Chengdu: Pandas, pandas everywhere…and the Leshan Buddha 25 June 2009

bicyclesWe took it easy on Wednesday (103 degrees in Beijing), enjoying the idea of being grandparents and checking my iPhone frequently, hoping for more photos and stories! After meeting a business acquaintance in the morning, we packed and headed for the airport for our flight to Chengdu, in Sichuan province, an industrial city of over 10 million in the center of the agricultural belt of China. We were met by our tour guide for the next day, Andy, and one of our Tibet Tour group, Frank.

pandaAndy collected the 5 of us the next morning (we met Andrea and her daughter Alexandra at breakfast – what a **great** group!), and after marveling at the hordes of people on bicycles in the rain (above), many wearing ponchos and/or carrying umbrellas(!), we drove to the Panda Research Center. Did you know these creatures are millennia old? They are considered living fossils, and the giant panda appeared at least as early as the mid-Pleistocene era. (But as Lester has pointed out, in a strangely sad evolutionary state: they rarely mate, reject their young, and spend all their time eating a food which takes almost more energy to consume than it provides! So they seem to be self-selecting for extinction.) We saw adults getting a bath, and scores of cubs, hilariously acting like kids climbing over each other for the best sleeping spot. We also saw a whole clan of red pandas, much smaller, like a red fox.

buddhaFrom there we drove about two hours (mile after mile of rice fields and some tea-leaf terraces) to visit the largest stone Buddha in the world, the Leshan Giant Buddha, built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It is a spectacular carving that can be visited either by climbing the mountain (twice) or by boat from the three rivers it faces. After climbing many hundreds of stairs to the top of the mountain, we then climbed down a “cliff road” – a very narrow stone staircase down one side of the Buddha – to the his feet and the boat dock, back up the other side. The sculpture took nearly 90 years to complete, due to several work stoppages.

We of course had Sichuan food for lunch and dinner, which was both times quite different from Sichuan food served in US restaurants – but very delicious. There were too many dishes to remember at this point, and always WAY more food than we 5 could possibly consume. Andy claimed that a Chinese party would easily have eaten all we were served, and more!

The sites we visited were great, and the hotel very classy, but we all had to agree that Chengdu is a *very* depressing city, because it is literally blanketed in low-hanging smog for miles and miles, as if the sun cannot break through. And though I could not put my finger on it, the city inhabitants’ mood seemed to match the gray sky. I hope they were just rain clouds, but strongly suspect not.