KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
I had never heard about the world's largest Buddha statue in Sichuan, China until I saw a photo David had taken when he toured China in 1979. After seeing the large Buddhas in India and Hong Kong, I was keen to see this one, if indeed it is the largest. The site of the amazing rock carving is 60 km from Chengdu and along the way is another place, Jiajiang, where over 2400 Buddhas are carved in the face of a cliff along a river. We decided to see both sites in one day and set off early on a local bus, departing from the central bus station a short taxi ride from our hotel.
We arrived in Jiajiang around lunchtime and set off from the bus station to find a place to eat. In other countries, one can usually count on bus stations to be a reliable place to find plenty of places to eat. For some strange reason, this was not the case here. There was only one small fast-food place that was a Chinese version of a KFC or a McDonald's. None of us was interested in anything deep-fried so we slipped into a neighbouring grocery store and stocked up on snacks and fresh fruit. I had read that China is starting to clamp down on street food stalls and as many of these vendors cannot afford to open a shop, most are forced out of business. This might explain the lack of food in the vicinity of the bus station.
There were dozens of cycle rickshaws near the station, and very few taxis driving by, so I persuaded the others to ride in a rickshaw to the 1000 Buddha cliffs. The guidebook said it was only 2.5km from the center of town. We were surprised to see a woman rickshaw driver and selected her along with a strong-looking man to take us to the site. We piled in and the two drivers set off at a brisk pace. It was wonderful to move through the moderate-sized city at a relatively slow pace. The two drivers seemed to know each other well and spoke often, even challenging each other to move a little faster now and then. Along the way, we met the high school students just leaving school for their lunch break and a few called out to us in English. Before long, we were on the edge of town and we started down some small lanes that ran parallel to the river.
Suddenly, we lurched down a cobble-stone path and stopped short at the gate to the park. We paid the entrance fee and the drivers indicated that they would wait to take us back when we were done. It was great to visit this lovely place and be the only foreigners around. We walked along a stone pathway and were at the Buddha cliffs before we knew it. Carved during the Han dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD), the statues show little deterioration, considering their age. There are also dozens of inscriptions carved on the walls and one can climb the rickety stone steps to a small temple near the top of the cliffs.
We wanted a better view of the surrounding area and when we heard the voices of a large group of people coming from above, we climbed the stairs to investigate. We came upon some type of gathering at the temple, dozens of older people were enjoying a meal prepared on sight and invited us to join them. We smiled and thanked them, but declined. Instead, we spent a few minutes inside the temple where a monk was conducting a prayer session with a group of ancient women. When he spotted Jeong Ae, he made several dramatic gestures that seemed to indicate he wanted to give her a special blessing. He began to don some more formal robes and motioned to her to kneel on the prayer cushion in front of the altar.
He prayed over her for several minutes, touching her head with brass bells and waving incense around her. Jeong Ae told us later that she found the energy emanating from the priest so strong that she almost felt faint. She was thrilled to be singled out for such a blessing and felt that the priest must have recognized her as someone who was in need of his prayers. This supports her personal belief in the ancient Chinese healing arts that she has embraced in the past several years.
It was time to be on our way, as we still had to travel to Leshan, another 30km north, in order to visit the Giant Buddha statue. The rickshaw drivers were waiting for us as arranged, but this time much of the journey was uphill and it pained us to see them standing up on the pedals in order to pull us. The two of them laughed a lot on the way back, they were probably joking about how heavy these foreigners are, but we paid them well and even shared some of our snacks with them when we said goodbye.
Back on another bus for the short ride to Leshan, and then a taxi to the location across the river from the city. We were becoming experts at moving on local transport, thank goodness for a guidebook with Chinese inscriptions.
Anil was delighted to learn that this World heritage site has a senior's rate much like the Great Wall. We pay for all of our expenses from a communal pot and Anil joked that he would have to start contributing less for his share. We really don't mind paying the entrance fees to these wonderfully maintained parks but we do find the prices steep for the local population. We have been very glad to be visiting China in the month of October because the crowds are small compared to the hordes that visit during the summer and the National holidays.
We were faced with hundreds of steps to climb and we ascended the high cliffs along the river to view the Buddha. Suddenly, we arrived at the top and saw the top of his head sticking out above the railing. The Grand Buddha sits serenely overlooking the confluence of the Dadu and Min rivers. He was carved out of the rock face and is over 71m high, his ears are 7m long and his insteps 8.5m broad. He must be seen to be believed.
A Buddhist monk named Haitong began the carving in AD 713, hoping to calm the treacherous waters in the rivers below. The carving took over 90 years to complete, long after Haitong's death. The surplus rock was dumped into the river and boats can now navigate the swift currents more safely. Locals believe that the Buddha is responsible for the calming the waters below.
We clambered down the steep staircase cut in the side of the rockface to see the statue from as many angles as possible. Boats full of visitors paused for photographs in front of the Buddha but we had run out of time to take a boat ourselves. We had already climbed to the top of the cliffs when we first approached the statue, but it was time to climb up again because we had descended to stand by his toes. The climb was tough, but at least we were no longer at 12,000 ft like we were in Tibet and there was plenty of fresh air to fill our lungs. Once we reached the top, it was time to take another staircase down by a different route that would lead us back to the exit. We are so glad we didn't wait another five years to retire, could we manage all the stairs then?
We had a little adventure getting a bus back to Chengdu. We were starting to get a little smug about our ability to navigate our way around China. As we left the park, we knew we had to take a taxi to one of the three bus stations in Leshan. At the gate, we were approached by a woman with a picture of a first-class tourist bus, and she indicated we could wait for it there instead of taking a taxi to the bus station. This seemed reasonable as there were lots our tourists leaving and most were probably heading for Chengdu. We had a cold drink and waited for the bus to arrive. About ten minutes later, a beat-up bus pulled up and she motioned for us to get on. I was a little hesitant, but perhaps this was just a shuttle bus that would take us to the station to transfer to the newer bus.
When we got on, I could see that all the other passengers were local people travelling, not Chinese tourists who had come to see the Buddha. Several were sleeping across two seats and looked like they had already spent a long time on the bus. I started complaining loudly to the others but they seemed resigned to spending the trip on the bus as we had already paid our fare. I think they were just too tired to do anything about the situation.
As we pulled out into the traffic, the driver started smoking and the prospect of two to three hours on the dirty bus filled with smoke was more than I could bear. I went up to the driver and indicated he should stop the bus as I wanted to get off. I somehow made it clear that I wanted my money back. I waved the tickets in the air and he seemed to understand. He reluctantly began to take some notes out of his wallet and then decided to call the woman who rounded us up on his mobile phone. After a few minutes of heated discussion, he handed over our full fare and we jumped off the bus.
High-fives from Anil, David and Jeong Ae for rescuing them from that deathtrap. Once the bus pulled away, Jeong Ae told me that a small child on the seat in front of us, threw up on Anil's shoe while I was arguing with the driver. They couldn't believe that I had managed to get our money back - they were just happy to be on the bus. We flagged down and passing taxi, drove to the bus station and within minutes were climbing on modern bus for our journey back to the city. As we settled in for the two-hour ride, the "hostess" on the bus put a movie on the video and handed us each a bottle of mineral water. Now that's travelling in the style we are more accustomed to. Maybe the Buddha was watching out for us too.