Sichuan (pop 84 million) November 2014
History. In the Warring States period (475-221 BC), the famed engineer Li Bing harnessed the flood-prone Min River with his revolutionary weir system, the Dujiangyan Irrigation Project, and still protects locals from floods, 2200 years after it was constructed! It’s one reason why this part of China is known for being so fertile. It was the capital of the Qin dynasty in the 3rd century BC. The kingdom of the Shu (a name by which the province is still known) ruled as an independent state during the Three Kingdom period (AD 220-80).
More recently, an estimated 10% of the population starved to death in the Great Leap Forward. In the late 70s, agricultural and economic reforms put Sichuan back on the map. Plots of land were let out to individual farmers on the proviso that a portion of the crops be sold back to the government, was so successful it became the national model. This fertile land continues to produce more than 10% of the nations grain, soybeans, pork and other crops.
Tragedy struck in May 2008 when a 7.9 earthquake hit the province’s central region killing an estimated 88,000 people and left millions more injured or homeless. The rebuilding effort in the remote, mountainous region has taken many years. The road linking Chengdu with Jiuzhaigou took four years to reopen. New towns and villages dot the region.
Language. Sichuanese is a Mandarin dialect but is different enough that standard Mandarin speakers have difficulty. Tibetan-Burman languages are spoken by the Tibetan and the Yi.
Snow blanketed the mountains around the Jiuzhaigou airport. I came to this north, central part of Sechuan to see two national parks – Huanglong and Jiuzhalgou. Their attraction lies in the fact that they are limestone/karst mountains and the water that flows from them is highly mineralized with calcium compounds. When the water flows down the valleys it forms travertine dikes and dams that produce terraces with pools of bright turquoise water. The depth of the color is dependent on the depth of the water and reaches an intense blue in the deepest lakes. Unlike the spectacular blue lakes of the Canadian Rockies (think Lake Louise, Moraine, Peyto or) where the blueness is from glacial flour suspended in the water and thus not clear, here the water is crystal clear. You can see to the bottom of every lake with complete clarity. The travertine terracing tends to produce many waterfalls in addition to the pools and lakes.
TRAVERTINE is a form of limestone deposited by mineral springs, especially hot springs. Travertine exists in white, tan, cream-colored, and even rusty varieties. It is formed by a process of rapid precipitation of calcium carbonate from solution in ground and surface waters. Supersaturated alkaline waters degas CO2 resulting in an increase in pH. Since carbonate solubility decreases with increased pH, precipitation is induced. In a limestone cave, it can form stalactites, stalagmites, and other speleothems. Macrophytes, bryophytes, algae, cyanobacteria, and other organisms often colonize the surface of travertine and are preserved, giving travertine its distinctive porosity. Tufa is similar but softer and extremely porous and forms in ambient-temperature water. Some springs have temperatures high enough to exclude organisms and are, in general, less porous than tufa.
When pure and fine, travertine is white, but often it is brown to yellow due to impurities.
Travertine is often used as a building material. The Romans mined deposits of travertine for building temples, aqueducts, monuments, bath complexes, and amphitheaters such as the Colosseum, the largest building in the world constructed mostly of travertine. Other notable buildings using travertine extensively include the Sacré-Cœur Basilica in Paris and the 20th-century Getty Center in Los Angeles, California, and Shell-Haus in Berlin. These latter two used imported travertine from Tivoli and Guidonia in Italy.
Travertine is one of several natural stones that are used for façades, wall cladding, and flooring especially paving patio and garden paths. The relative softness of the stone, combined with its pitted holes and troughs, make travertine flooring difficult to finish and maintain
Italy had a near-monopoly on the world travertine market but now significant supplies are quarried in mainly Turkey, Iran, Mexico and Peru. Two or three small travertine producers operate in the western United States. U.S. demand for travertine is about 0.85 million tons per year, almost all of it imported.
I caught the airport bus that surprisingly stops for 4 hours in Huanglong National Park and then continues on to Jiuzhalgou. Both these parks are very expensive with a 220¥ entrance fee. Add 80¥ for the cable car in Huanglong and 90¥ for the bus in Jiuzhalgou, and each visit costs $50. The ‘trails’ in both parks are completely constructed boardwalk. Despite that, this is spectacular nature and well worth the time and money. Both are Unesco World Heritage listed.
HUANGLONG NATIONAL PARK
On the bus were a lovely Chinese couple from London, Ontario. Besides being pleasant and interesting, is was so nice to have good English speakers to iron out the travel issues. We caught the cable car up the mountain. From the cable car runs a boardwalk horizontally at he 3560m elevation. The sudden altitude change causes problems for many. It climbs minimally and continues around a high lake and then descends down the valley past a stunning collection of small, terraced travertine ponds containing bright blue and turquoise water. The yellow rock often cascades down long slopes and at one point the water falls over a 10m travertine waterfall. We took 4 hours to make the circuit down the valley and would not have been able to see everything without the cable car.
The forest is a great mix of large pine, larch and cypress trees along with many rhododendrons and azaleas, that would bloom in the spring and summer.
JIUZHALGOU NATIONAL PARK
We then had a 3-hour drive to Jiuzhalgou. The major ethnic group here is Tibetan with their traditional 2-story houses decorated in classic fashion. Buddhism reigns supreme with stupas and prayer flags concentrated in the villages. There were originally nine Tibetan villages (Jiuzhalgou means ‘Nine Village Valley) here but now only three are inhabited. Summer is busiest but October is the best time to visit to see fall colors at their peak.
There are many hostels near the national park entrance. I lucked out and ended up staying in a room with two great young Chinese men with good English. One booked my bus to Chengdu for me and I spent the entire day hiking with the other in Jiuzhalgou. Gordon turned out to be an intelligent, well-read guy with a great world-view. I had a chance to explore all sorts of Chinese cultural issues. he stated that he thought China was so much more successful than other BRIC countries because Chinese were much more hard-working.
We were up at 05:30 to have breakfast and get to the entrance well before 07:00 when tickets go on sale. The line-ups can be prodigious and as this was a Sunday, crowds were anticipated to be huge in this, the most popular national park in China. My ticket was half-price (age 60-69) and they are free if over 70. I forgot to ask at Huanglong but I imagine, it would have been half-priced there too.
We were on the first bus. The buses are hop-on-hop-off and have a video that gives a complete tour-guide experience talking about the park and each attraction as you pass it with stilted English subtitles. After about 14kms, the road splits. The western side has many more attractions.
The mountains and trees were covered in fresh snow with the peaks obscured. Because of the snow, we were let off at Arrow Bamboo Lake and started walking in 3” of snow. You then pass a series of perfect turquoise lakes and waterfalls on boardwalk on the other side of the road. At Mirror Lake we kept descending to end up at the fantastic 300m long Nourilang Waterfall that drops 15m over a shelf of travertine.
It is a short walk up to the Nourilang junction to catch the bus up the eastern valley, 18kms to Long Lake. Again in snow, it is a short walk down to Colored Lake, another small, deep turquoise body of water. The crowds were massive by this time. It is another short walk down to another bus stop for the drive back down to the junction. A trail exists the entire way but was blocked and many boards removed. As this is primarily a walk in the woods with almost no sites to see and only two seasonal lakes, it is much better to save the time to walk the 14kms back to the park entrance. You pass two Tibetan Villages, many-colored lakes, waterfalls and eventually follow the rushing Zechawa River all on constructed boardwalk. It was a long walking day in one of the more beautiful parts of the world. I don’t believe there are lakes like this anywhere else.
A comparable place is Havasu Creek, west of Grand Canyon National Park in the Havasupai Indian Reservation in Northern Arizona. It has two much higher waterfalls, the same turquoise water, travertine, and a gorgeous eight-mile hike down to the Colorado River, but no lakes or ponds. The intense color of the water is also comparable to many of the geyser fields in Yellowstone.
I caught the bus at 06:40 to Chengdu. The normally 10 hour trip took 8 hours. We went through spectacular mountains before coming down onto the flat plains around Chengdu. As my hostel was in north Chengdu, I asked to be let off at one of the metro stations. I think bus drivers take a course in asshole to qualify. Our bus driver was beyond unpleasant.
In Chengdu (pop 4.1 million), I took a city bus to the Tomb of Wang Jian (847-918) and the drivers were likewise. Wang Jian was the emperor of the Shu kingdom and is buried in the only above ground tomb in China. The tomb itself is decorated with 24 musicians playing different instruments. It is the best carving of a musical troupe in China and his sculpture, the best lifelike carving of a Chinese king. I then went to the Wenshu Temple, a Tang dynasty monastery, to hear the monks chant at 18:00. The square in Chengdu has the largest Mao statue in the country.
Giant Panda Breeding Research Base.
Sechuan is the only province in China with wild pandas and it is thought that there are only about 2000 in the wild. It would be extremely unlikely to see one there. They have become one of the most iconic endangered animals in the world and grace the World Wildlife Federation logo.
Half their habitat has been destroyed in the last 20 years. Forests have been cleared for farmland and wood cut for fuel so that they have been pushed higher and higher into the mountains of Western Sichuan. It is believed that some groups of pandas are too small to survive as about 300 are needed to form a stable breeding population.
They are a peculiar bear, having a carnivore stomach but they only eats plants – and only a particular kind of bamboo – that is high in cellulose but low in nutrition so that they need to consume large volumes every day. They are also a slow reproducer having babies every two to three years. They females only come into heat for about 72 hours per year and there is only a 12-24 hour window that mating will result in a pregnancy. Half the pregnancies result in twins but it is uncommon for more than one to survive as the mother almost always abandons one of them. The cubs remain with the mom for 18 months during which milk is the primary nutrition.
Even though captive breeding programs are controversial, it was thought that establishing this center was the only way to possibly save this animal in the wild. So over 25 years ago, this center was established 20kms north of Chengdu. Today it is the world’s leading panda breeding center. The goal is not to create a man-made solution to a man-made problem but a safe haven as the fate of the pandas was so uncertain.
The right kind of bamboo doesn’t even grow here. Almost all the bamboo is harvested by villagers high in the mountains. They select and pick the correct kind of bamboo, carry it down in 60kg bundles and load it into trucks. The quantity required is huge – one truckload lasts the center only one day. It is also too hot for them in Chengdu as it is much lower. Air conditioning is provided to prevent sunstroke.
The ultimate goal is always to release them back into the wild. It was tried once before and failed. The first goal was to produce the critical number of 300 pandas and then wean them off human life support. As there was little that could be done to save the panda in the wild. 67 panda reserves have been established as reintroduction center. Hunting and logging are banned and farmers have been paid to return fields to ‘wild. There are three relocation zones, each higher and wilder than the one before. The entire relocation process is expected to take 15 years. Hopefully these once captive bears will reunite with those in the wild. No on knows if it will be successful. Fifty years ago, no panda had ever been bred in captivity. They don’t know even if the released bears have the skills to survive. These bears are completely dependent on their keepers.
Mating requires special techniques. The males are not active enough to develop the hind leg strength necessary to mate, so they are given ‘sexercises’ by teasing with food to ‘dance’ and stand on their hind legs. Most of the captive males don’t mate. By nature they are solitary. During the mating season, the males and females follow scent markers. Males leave their scent as high as possible in trees (they are very good climbers), and this is thought to be one way for the female to gauge the virility of the prospective father. In the wild the female will try to mate with as many males as she can. Each sex finds the other by smelling the aphrodisiacs left in urine.
At the center, urine is collected from the floor of the pens of sexually mature females (once they are at least 4 ½ years old), and tested in a lab for hormone levels to lessen the guess-work of when to put the males and females together. The males are brought to adjoining pens and keepers use bamboo sticks to stimulate the anal glands of the male and then presented to the female to see if she is interested. The captive bears have lost the knowledge of how to get into the right position and it may take several attempts to have coitus. It is a myth that they are not interested in sex, they are just picky about their partners. Often artificial insemination is used as they must act fast or then wait for another whole year. Sperm from a number of males is used if possible. And then they have no way of knowing if the female is pregnant and must wait anywhere from 11 weeks to 11 months to find out.
There is an inbreeding problem as 60% of the present breeding population is descended from just four males. As a result insemination is coordinated with zoos all over the world. The sperm is banked and males are chosen with the best genetic match. Paternity is checked. It is possible to store sperm for many years.
This may end the controversy of taking China’s pandas around the world. The first was in 1937 and the next in 1938 when one was taken to the Brookfield zoo in Chicago. That started a pandamania as they were sent to zoos all over. In 1949, the CPP started to use them as political tools. In 1953, twenty were sent as gifts to Russia and North Korea (to cement relationships) and to the West to forge relationships. In 1962, two were sent to the USA, in 1064, two to London. In the 1990’s, this was stopped and the practice of loaning pairs for $1 million per year was stared. The Atlanta Zoo eventually gave birth to a cub. All cubs retain Chinese citizenship and they belong to China. They are often sent back by private jet to great fanfare.
By a biological quirk, they can come into heat and not conceive but have exactly the same hormone levels.
At birth, the newborn is hairless and weighs just 100 grams. The first days are critical. As the second twin is so unlikely to survive, it is taken to an incubator immediately. The two cubs are then switched throughout the day and night, usually ten times a day on average. The mother is distracted with honey water and the cubs exchanged. The mother has a cub with her at all times. Both spend much of the first 5-6 weeks in an incubator, get supplementary feedings and weighed constantly. This results in almost 100% survival of both cubs. They are in an incubator for the first six months and then are moved into their own pens. The mother bonds well with both twins.
It takes 1-2 weeks after birth for the black markings to begin to appear and by one month, there are black ears, eye patches, legs and shoulder bands. By 6-8 weeks, the eyes open. By 90 days, the first baby tooth appears (they have two sets of teeth). At 100 days, the limbs are able to support the body and they start to crawl. By one year, they start to eat bamboo but their diet is still primarily milk until weaning at 1 ½ years when all their primary teeth are in. The average daily weight gain is about 100gms.
The 1½ to 5 years old bears are subadults before they are sexually mature. Bamboo is rich in cellulose but poor in nutrition. Healthy growth is fundamental to late reproductive success. They are most active from 2-3 years of age but mainly eat, sleep, play and investigate. A lot of time is spent in trees. The subadult bears at Chengdu have bedrooms and two yards as the need lots of space and a complex topography.
The Giant Panda Breeding Research Base is a big, modern, well-maintained place. There are a maze of walkways through woods and bamboo groves and many pandas to see in several different enclosures. Adults and subadults are common – they are usually sitting in a relaxed posture munching on bamboo. Many are in trees. Mornings are the best times to visit as then when they are most active and tend to be feeding. The babies can be seen around 10:00 and nine toddlers were sleeping and crawling around in close view. It is possible to hold a baby for 2000¥ ($370).
Getting There. From Mix Hostel, turn left out of the door and walk a few blocks east to Jiefang Rd and catch bus #1 heading north to the Zhou Jui Si Bus Station. From here, bus #87 takes you to the front gates of the Panda Breeding Research Base. Return the same way. Admission 58¥ with no seniors discount.
The tremendous devotion to pandas has roots in science. When humans see pandas, we are subconsciously affected by what developmental biologists call neoteny, the retention into adulthood of certain infant characteristics. That cute baby face and toddler-like behaviour boost out body’s production of oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel loving and protective.
With the pointed teeth inherited from her carnivorous forebears, they are almost completely vegetarian. Wolong, in the isolated corner of China’s southwestern Sichuan province, is the misty mountainous locus of China’s national panda project.
China has concentrated on offsetting plummeting wild-panda numbers by trying to breed captive animals.
By the end of the 2000s, the project yielded enough cubs, after endless tweeks to panda diet and better matchmaking, to lead to a glut of captive pandas and what the Chinese state media have called “a new phase of socialist panda development”, coaxing captive pandas back into the wild. Caretakers wear panda outfits so that babies don’t see humans in human clothes, and are less likely to beg for bamboo from villagers when released into the wild. No one believed China could breed so many baby pandas, but they think they can succeed in introducing pandas into the wild. If they can, the rewilding will be a publicity coup for a nation known for its voracious appetite for animal parts of other endangered species, from rhino horn and elephant ivory to shark fin and bear bile.
The giant panda is the world’s most charismatic icon of natural diversity, a poster animal for conservation, whose soulful gaze graces the logo of the World Wildlife (WWF). But for its native land, the panda offers an even greater promotional opportunity, Since the days of Mao Zedong, Beijing has given pandas to favored nations, each zoo animal a pawn in international relations. At a time when China’s economic and military rise elicits reactions from envy to anxiety overseas, the panda – cuddly, peaceful – helps the country present a less threatening face to the world. The panda’s ancestors killed and ate meat, like other bears, but somehow they lsot that instinct. That’s an important message for China to send overseas, that it promotes peace, not just in China but for the whole world.
Pandas are also growing into a tidy business for China. Rather than donating the animals outright, Beijing loans pandas to foreign zoos for 10-year stints. The rental bill charged amounts to $1 million a year per pair, and that doesn’t include the hundreds of thousands of dollars needed for the animals’ upkeep. Conservation is poorly funded in China, and the nation’s wildlife authorities count on foreign infusions of cash for panda research and habitat protection. In addition, any pandas born overseas must eventually be returned to China. After all these years, the panda remains a political animal.
Ancient Chinese texts rarely mention the native animals. Westerners first learned about them in 1869 when a French missionary saw a distinctive pelt and bought a complete dead specimen from local hunters. In 1929 Chicago’s Field Museum put two mounted specimens on display courtesy of Theodore Jr. and Kermit Roosevelt (sons of the 26th US president). Other museums funded copycat expeditions. As dead bears lost their allure, in 1936, a wild cub named Su-Lin was smuggled out of China in a wicker basket by Ruth Harkness with an export permit reading “One dog, $20.00.” She soon sold the animal to Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo where pandamania was instantaneous.
But the modern era of panda diplomacy began in 1972, when US president Richard Nixon traveled to the People’s Republic of China to begin normalizing relations with the communist country. For decades, the US had favored Taiwan with diplomatic ties. Beijing responded to the warming of relations by bequeathing two pandas to the National Zoo in Washington, DC (In exchange, the Americans presented a pair of musk oxen to China). Washington has hosted a burly procession of pandas ever since. The political implications of having pandas in the nation’s capital are huge. The Chinese embassy is just down the road, and it is a great symbol for US-China relations.
In August 2015, panda twins were born in Washington. One died within days, while the surviving cub was named Bei Bei, a diminutive denoting preciousness. The name was bestowed at a September ceremony by US First Lady Michelle Obama and her Chinese counterpart, Peng Liyuan. While Peng’s husband, President Xi Jinping, embarked on his first state visit to the US – amid concerns over Beijing’s territorial assertiveness in the South China Sea and mounting cyberattacks that the US government has traced to the Chinese military – everyone celebrated with a piebald baby born no bigger than a stick of butter. The panda hugging contrasted with events of 2010, when, just days after US President Barack Obama announced that he would meet with the Dalai Lama – the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader shunned by Beijing – China recalled two pandas born in the US.
Today 51 pandas are scattered around the globe in at least 20 zoos, in about a dozen countries. The pandas still go to favoured nations. Next in line are South Korea and the Netherlands. Angela Merkel has wants a panda pair for Zoo Berlin. Conversely, in 2014, when Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 disappeared on its way from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing, with a majority of Chinese passengers onboard, Chinese authorities delayed the scheduled export of a pair of pandas to the Malaysian capital.
Canada, after promoting lucrative natural-resource deals, like uranium exports to fuel Beijing’s nuclear industry, Toronto Zoo received two VIPs – very important pandas. Toronto is a multicultural city with a large Asian population and having the charismatic species will strengthen the connections between China and Canada.
For a time China gifted pandas to foreign countries; now the government rents out pairs for a million dollars a year and retains ownership of cubs born abroad.
When Wolong was first established as a panda preserve in 1983, there were no roads, no electricity, no phone lines and very few pandas – just 10 in the sanctuary and fewer than 1000 in the country. China tried everything to boost the population through captive breeding. For years, captive pandas went at the mating process backward, upside down,, or not at all. But by the 2000s, pregnancies proliferated, largely because of artificial insemination. The focus at Wolong shifted to keeping frail panda cubs alive. Early on, fewer than 20% of babies survived. In 2015, 26 were born, and 23 made it past the critical newborn stage.
Six pandas have gone through the rewilding program so far, the last one released in November. Three have died: one from disease wile in the final sages of shifting to nature, one probably from a bamboo-rat bite, and one after tumbling from a tree, most likely following a fight with another panda. Early in 2016, two more pandas will be sent into nature. Historically, reintroduction to the wild has proved challenging. Most animals perished.
A survey last year found that the number of wild pandas had increased to 1,864, from nearly 1,600 a decade before. That’s good news after years of declining numbers due mainly to human intrusion into their habitat. But wild pandas remain isolated in disjointed, degraded environments where inbreeding threatens their health. Their population still ranks below that of other endangered animals, like the rhino and tiger, which teeter on the verge of extinction. One bamboo blight or virus could terminate a species. The reality is that they’re probably doomed in the wild. The only pandas in the future may be in cages and stop playing the game that zoos are doing all this for conservation, because they’re not. Unless animals are put first and foremost, instead of humans, panda conservation is not likely to work.
Designating protective zones belongs the power of China’s siloed bureaucracy, not with the people who run the programs. China now has 67 panda reserves, but they are disconnected and, in a nation with little arable land and the world’s largest human population, under constant threat of encroachment. Unless the preserves can be linked and fully protected, they may be too fragmented to ensure the animal’s long-term survival. Because the panda is a solitary animal that almost exclusively eats one food, it is particularly vulnerable to habitat degradation. The government also decides which country gets a panda.
Proponents of panda diplomacy hope the loan money will foster conservation in China. At the end of 2015, there were 423 captive pandas, well beyond the 300 threshold needed to sustain the population with enough genetic diversity. If Chinese are dedicated to protecting their national symbol, perhaps awareness of vulnerable animals from Africa and Asia – used in traditional Chinese medicine and cuisine – will follow. Even at the panda preserves, there are many other struggling species that would profit from habitat protection, such as the takin or golden monkey. But pandas are the one animal everyone cares about.
A 2014 WWF survey found a 52% decline in vertebrate species over the last 40 years, in what it calls the earth’s sixth mass extinction, due to habitat degradation, human exploitation and climate change. The world cannot stand by and do nothing. Humans created the problem.
Grand Buddha at Leshan
It was then a two-hour bus south to Leshan (pop 160,000) to see the Grand Buddha, the largest Buddha statue in the world. The 1200 year-old statue is carved into a cliff face overlooking the confluence of the Dadu and Min Rivers. And at 71m, he is definitely big. His ears stretch for 7m, his shoulders span 28m, and each of his big toes is 8.5m long. A Buddhist monk conceived the project in AD 713 and took 90 years to complete. Inside the body, hidden from view, is a water-drainage system to prevent weathering. But he is showing his age and soil erosion is an ongoing problem.
To appreciate his magnitude, get an up-close look at his head, then descend the steep, winding stairway for the Lilliputian view. Avoid weekends and holidays, as crowds on the stairway bring the pace to a standstill.
I could not be working things out any better. Most tourists on the ‘normal circuit’ visit Leshan and the Grand Buddha as a day trip from Chengdu. Our hostel offered a combined trip of the Panda Breeding Center and Leshan as a day trip for 480¥ ($80). I decided to not return to Chengdu, but continue on through Sechuan on my way to Chongqing and the Yangsi River/Three Gorges Dam cruise via Leshan, Zigong and the Dazu Buddhist Caves. I also elected to not go into southern Sechuan to see the Bamboo Sea (out of season) and the Hanging Coffins (difficult to get to), both visited from the city of Yibin.
It was the perfect way to see Leshan. I found a great hotel (Jin Tao Yuan Hotel – 1580904758) right at the south end of the city near the confluence of the rivers – basically right across the river from the Buddha. At 158¥ ($26), it was modern, clean and nice for another non-dorm room stay. I walked around the clean downtown with all its neon, Caucasian mannequins and store names in English (I haven’t quite figured this out as nobody reads English but I believe that it is associated with sophistication). A young Chinese woman wanted to sit with me at dinner (I presume to practice her English) and we walked around after. Both sides of the river are lit with coloured lights on the trees and cliffs making for a pretty scene.
I left the hotel at 07:00 and walked along the river, crossed the large bridge over the Min River and then back along the river to the Grand Buddha. It was a lovely way to spend 45 minutes as I watched Leshan wake up. Old men had their transistor radios on to the news or music (that certainly dates them), both old men and women were doing tai chi, men were jogging shirtless and many others were doing the funny stretches, body thumping and arm swinging so characteristic of Chinese exercising. I passed through a large, ancient stone gate adorned with the four Heavenly Kings (an Indian Buddhist legend centers on Jiantuoluo with its four peaks – these fierce guardians protect the four directions; they are called the four directional gods in Bhutan).
I was first at the ticket booth and first at the Grand Buddha. Other tourists had complained of the enormous queues (up to an hour and a half) at the Buddha, but I had it all to myself (in fact I didn’t see another tourist all day). He is big, and covered with ferns and plant growth. After the climb to the top from the ticket booth, one descends on a very steep walkway cut into the cliff with ancient carvings on one side and the Buddha on the other. A funny sign about not throwing garbage down into the river said “No Parabolics” referring to the arc of something being thrown.
The exit is on the other side and is the beginning of the up-and-down Cliff Road to see all the other sites – a fishing village and the Mahaoya Tombs (500 monks were buried here in the honeycomb caves; there is a nice small museum with pottery animals, kitchen ware, lesser functionaries, and massive, intricately carved stone coffins). After crossing a lovely domed bridge to an island, it is another stiff climb to Wuyou Temple, also built in the Tang dynasty. A monk got pissed off when I hit the large wood tortoise gong more than once (I can’t resist these and the great brass bowl ‘bells’ with their perfect tone). Contrary to Buddhist monks in SE Asia where many young men go to acquire an education and who all speak English, these monks were a fairly ignorant lot. Beside the temple is Luohan Hall containing 500 completely different life-sized, terracotta celestial beings all with different postures and facial expressions. The hall also contains a fantastic 1000 armed statue of Guanyin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy (Avalokiteshvara in Sanskrit). It was another big descent, and a walk through a village and over a bridge following the signs for the bus stop. On this, the opposite side of the mountain from the Buddha, tombs and temples is a recently constructed Oriental Buddhist Theme Park housing 3000 Buddha statues including a 170m – long reclining Buddha, the world’s largest. I didn’t go. After a few hitches on the bus, I made it back to my hotel. This is not a day for the unfit as there are a lot of stairs.
I then caught the city bus (#9 or 12) to the Central Bus Station. Buses in Lashan are 1¥, quite the deal, and I had a lot of fun with the other passengers trying to figure out when to get off. Instead of the 480¥ for the tour to the pandas and Leshan from my Chengdu hostel, I spent 380¥ for all my transportation, entrance fees and (not included in the tour as it is a day trip) hotel room and was a few hour further down the road. This again shows how much better it is to avoid tours, travel independently and have a much better adventure.
The 2-hour bus to Zigong left at 12:10 (cost 54¥ or $9) and passed through lovely, lush countryside to get another view of China. I stayed at the Rongguang Business Hotel (take bus #1 from the bus depot). The rack rate was 385¥ but they gave me a small double for 100¥. It is always possible to haggle on hotel rates.
Zigong (pop 693,000). Rarely visited by tourists, it was the center of Chinese salt production for 2000 years. The Salt Industry History Museum is absorbing with amazing exhibits that tell the whole story. The real attraction though, is the 1736 guild hall building the museum is in. It has spectacular swooping roof lines, big courtyards and intricate wood carvings. The 1001m deep artesian Shenhai Salt Well was the world’s deepest well when it was built in 1835 and remains the deepest salt well ever drilled using the traditional mining technique of percussion drilling (boasted as the fifth invention of ancient China, it was the precursor of oil drilling). A 20m high derrick towers above the 20cm-wide mouth of the well. The well also produces a large amount of natural gas which powers the cauldrons. It still operates as a salt provider (although with all modern equipment) and several salt cauldrons bubble away. The old technique involved bamboo brine pipes, water buffalo to turn the winch and soybeans to separate impurities.
Dinosaur Museum. Built on top of an excavation site, it has one of the world’s largest concentrations of dinosaur fossils and a fine collection of reassembled skeletons. The large number of fossils is thought to represent a dumping ground from other sites due to large floods. Bus #35 from across the street of the hotel takes 25 minutes.
In the morning after visiting the salt attractions, I took a bus, three hours to the Dazu in Chongqing Province to see the Buddhist Caves on my way to Chongqing and the Yangzi River Cruise through the Three Gorges Dam.