Chengdu

The slogan for the whole of Sichuan province is “more than just pandas” in a clear nod to the area’s most famous resident and biggest draw for tourists. Wanting to put that slogan to the test, we decided to spend our first day in the province’s capital, Chengdu, seeing what else it had to offer.

To our delight, it had many, and, conveniently enough, most of those places fell within walking distance of our hostel: Chengdu Mix Hostel Backpackers. So, after a very modest breakfast of toast and instant coffee, we grabbed our umbrellas and headed out into the city, our first destination being Wenshu Monastery.

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The main hall of the monastery
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Lion faces on one of the building’s roofs
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Finding our way through the grounds

Just coming from one of the most beautiful national parks in all of China, if not the world, it was a bit disheartening being in a city again, which is why the monastery was a perfect starting point for our time in Chengdu. Upon stepping into its grounds, the noise and bustling environment of the streets and shopping districts surrounding it all but vanished into a perfectly peaceful balance of gardens and temples, offering us a much needed middle ground in our transition from the natural world to the industrial one. There were people there of course, but we seemed to be more of a bother to them than they were to us. Nothing ruins an 8 a.m. tai chi session like a couple of camera wielding tourists idly wandering in circles around you.

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A scene in the monastery’s gardens
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One of the many statues encased throughout the grounds
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An elegant pagoda

As we worked our way further into the grounds, we were met with familiar sights from countless other temples we have visited during our time in China. The gardens, buildings, and statues don’t vary drastically from one to the next, but, somehow, each temple still finds a way to distinguish itself from its peers, offering at least one thing that’s unique to that particular one. In the case of Wenshu Monastery, this came in two forms: one, a hall atop the main building where thousands of Buddha figurines sat encased in individual glass boxes, each one placed there as an offering from a congenial congregant (or so we guessed); and two, the fact that we had gotten there during prayer time and were able to see monks leading processions and prayers around the temple. As the latter began, the sound of gongs echoed off the walls of the closely clustered buildings, underscored by the uniformed murmuring of prayers. It was all very calming, but, not wanting to intrude too much on their time of worship, we didn’t stick around for very long, instead opting to begin our search for the exit.

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Some of the many Buddha figurines we saw in the main hall
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Monks leading prayers
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A monk heading towards the light

By the time we found it, late morning had arrived and we headed to the nearby Aidao nunnery for their daily vegetarian lunch. We wouldn’t have known about the lunch had our hostel not recommended it to us as one of the more unique experiences one could have in Chengdu. Eager to see why, we cluelessly strolled into the nunnery, hoping that the location and details of the lunch would be evident…they weren’t. So, through a series of simple questions (literally “where is lunch?”) aimed at anyone who would listen, we eventually found our way to the dining hall where one of the regulars took us under her wing and explained the process to us through a series of powerful jabbing points to her gaping mouth, then her stomach, then to the dining hall. If we hadn’t known lunch was available before meeting her, we most definitely would have afterwards.

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The main hall of Aidao Nunnery
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A man waiting for lunch to begin

The lunch, as we found out rather quickly, was a process as mechanical as it was charming. First, as communicated to us by our pantomiming new pal, we had to go to a little building at the far end of the grounds to get two bowls and a pair of chopsticks. Once we had those in hand, we could take a seat on the long, wooden benches of the dining hall, where we would wait for the nuns to come in and dish out our lunch. While we sat there, others trickled in, most of them with their own set of bowls and chopsticks in tow. This seemed to be a daily occurrence for them as made evident by their clear understanding of the intricate process of the lunch and the friendly nods and polite chitter chatter they exchanged with each other much in the same way that people do at Sunday mass.

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Bowls at the ready as everyone waits for the nuns to enter the dining hall

Once the nuns, barely distinguishable from their male counterparts with their bald heads and baggy robes, came in though, the room fell silent. The atmosphere turned meditative as the nuns rang a bell several times, sang a short hymn, and collected rice to be offered to one of the shrines outside the hall. Shortly after, one of the younger looking nuns who couldn’t have been much older than 16, began winding up and down the rows of tables, a cart with a large pot of vegetables trailing behind. One by one, each person received a steaming heap of oily greens slopped in their bowl and then immediately began shoveling the contents into their mouths. Being barely past 11:00 a.m. at that point, we knew hunger certainly wasn’t the reason, but we would soon find out what was. After the nun finished scooping out the first pot she went back and got another…and another…and another. Eventually we lost track of how many it added up to, all of our energy being dedicated to making sure we ate fast enough to make room for the next round of vegetables. Our chopstick skills have never been more vital.

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Nuns preparing rice for the offering

By the time it was all said and done, we must have eaten at least three bowls of food, which then made us wonder how much all of it would cost. Somehow, despite having zero experience with vegetarian lunches at Buddhist nunneries, we settled on the price of 30 RMB. We looked over to our friend to see how much she was pulling out and she held up a friendly three fingers. “Ah! We were right!,” we thought, only soon to find out that her gesture didn’t represent thirty as we had presumed but, quite literally, 3 RMB. For those who don’t know the conversion rate, that’s equivalent to about 50 cents for an entire day’s worth of food. This was a place that could have transformed itself into a tourist attraction and charged whatever price it wanted under the headline of a “unique experience,” but it didn’t. There were no signs outside the nunnery or people herding us to the dining hall and snatching our money as soon as we set foot inside in a desperate money grab that so many other places we’ve visited have fallen victim to. No, it seemed that the lunch was simply meant to benefit the public, whether it be spiritually or nutritionally. After the bells were rung again and everyone sang a closing hymn, we humbly walked back to wash our bowls and chopsticks before leaving.

For the rest of the afternoon, we spent our time hopping on and off buses to visit different shopping and historical districts in hopes of finding a worthy souvenir to take back to Shanghai with us. Eventually, our rambling took us to the city’s Tibetan district, a series of tree-encased lanes, bookended by stores selling everything a Buddhism-enthusiast’s heart could desire. From clothing stores selling monks’ robes and attire to jewelry shops selling prayer beads to ones filled with Buddha statues of every imaginable size, including monumental ones that looked like they belonged in a temple, the district seemingly had it all. Everything, that is, except what we were looking for unfortunately, so we left the area for the nearby Jinli Street, where we spent an hour or so squeezing our way around its crowded alleyways before calling it a day and heading back to our hostel in anticipation of seeing the pandas the next day.

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One of the shops in the Tibetan quarter
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One of the larger Buddhas that were on display wrapped up and ready to ship
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Lanterns hung along Jinli Street

Believe it or not, there’s such a thing as panda diplomacy, which is when China, in hopes of bolstering their relationship with certain countries, sends them a panda or two. Sure, they’re a bit less grand than shipping the Statue of Liberty across the ocean, but what better animal to link your national identity to than probably the most beloved one on the planet. Since the practice started in the 1970s with the opening of China to the world, the giant panda (or “big bear cat” in Chinese) has become an international icon. Whether it be their symbol for the whole of wildlife per their place on the WWF logo or fighting villains in the Kung Fu Panda trilogy, everyone seems to want a piece of the cuddly quadruped.

Wanting to see the cause of all of the (forgive us) panda-monium, we decided to spend our second day in Chengdu visiting its world-famous Panda Breeding Research Center. We had read articles about it in National Geographic before, highlighting their unique methods for taking care of the pandas (most notably workers dressing in panda costumes and spraying themselves with panda urine so that the cubs they hope to reintroduce into the wild never get accustomed to a human presence), but we had no idea what the actual park would be like for a tourist.

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Outside the Panda Breeding Research Center

After walking through the front gate, which was fittingly shaped like a giant contemporary-looking panda, we found ourselves on a path stretching into the bamboo forest ahead and immediately began walking down it. At convenient intervals along the way were wooden posts with arrows pointing us in different directions, which we would find out later in the day weren’t all that helpful as the park was a labyrinth, but they got us going in the right direction. The particular sign we were following at that time was pointing towards one of the several adult panda exhibits. Soon enough, we could see a crowd of people, and as we tiptoed our line of vision above their heads, we got our first glimpse of the main attraction.

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Walking through the thick bamboo groves that filled the park
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The park also had some beautiful tropical trees on display
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Getting ready to see some pandas

Rotund and munching away at some bamboo (we had gotten there during breakfast time), the panda had its audience captivated. Each grab for another bamboo shoot was cause to hold one’s breath in anticipation of watching it peel the skin off with its teeth and chomp a few inches off before reaching for some more. Anything outside of this routine was cause for a deep communal sigh of admiration from the crowd, whose bottled up excitement at seeing a panda was waiting to explode at the sight of something truly amazing like, perhaps a sneeze, or, cross your fingers, the panda walking. While our tone may sound exaggerated, it really isn’t. People absolutely adore pandas, us included, and a chance to see them so close with no glass in between was incredibly exciting.

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Breakfast time!
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Shelling a bamboo shoot
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Reaping the rewards

We must have sat and watched that first panda for at least half an hour, completely entranced (and a bit judgmental) at its endless eating, before moving on. As we bounced from one enclosure to the next, we quickly discovered that the only thing that rivaled the panda’s capacity to eat was its unparalleled capacity to sleep. Outside of these two basic components of existence, they didn’t seem to do much else, which made us wonder how exactly they made it in the wild for there are a number of other factors, outside of their infatuation with laziness, that make a strong case against their survival.

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Taking a much-deserved break from the labors of breakfast
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This particular panda has mastered the craft of existing somewhere between taking a nap and eating bamboo

For starters, the female panda can only be impregnated two or sometimes three days out of the entire year. If she and a male counterpart manage to mate in that time frame, there is about a fifty percent chance that the pregnancy will result in twins, which would be great for the panda population if it weren’t for the fact that they have very little energy. Despite eating lots and lots of bamboo (so much that they can defecate up to forty times a day), the panda’s stomach is still carnivorous in nature and, because of that, doesn’t absorb very much energy or nutrients from the bamboo, hence the eating and the sleeping. So, without enough energy to take care of both cubs, the mother must choose one to nurture and let the other die.

Mother Nature, it seems, has been trying to nudge the yin and yang patterned bear towards extinction for some time and yet they are still here and have been for 8 million years. Something we were very happy for as we walked around the park some more, catching a rare glimpse into the bears lively nature:

Seeing them at their cuddliest:

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A baby panda putting up absolutely no resistance to gravity
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A caretaker who we were envious of
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Baby pandas cuddling
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Figuring out how to walk

And even spotting a few red pandas (or as they’re know in the Shanghai Zoo: “lesser pandas”):

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The red pandas shared both a name with Giant Pandas and an affinity for napping
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Waking up a friend
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Contemplating life

By our third time around the park, we had seen everything we were able to and, after exiting through the belly of the giant panda gate that had welcomed us, we boarded a bus back to Chengdu to catch one of Sichuan’s famous mask-changing ceremonies.

Before being shown to our seats, we were taken to a waiting area and given a complimentary cup of tea to sip on until shortly before the beginning of the show. As we looked around the room, one sight stood out among the otherwise uninteresting spread of tables and people: that of a man bouncing from one person to the next to, to our bewilderment, clean their ears. Of all the things people want to do while they are waiting for something (read a magazine, browse the Internet, etc.), having your ears cleaned must certainly be at the bottom of most of those lists. Yet this man had somehow tapped into that niche market and seemed to be doing very well for himself in the process for at least one person from each table desired his services.

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Digging in!

With tools that looked more equipped to mine a mountain than an ear (including a head lamp!), the man was Edward Scissorhandian with all of his long and sharp utensils, picking and prodding each client’s ears for a minute or so before moving on to the next. As intriguing as it was to watch, there was no way we were letting him get anywhere near our ears, which wasn’t an issue as, before he made it to our side of the room, the theatre doors were opened and we filed in to our seats.

From the moment the show started to its conclusion, we were completely clueless as to what was happening on stage despite a loose storyline that was explained in English on giant screens hung around the theatre. Through all of the confusion and strangeness though, it was still incredibly entertaining and had plenty of other things to hold our interest, including outlandish costumes, percussion-heavy music and even a random rap about the city of Chengdu that was haphazardly thrown into the middle of the show and made us lose all hope of being able to follow what was going on.

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A scene from the opera

As the show came to a close, the headlining act began as different masked men scurried out onto the stage and, one by one, changed one colorful mask for the next, which doesn’t sound all that spectacular, but the speed at which they did it left us gap-jawed and clueless just as in the best magician’s trick. If you put your hand above your head and wave it across your face as fast as you can, the incremental amount of time your hand is over your face is how long it took them to change from one mask to another, with no sign of the former in sight. There were ones that blew fire, one with multiple masks that changed simultaneously, and even a marionette whose puppet, through a level of skill we will never know, was able to change it’s masks as flawlessly as the rest.

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The mask-changing ceremony

After wowing the audience for a half hour or so the ceremony ended and with it the show. Supremely satisfied, we exited the theatre and found our way back to the hostel. A day trip to see the Grand Buddha at Leshan would follow the next day and our last day in Chengdu was so uneventful that the highlight of it came in the evening when we saw a movie at the mall cinema. Safe to say we were ready to head back to Shanghai. Chengdu, and the whole of Sichuan was, as its slogan promised, much more than just pandas…but pandas always help.

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Leshan

Imagine something you really want. Now ask yourself the question, “Would I cut my own eye out to get it?” If your answer is yes, and hopefully it isn’t, then you are in the company of an 8th Century Chinese monk named Hai Tong.

Over 1,000 years ago he and some others made their living in the present-day city of Leshan, which happened to sit next to the confluence of three rivers. The rivers, tumultuous and unpredictable, wreaked havoc on the villagers and, as it was decided, a water spirit was to blame. So, Hai Tong took matters into his own hands and began raising funds to carve a Giant Buddha into the cliff face to help calm the waters. When asked by government officials to show his sincerity for completing the project, he opted to do another carving, that of his aforementioned body part, in a manner that surely must have convinced them of his dedication. Ninety years later, long after the death of Hai Tong, the statue was completed and 1,000 years later it’s still standing and remains one of the biggest Buddha statues in the world.

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The Grand Buddha staring out at the rivers that brought about his making

Wanting to see (with both of our eyes) the colossal carving in person, we set our sights on a day trip to Leshan from Chengdu. The bus ride was quick and in no time at all we were buying a ticket and heading through the main gate. As we entered, the atmosphere turned to that of a jungle, or at least what we would imagine a jungle to be. Bamboo shoots shot up from either side of the path we walked down, their thick foliage casting a uniform shadow across the scenery ahead. Below the bamboo canopy hung thin and wiry vines and standing formidably above it was stone wall whose rusty orange exterior was segmented by running streaks of grass and weeds. Deep and dark crevasses, some big enough to be caves, covered the wall.

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A Taoist shrine inside one of the caves

After a short while on the path, the jungle-like atmosphere turned to that of a mountain as our path tilted upwards before leveling off once more at the foot of our first site: a stone stupa as old as the Grand Buddha himself. After straining our necks to look up at it for a short while, we noticed we were sharing the site with a red-clad monk who, to our surprise, walked up to us and asked in perfect English, “Would you mind taking a picture of me in front of the stupa?” We nodded obligingly and followed him as he slowly walked in a circle around its base, counting his prayer beads in a manner that made us wonder whether he remembered that we were following him. After making a full circle, he stopped in the front, gave a quick smile for the picture, took his smartphone back, and began circling the stupa again.

 

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The stupa we stopped off at on our way to the Grand Buddha
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The monk we took a picture of on one of his trips around the stupa

It’s amazing how different an experience you can have of a place depending on which walk of life you come from. For us, we were there solely for touristic purposes while he was there for spiritual ones. We, to marvel at the work of man, he, at the work of God. Despite our different intentions though, the result of our experience was the same: that of pure awe and admiration.

After leaving the stupa, our path would take us through a couple of new and beautifully decorated temples before finally emptying out into a large plaza where we would get our first glimpse of the Grand Buddha. It was one of those moments where you see something so incredibly different from anything you have ever experienced before that, for a brief moment, your mind struggles to grasp what it’s taking in. And then, in an explosion of consciousness, you scramble to take in every bit of detail that you can, wonder trumping disbelief. That is what we experienced upon seeing the Grand Buddha for the first time, its giant eye peering over the encompassing railing, dwarfing the silhouettes of the people standing before it.

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A statue inside one of the temples
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A smaller Buddha in comparison to the one we were about to see
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Candles burning outside the temples
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Our first view of the Grand Buddha

After walking up to the railing ourselves and squinting down to the Buddha’s feet, we got our first idea of just how big the statue actually was. His ears were big enough for a grown adult to climb into comfortably and nestle in for a nap. His lap big enough to play a half-court basketball game on with room to spare. And his toenails, almost too far away for us to see clearly, were bigger than the people walking around them. It was absolutely gargantuan and the spectacle of it meant heavy crowds nearly everywhere we turned. Although we desperately wanted to descend to the Buddha’s feet, our desire to avoid the long and raucous line to do so was stronger so we decided to leave the descent for later in the day, when, as we hoped, the line would be much shorter.

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Getting a closer look
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Zooming down to his feet

We opted instead to explore the rest of the park’s grounds, which as we found out after coming up on our first map of them, were vast and the perfect place to waste time away until we were ready to head back to the Grand Buddha. As we began making our way through the grounds, we were taken down an endless array of paths that wound in and out of each other, up and down hills, through temples and shrines, around a tiny koi fish pond, and past plenty of Chinglish gems.

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Many of the buildings in the grounds were stained red
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Making our way through the grounds
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A faint waterfall we passed during our meandering
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We still have no idea what this means
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A sign of encouragement above one of the park’s urinals

Eventually though, the path led us back to the Grand Buddha where we discovered that our brilliant plan of waiting for a shorter line had backfired rather dramatically as the line was now much longer than it had been before. Suddenly we had to use the restroom again, a cheap ploy to avoid getting into the line for as long as we could, knowing what awaited us, which was an inescapable fate of pushing and jostling for line position, pictures being taken of us against our will, and jeers of “foreigner” shouted in our direction. The wait, as we expected, was all of this and more, but luckily it was fairly ignorable as there were bigger things demanding our attention, mainly, the Grand Buddha.

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The lines leading down to the Buddha’s feet
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Stopping off of one of the nine turns for a picture

To get down to its feet, we would have to take the nine-turn cliff road, which was exactly what it’s name implies, a jagged path hanging off the cliff side as it descended to the feet. The staircase, which offered incredible views of the Buddha when you you weren’t staring at your feet to prevent a stumble down its steep steps, was an attraction in and of itself. All along the descent, there were statues and figures carved into the rock face, their extremely worn and weathered condition a testament to their age.

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Aging carvings on the cliffside
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Some less weathered ones
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And probably the most elaborate carving we saw on our way down

With each of the nine turns, we made our way further and further down the Buddha, body part by body part, an anatomical descent of sorts. First we started at the neck, then, with the next turn were at the chest, then the torso, then the lap, and on it went until we finally found ourselves standing at its feet.

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View of the nine-turn cliff road from the bottom

Standing at his toes (which were taller then we were) our eyes naturally trailed up the Buddha’s body and around the two cliffs that bookended it, one of which we had just zigzagged down. Trees, which stretched out from every crack and fissure offered by the cliff side, appeared to be small shrubs in comparison to the size of the Buddha. The people hanging over the railing near his head, like ants. Our minds bounced back and forth from appreciation of the enormity of the statue to speculation of the enormity of the task that made it.

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Looking up at the Grand Buddha
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It was difficult to fit both us and the entire statue in the frame

No matter where our wandering gaze took us around the the Buddha, we always ended up back at his eyes, which appeared almost human in their contemplative stare out into the three converging rivers. It was the one part of the statue that was attainable. The rest of the body, while human in form, was anything but. With its cracks and crumbling edifice, it appeared to be blending back in to the cliff from which it was carved.

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Peering over his lap
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Blending in to the cliffside

After what must have been an hour of looking up at the statue, we decided to give our necks a rest and start heading back up towards the Buddha’s head. By that time of the day, most of the crowd had cleared out and we figured it would be best to follow suit as the park was nearing closing time and the sun creeping ever closer to the horizon. By the time we made it back to Chengdu it was dark and, hungry from a full day of exploration, we stopped off at a restaurant on the way back to our hostel to try one of Sichuan’s most famous exports: hot pot.

The process of eating hot pot is as enticing as the food itself. First you order an array of ingredients, which range from things as simple as raw potatoes or beef to “do-people-really-eat-that?” things like congealed blood or the lining of a cow’s stomach (we opted for the former). Then you order a soup for the ingredients to be cooked in which varies in degrees of spiciness. Since Sichuan is known for the face-reddening, sweat-inducing nature of its food, we chose one of the spicier varieties.

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Enjoying hot pot

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After our waitress had brought out our pot of soup, placed it in the middle of the table, and turned on the stove beneath it, the water boiled red due to the heaping amounts of peppers dwelling beneath the surface. Soon after, plate after plate of the ingredients we ordered were brought out and we began dumping the contents of them into the soup to cook. As we pulled the first bits of meat and vegetables out with our chopsticks and drew them towards our mouth, we worried about just how much of the spice had soaked in.

To our relief, it was the perfect amount and for the next hour or so we sought out the rest of the bobbing pieces of meat and vegetables, plucking them out of the water until there were none left. After paying our bill and with a full day now behind us, we walked contentedly back to our hostel to rest up before our last day in Chengdu.