The city of Chengdu in China felt very modern when we arrived; streets without garbage, taxis that run by the meter, seat-belts, mini-skirts – all the hallmarks of great civilization . Also, like when we arrived in Malaysia from Indonesia on the last trip; suddenly we found we’re not famous any more! No-one takes any notice of us when we walk on the street, no-one trying to hassle us or us sell us anything every few meters. We checked in to Sim’s Cozy Guesthouse in Chengdu which is probably the most helpful place we stayed anywhere – seemed like they had a folder prepared for anything anyone ever asked them. For example we needed to get Edel’s camera fixed and asked if there was a camera shop nearby – while asking us which brand she opened a folder, looked up the address and printed us a Google Map, plus called the place to check if anyone there spoke English! The guesthouse also had lots of little stickers prepared with “please take me to x bus-station/monument” written in Chinese for all sights in the area as neither cab drivers nor anyone else usually speak a single word of English. A couple of times when we tried to take a taxi, even with pointing to the destination on a map and having the address written in Chinese we still couldn’t make ourselves understood..the stickers came in handy.
We organized a Tibet trip through the hostel as well, together with a couple Austrian travellers we met, and then had a week to spare while all the permits were getting sorted out. The first couple days of this we spent in Chengdu enjoying the good food and visiting some Zen temples Sichuan cooking is very heavy on chilli and oil, and another potent spice called a Sichuan pepper which numbs the whole mouth if used on it’s own but they usually just put in a lot more red chillies to “take the edge off”. We had hotpot one evening with meat, bamboo, mushrooms and vegetables to cook at the table – picking the least fiery option but the pot was still completely covered in red chillies. So nice it almost made me cry..
From Chengdu we headed down to Leshan and Mount Emei for a few days. Leshan is the home of Dafo, a 71 meter stone Buddha carved out from the riverside sandstone cliffs between 713-803AD. There is also a nice monastery overlooking the river, though with plenty more temples, monasteries and pagodas to see along the way when climbing nearby Mount Emei next we were perhaps starting to risk getting templed out (..not a good idea before going to Tibet!). Again we had trouble communicating with the cab drivers, and I was miming paddling a canoe to explain we wanted to go to the boats to go look at the giant Buddha. Emei Shan is a 3100 meter mountain covered in bamboo and forest, and possibly almost as many temples as there are trees – it’s been a Taoist and Buddhist pilgrimage site for two thousand years. We meant to climb it over 2 days, catching the bus in the morning to the starting point at 640m – you can actually take the same bus almost the whole way to the top though, and a cable car the rest of the way, but much of what is nice is the forest, monasteries and views as you climb up. Except it turned out we didn’t really have any views – the mountain was covered in thick white fog, thicker and thicker the higher we got. The first part of the trail, between the two lower bus stops, was pretty crowded and littered with souvenir stalls – most of the tourists Chinese and travelling in large tour groups each following a person with a flag and a megaphone.. Higher up past the Wannian Si monastery it was more peaceful and we had the path practically to ourselves.
The path the whole way up the mountain is laid out with stone stairs – seemingly endless particularly when the distant end of each flight disappears into the fog. We met the odd person on this section as well, and many of them started talking away to us in Chinese – it seems half assumed you must know at least a little bit, after all, it is the worlds biggest language! When buying lunch after Wannian Si in a tiny place with four plastic chairs I ordered by pointing at some ingredients and hoping from the best. In the evening when we got to the Xixiang Si monastery at 2070m where we planned to spend the night we could order from a menu though. Other facilities however were more basic..the toilets were very “social” – a long line of squat toilets with partitions only half a meter high, dropping straight to the mountain slope below. Showers were a bit social too – partitioned but not fully – when I looked up after rinsing the soap from my face an old Chinese man was standing there just looking at me..he started talking away in Chinese to me of course. Breakfast the next morning was also eventful – we were raided by a hoard of macaques! I heard two other western tourists screaming – the monkeys were attacking on two fronts through the doors and trying through the broken windows on the other side. One woman working in the kitchen was feeding them, while an older man was chasing them away with a slingshot….no wonder they’re messed up! On the way back to the room our path was blocked by one of them – I walked towards it and tried to frighten it off with a loud step, shout and hands in the air. He called my bluff. Making a fast mock attack running towards me with canine teeth bared..I retreated.
We weren’t bothered by them later on the path though, and they didn’t take any food from us, but we did see many signposts along the path warning about them. Other interesting signposts repeated everywhere along the path were “Socialist Viewpoints about Honor and Disgrace“, and a list of “Ten Do’s, Ten Don’ts” that included “Don’t operate illegally“, “Don’t discount illegally” and “Don’t put disorderely“. We didn’t see a single map over the network of trails on the mountain though…you might get horribly lost and wander the forest for days but at least you’ll know the socialist principle that “hard work and struggle is an honor“!
Our second day started just as foggy as the first – once we got to 2540m we decided to cheat and take the cable car the last bit of the way to the Golden Summit as there were few views anyway. In the delightful mix of broken English and nationalistic exaggerations that we were getting used to seeing everywhere by now the ticket promised it to be the “most greatest cable car in the world“. At the top the fog was so thick that we couldn’t even see the enormous golden statue of the Puxian Bodhisattva and his six-tusked elephants even while standing right at the very base of it. It was quite atmospheric in a way though, the golden and silver temples at the top revealing only their silhouette until you walked really close. When we eventually took the worlds most greatest cable car down again the fog actually cleared for a moment for the first time in two days, just as we left the summit!
Back in Chengdu with one day to spare before Tibet we visited a Giant Panda Breeding Research Base to see some cuddly teddies munching bamboo. There’s only just over 1,000 left in the wild, and this center has had some success in boosting numbers. Observing them at the center, clumsily nearly falling down from trees, and reading about them in the breeding programme being frightened of and attacking their newborn (which is almost as small and helpless as that of the marsupials) you kind of wonder how they survived at all..even before there were people around to cut down half their habitat in a couple decades they would have needed to survive things like tigers.. Fantastic they did make it this far though, as they’re just adorable. Other iconic Chinese animals haven’t been so lucky, the Chinese river dolphin or Baiji, the “drowned river princess” of countless ancient legends, went extinct last year as the waters of the Yangzi river stop being able to support life.