Sunday, January 2, 2011

Mount E'Mei and the Leshan Buddha

Many travelers to China will spend one or two days in Chengdu to visit the Giant Panda Base or Wolong (which has been closed since the 2008 earthquake). An activity that sometimes sadly gets forgotten is a visit to the Leshan Buddha Statue and Mount Emei. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sights and are spectacular. If you wish to go to the top of Mount Emei and explore the entire mountain and the nearby Buddha you will need at least two days. However, if time is short you can easily do a roundtrip Chengdu one-day tour where you see the Leshan Buddha by boat and visit the half waypoint at Mount E’Mei. Driving time from the mountain to Chengdu is about 2 hours.

The Leshan Buddha is the largest sitting Buddha in the world. It was built during the Tang Dynasty in 713 AD. It was carved right into a cliff face on the confluence of the Minjand, Dadu, and Qingyi rivers. It was built by a monk who witnessed many boats crash on this stretch of the river. He built the Buddha to watch over and protect the sailors from harm. Many of the local Chinese believe that the statue is magical and three times since it has been built it has closed its eyes when there has been great despair in China. You can view the statue either up close and walk on a staircase built into the rock from the bottom of the foot to the top of his head or by boat from the river below where you can get the full view of the sculpture. The boat ride lasts about 45 minutes in total so if you are short on time and want to see the entire sculpture it is a good option. The Buddha is so large that if you opt to see it up close you will on be able to see (and photograph) portions at a time. The boat is about 10 dollars and takes you both up close to the cliff face to the sitting Buddha and then farther away to see the entire cliff structure. The boat ride was nice and there were many interesting birds flying around, however, I was the only westerner on the ship and the Chinese seemed more interested in photographing me than the Buddha. I got very frustrated as they all stuck their cameras in my face and played paparazzi. My only other grievance with the boat ride is that they position the boat at a certain angle so the best place to photograph the Buddha is on the front of the ship, which they then cordon off and charge an extra few dollars to enter to take pictures. It is not much money, but it frustrated me because I felt continuously scammed out of my money at any tourist destination in China. However, it is a necessary evil if you want to see the statue and it is pretty amazing to see so it is well worth the trip.
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A short 15-minute drive from the Leshan Buddha is Mount Emei, the highest of the Four Sacred Buddhist Mountains of China measuring 10,167 ft. The mountain has many Buddhist temples scattered on top and on its sides some dating as far back as the 1st Century AD. If you are an avid hiker the trip to the top is a wonderful one or two day hike, however if you prefer a more leisurely route you can take a cable car both to the half way point or the top and hike smaller distances by the summit. I chose to take the cable car up to the half way point and then hike down the longer scenic route, which took about 2 hours. The route is very beautiful and along the way you pass many old temples, bridges, statues and beautiful forest surroundings. The route is completely made up of stairs leading down the entire way and it is easy cardio, but it uses leg muscles most of us don’t usually use and halfway down my knees were knocking together and my calves were sore for days. If you want to see the scenic route, but don’t want to walk there are local men who will carry you down on chairs for a small fee, which even if you don’t want to do is fun to watch others do.
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Like at the Leshan Buddha I felt a bit scammed out of my money at the beautiful old mountain because you have to keep paying small fees. Only local cars can approach the mountain so you have to get out of the car or bus you came on and pay for the local bus to get you to the base of the mountain, then there is a fee for the cable car, and fees for each temple you wish to enter. I pulled my wallet out 6 or 7 times, which felt a little incongruous with the beautiful holy surroundings. It doesn’t even add up to too much money, I just wish it could be paid all at once because the constant extra fees is what made me feel cheated. Once I got past that feeling I thoroughly enjoyed the mountain. It was a very cold day when I visited and I didn’t get to see any of the famous monkeys that live on the mountain and supposedly like to steal candies and water bottles from the tourists, but they are supposed to be very fun to see. I did get to see many small dogs though and had a great time playing with them and feeding them. The Chinese are starting to change their attitudes towards dogs, but many of them, especially in rural areas, are still mistreated. No one could understand why I was spending my money to buy food to just give it to the dogs. A few times I even had a crowd around me as I fed scrawny little puppies probably the only meal they would have that week. Many of them laughed and mocked me and suggested I take them home with me or marry them. If I could have taken those puppies with me I would have in an instant, but unfortunately I still had another month and a half of travel left (plus I think immigration would have stopped me). It was an interesting example of the difference between a developed and developing country because in America no one would have thought it strange for me to feed a sad starving puppy, but in China where many of the people are starving themselves they were baffled by my actions.
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