boat accidents that resulted in major loss of life... and major suffering. The people believed that a  water spirit was responsible for their problem so Haitong convinced them that carving a statue of the Buddha would control the water spirit and  consequently tame the current. It took 20 years for Haitong to raise the money and 90 years of hard work and sacrifice on the part of the local  population to carve the Buddha. The project was completed after  Haitong’s death by two of his disciples but when finished the evil water spirit was gone forever.

China Leshan Giant Maitraya Buddha Close Up

The Buddha is not only an outstanding example of architectural artistry but an engineering masterpiece and it is recognized as a UNESCO World  Heritage site. There is an internal drainage system of gutters and  channels scattered inside the head, the arms, and behind the ears, as  well as in the clothing. This system displaces rainwater to keep the  inside of the statue dry and insure internal stability. The large pair  of ears - each an amazing seven meters (about 23 feet) long - are made  of wood and decorated with mud Securing them to the head was indeed a  daunting task for the artisans of 1,000 years ago, as was the skillful  attachment of the 1,021 buns in the Buddha’s coiled hair.

China Leshan Giant Maitraya Buddha View from Boat

There are two ways of viewing the Giant Buddha, one is to get up close and  personal by walking the entire length top to bottom, the other is to  take a ferryboat which gives a perspective on the entire monument. Due  to time constraints we took the boat but if you choose to “walk the  Buddha” leave the better part of a day for the excursion.

China Emeishan Pilgrims

From Leshan we headed to Emeishan (“shan” in Chinese means mountain). There  is a new modern business section of the city but as a tourist I found  the authentic older section of town at the bottom of the mountain to be  far more interesting. Here there are hot springs for you to ease the  soreness from muscles not used to climbing mountains and yet another  mountain to climb if you choose. Mt. Emei is the highest one of the four sacred mountains of Buddhism. It is not unusual to see pilgrims pulling their carts filled with personal necessities up the mountain for a  three to five day climb. They are required to bow every third step and  prostrate themselves every fifth step and it is very slow going and  painful to watch.

China Emeishan Budah

The mountain has three sections, the bottom which is walkable but a steep  climb, the middle which is climbable and has a cable car to help reach  the various temples and monasteries, and the top which is a full day of  hard trekking or a two hour drive to a cable car and than a short climb  to reach the Golden Buddha at the peak. Once there, the air is colder  and thinner but the view is dazzling... if the fog lifts. The elevation at the Golden Buddha is over 10,100 feet and warm jackets were  thoughtfully provided by our tour operator as the temperature is 30 or  40 degrees cooler than at the bottom of the mountain.

We had hoped to rise above the clouds to see the Buddha in full splendor  against a blue sky but it was as foggy at the top of the mountain as it was at the bottom; the fog seemed so alive and sentient, I imagined  that heavenly waves of mist like ballerinas dropped down to dance with  the mountains.  This is a holy place and the prayers that have been  chanted over eons hang in the air along with the mists. The temple space under the Golden Buddha is sacred and photos are prohibited, but there  are lots of photo ops in the other pavilions, and on the staircase of  elephants leading to the Golden Buddha.

A local show in Emeishan - Sheng Xiang Emei - is performed daily for  visitors and locals alike to artistically demonstrate the culture of Mt. Emei. It’s a lovely combination of music, dance, mime and acrobatics  with spectacular use of color and light, pacing and staging, with  effects being used to stunning advantage. On the walkway to the  auditorium there were different performing singers and dancers in  national costume as a prelude to the performance. There was a cloud  burst as we arrived so sadly we were not able to peruse the cluster of  shops selling crafts and souvenirs outside the theater.

China Emeishan Show

The show illustrates in eights acts the Mountain born of Mists; Grace of  Tea; Naughty Monkeys; Tradition of Shu; Power of Emei Kungfu; Dreams of  Butterfly Dance; and Zen of Holy Elephant. Plus, one of the most popular episodes of a Sichuan Opera “Chou Jue” about a gambling husband  punished by his wife for loosing all his possessions... even his clothes.

I must admit that Sichuan Province was hardly on my bucket list but now  that I have had a taste of the area I can't wait to return and see more  of the ancient wonders patiently waiting for hundreds, even thousands of years to be admired once again.

EDITORS NOTE: Unless you speak some Chinese or are visiting someone who does,  traveling with a professional guide or on an organized tour is a must,  if you have limited travel time. There is first-class transportation  available to sites of interest, but again outside of the big cities  directions are written in Chinese characters only. Even securing a taxi is difficult unless your destination and return addresses are written  in Chinese characters. Many young people are learning English or other  western languages but it is almost non-existent outside the large cities or in the older population. Driving in China is not for the faint of  heart. There seem to be no rules of the road and its every man... or woman... for themselves. They drive with one hand on the wheel and the other on  the horn. Even at night you can hear the angry honking of motorists that seem to feel the road belongs only to them. Pedestrians don’t stand a  chance. Crossing the street is taking your life in your hands; it’s far  safer to spend your entire visit on one side of the road (sic). There  are few stop signs and yield does not exist. No Hollywood car chase  scene can match for sheer brinkmanship the interaction of Chinese  drivers which is strange because I found the Chinese to be generally  courteous and good-natured once out of their vehicles.




© November 2016 LuxuryWeb Magazine. All rights reserved.


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