Pandas, Buddhas and other giant things

Trip Start Jul 12, 2003
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Friday, October 10, 2003

Chengdu is in Sichuan province, home to China's spiciest food, the world's largest Buddha statue, and best of all - giant pandas! We stayed in the heart of the city at Sam's Guesthouse and were surprised at the amount of construction going on around us - it's like all the old streets and buildings are being torn down and demolished to make way for highrise apartments and new shops. The city was so polluted and dusty as a result, but there was so much to see and do in Chengdu we tried to ignore it!

We headed out to the famed Giant Panda Breeding Research Base which was by far the best zoo or animal centre we've seen so far in Asia - no rusty little cages with concrete floors here! There were large, green, open spaces and it all seemed well-maintained. There were pandas of all different ages - cheeky two year olds climbing trees and eating apples, a mother and baby sleeping, and three tiny babies of various ages in humidicribs. The youngest was only a week or so old and was so tiny, pink and fragile looking. There was also a set of twins in another enclosure, and a section for red pandas (which kind of look like squirrels or something, nothing like "real" pandas!). The giant pandas were gorgeous, and it was the best place we visited in Chengdu.

One day we went out to a nearby city, Leshan, to visit the world's largest buddha statue. The Grand Buddha is 71 metres high and carved into a cliff on a riverfront across from the city. Construction on the buddha began in 713AD. There are gardens, temples and pagodas in the complex so there was quite a bit to see. We walked down what seemed like a million stairs to the base of the buddha and it really was an awesome sight looking up at it. Even the feet alone (in fact, even the toes alone!) were enormous.

On the subject of all things Buddhist, we also visited the Wenshu Temple in Chengdu which had a monastery on the grounds, a large teahouse, a vegetarian restaurant (we had a "fake fish" made of mashed potato - sounds weird but it was tasty!) and an underground crypt. We stumbled upon this by accident as it wasn't signposted in English, and found ourselves walking through corriders of gold drawers for urns of ashes. The temple had a great atmosphere, nice gardens and bundles of burning incense everywhere -it was a great place to spend a few hours exploring.

There were heaps of street vendors in the city selling snacks like toffee apples and corn on the cob, and skewers of meat which get boiled in chilli oil. It was great to look at but difficult to determine what meat was what, so we were a bit scared to try them! There was the usual contrast found in Chinese cities of the poor street vendors and beggars with the huge mega malls and department stores. Interestingly, there was a huge statue of Chairman Mao overlooking all of these signs of China's now capitalistic tendencies, including McDonalds and KFC - a sure sign that communism is alive but not well in China these days!
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