The Giant Buddha at Leshan, view from the river.
Chengdu is the capital of Sichuan Province, and is one of the most affluent areas of rural China - this is quite evident in the clean and modern city, the streets lined with designer shops and Western fast food chains. Our first day was spent with a visit to the Giant Buddha of Leshan
(Le Mountain). The Buddha is carved out of and into the rock face at the point where the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi Rivers meet and it is quite strange to see the different coloured waters coming together into a muddy whirlpool. Tradition states that this point was treacherous and so many fisherman drowned that the locals thought a devil lived under the water. Therefore, an enormous statue of Buddha was carved into the hill to placate the whirpool.
Fire breathing at the Sichuan Opera performance, Chengdu
The river is now calm, but it's not known if this is because the Buddha was pleased or because of the vast amount of rock thrown into the river during the carving! We got a good view of the Buddha from a river boat - it is huge and is flanked by two smaller Buddhas. You can walk around the big one, but the path is very steep and looks as treacherous as the river used to be. This Buddha is apparently the largest seated Buddha in the world, but we think the one on Lantau Island is bigger (might be just our perspective though, because not sure of the dimensions).
Next day was exciting - finally got to see the famous Giant Pandas. The reserve is a protected wilderness and breeding area, as well as a museum and research facility. We saw an interesting video about the breeding program (using IVF) but the highlight was the little fellas themselves.
Baby giant pandas - Mr Naughty on the swing and Mr Fatso in the remains of his lunch.
They are so cute, sitting on their backsides chewing on bamboo, with the remains strewn around them. They seemed to know that we were fascinated by them, because they put on quite a performance for us. The eight month old babies were amazing, just like human babies in their antics and behaviour - there was a little fat one that couldn't stop eating, a lazy one sleeping on a rack, a naughty one that just wanted to jump on the others and wrestle all the time. They have so much expression in their faces, they're just precious. Even with the IVF program, however, only about 50% of the babies survive to 1 year old. In the afternoon we visited the DiBao Embroidery Centre which specialises in brocade, Chengdu
's local material.
Giant Pandas in Chengdu, looking quite relaxed after a heavy meal!
The centre has a few old looms which they use to train young people in the old skills to ensure that they don't die out, but most of the products for sale are made in the nearby mechanised factory. This evening we went to the Sichuan Opera "Fu Rong Guo Cui" which was fun. The performance included Chinese opera, a clown who did tricks with a hot oil lamp on his head, fire breathing and "mask changing" - the mask changing is fascinating, the actors change the masks on their face incredibly quickly so that you see various different patterns until their natural face appears. They then miraculously put the masks back on, so we still haven't worked out exactly how they do it.
Our last day in Chengdu was a bit more relaxed, we've both caught the group cold, so went to a local pharmacy to get some medications and then stayed in bed to try and beat it.
A student worker on the brocade loom, Chengdu
After lunch we visited the restored shop front area of Jinli Street - basically a tourist centre but gives you an idea of how the old shop streets looked. We were interviewed by three schoolgirls practising their English, asking what we thought of the street. We had plenty of time, so wandered out into the "normal" streets but mostly just bag shops. We then spent a couple of hours in Bamboo Park, created in honour of a female poet, and home to a vast number of bamboo varieties. The park is divided into two sections, one for locals and one for tourists. The tourist section has many lovely restored buildings and paths, whilst the public one is a bit plainer. We went out into the public section and enjoyed some jasmine tea whilst watching the locals play mahjong, and even indulged in the fiercest massage we've ever experienced - but golly it felt good afterwards, we could hardly walk we were so relaxed!
After dinner, we headed off to the train station for our overnight journey to Xi'An. We were in 4-berth soft sleeper carriages (the top class) which were quite small but comfortable. The journey is about 17 hours and goes over the mountains with lots of stopping and starting. One end of the carriage had a Western toilet and a washroom and they were kept nice and clean throughout the journey. You could buy food and drinks from the buffet car or from the trolley staff brought around, but we'd all stocked up at the supermarket before we left, so no problem with that.