we fit quite a bit into 8 days. some highlights:
giant buddha, leshan.
Giant Buddha, Leshan – I finally paid a visit to the stoic, giant Buddha with my mom and brother after months of being told it was well worth the trip. The “Big Buddha” at Leshan is the largest Buddha in the world, and sits at the confluence of the Min, Qingyi, and Dadu rivers, where back in the day tempestuous waters caused frequent boat accidents that the people blamed on a water spirit beneath the waves. The Buddha was thought to tame the spirit and protect the boats and was completed in 803 AD after 90 years of unimaginable effort. It’s now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it’s incredible to stare up at, which validates the excess of tourists you’ll encounter there no matter when you go. To see the Buddha you start at the top and navigate your way down a steep, narrow staircase built into the cliff that doesn’t deter the Chinese habit of pushing / generally ignoring personal space. This was more obvious than usual because we were escorting my mom who a) hates heights and b) isn’t used to Chinese tourists. My friend Bev graciously guided us on our Big Buddha tour and after hiking back up led us to a much quieter, less popular temple that is connected to the Big Buddha park by the most picturesque bridge, set atop fields of bright yellow rapeseed and a river on whose banks elderly Chinese men fished; a pretty idyllic site. Hiking up to Wuyou was also amazing and clearly an oft-ignored part of the tourist trip to the Buddha. At the top of the otherwise ordinary forest, the temple is an incredible display of the Buddhist heritage of the region. If it wasn’t partially under construction when we visited (surprise!) I would probably call it the most peaceful place I’ve seen in China.
Sichuan Opera – My mom and brother told me in advance they wanted to check out a performance before they arrived, and a friend told me friends of hers booked discounted tickets through a popular hostel in Chengdu, Sim’s, who not only booked us seats but also picked us up and dropped us off at our hotel. Convenient. The opera itself was a trip; foolishly I didn’t anticipate that choosing the more authentic teahouse experience would mean the venue was completely outdoors and we were unprepared. It was freezing. But, the staff offered complimentary “overcoats” to stay warm and kept refilling our teacups. The performance was very cool, even if an obvious tourist trap. It was basically a variety show showcasing the traditional acts of Sichuan Opera – there was singing, Erhu-playing, hand-puppet-play, shadow play, a hen-pecked husband skit, and of course the famous face changing. The show lasted exactly 1.5 hours and was hosted by a Chinese lady whose voice and English “translations” were a show in their own right. Overall we were pleased and it was a worth-while activity if you’re visiting Sichuan and want a glimpse at a form of entertainment that has been around for centuries (and don’t mind that the authenticity has been inevitability compromised in the process).
home-cooked sichuan... + bai jiu
Dinner at my friend Jenny’s parents apartment – OK, you need a Chinese friend to re-create this experience but it was the highlight of the trip, meal-wise. Jenny is a close friend of ours and Jeff and I have had the privelage of eating at her parents apartment once before; they speak no English but are unbelievably sweet, hospitable, and thrilled to host foreigners. Her mom insisted on cooking a dinner for my mom and brother, fully taking into consideration the fact that my brother is a vegetarian, and the evening turned into a hilarious and delicious event – and rose to the level of epic when my brother happily threw back a bottle of bai jiu with Jeff and Jenny’s dad (I’ve never seen my brother take a shot of anything in his life). The food was better than anything you can order in a restaurant and it was so unique for my family to get to experience a Chinese family dinner. They also realized I’m not lying when I say people in Chengdu do not turn on their heaters, even in the wintertime.
The Hash – Equal parts inappropriate banter and beautiful countryside, the Hash ended up being a great way to spend our Sunday despite my initial reservations about bringing mom along. I was punished for doing so, and I never thought I’d see my mom attempt to chug beer out of a piss pot, but it all happened. My brother was beyond amused at the level of adolescent humor encouraged at the Hash and we all enjoyed the scenic village, despite the fact that the Hash crew was missing several of it’s usual characters.
feisty panda cubs.
Panda Base – The general advice on this tourist-staple is to go first thing in the morning to catch the pandas before they sleep the day away. However, this is the second time I’ve ignored this advice and been pleasantly surprised. The highlight of the day was encountering a discovery channel crew filming the panda cubs who you usually only get to see behind glass in their nursery. For the filming all the cubs were out in the grass, climbing all over their handlers and the cameramen who looked as thrilled as I would be to have a baby panda climbing through my legs or even biting my bum, like the lucky handler above.
Dufu’s Cottage – Another Chengdu site I’d yet to see, Dufu’s Thatched Cottage is a monument to the famous 8th century poet who is said to have experienced his most creative and prolific writing period during his 4 year stay in Chengdu after being exiled from Gansu Province. The grounds surrounding his cottage are scenic and peaceful, and the greater Huanhuaxi Park right beside Dufu’s former digs also makes for a nice walk. Just don’t get confused and think they are the same and spend 2 hours winding your way through the maze like trails looking for the cottage in Huanhauxi. Because it’s not there. Which we eventually learned.
veg-friendly hot pot.
Hot Pot – You literally can’t visit Chengdu without getting hot pot, but this requisite was difficult given my brother loyal vegetarianism and the fact that every hot pot I’ve had (so far) uses a meat based broth, whether you opt for spicy or yuan yang (half spicy, half not). On their second to last night in Chengdu, horrified that my family would leave this city without the life-altering gastronomic experience, Jenny and I remembered a Chongqing hot pot place near my apartment that does things a little differently – the circular table is covered in personal electric hot plates, and everyone gets their own individual pot of either spicy oil or non-spicy broth. It’s a little (alot) nicer than our usual hot pot haunts, and on our last visit there was a large table of tourists taking advntage of the foreign-friendly system so we decided to give it a try. Luckily, they offered a non-spicy mushroom broth that did not have any meat base (or so they said). They also offered an all-you-can-eat price AND a station to make your own sauce that offers all the regulars – sesame oil, vinegar, oyster sauce, cilantro, garlic – plus a lot of appealing extras – scallions, several chili oils, ground sichuan pepper, peanuts, sesame seeds, soy sauce, and so on. In the end, my brother was able to eat hot pot guilt-free, and my mom was spared the (for some) nerve-wracking experience of eating hot pot in a loud, smoky neighborhood joint where the soundtrack is loogies being hawked and drunk men yelling. But I gotta say I’m getting quite accustomed to the latter. (The Chongqing Hot Pot restaurant is located on First Ring Road 2 overpasses past Jiu Yan Qiao if your heading in the direction of Chunxi Lu).
my lovely world-traveling mama :)