TRAVELLING through Sichuan is like playing hopscotch on a colourful mosaic. One moment you are in a valley, dwarfed by the stunning barren snow ranges whose crowns are hidden in cotton-wool clouds; within just a few hours, you are cruising amidst verdant conical hills of the lowlands where a youthful Yangtze or one of its lesser siblings leaps through the gorges and plays hide and seek; another step takes you to the most fashionable pedestrian-only shopping district in central Chengdu, where the trendy come to shop for the latest designer labels. A few hops away from the city take you deep into a bamboo forest where you imagine a giant panda behind every bush, although all you see are rogue macaques blocking your way, demanding bananas. Yet another move and you are enveloped by the serene silence of a Buddhist temple where you just catch a glimpse of a silken yellow robe disappearing down the cobblestones of the courtyard in an ancient monastery.
Our Sichuan journey had begun long before we reached Chengdu, the capital. We had taken the fancy high-speed train from Lhasa. All trains originating from Lhasa traverse the Tibetan plateau up to Xinning and branch off in different directions from there. The journey from Xinning to Chengdu had served up rectangular steel frames of verdant Sichuan countryside. Shiny bottle gourds hanging from vines on shingly rooftops, lush paddy fields cultivated in a series of meandering terraces on the mountainside, arched bridges faithfully reflected in the silvery waters of a gurgling stream below—the Sichuan countryside was exquisitely beautiful, even better than Tibet, where the scenery, though stark and stunning, was somewhat unvarying. Sichuan farmers were busy planting, weeding or fishing in shallow waters. Occasionally, one came across a lone farmer taking a break, puffing away contentedly.
However, from time to time, as the train hurtled through the countryside, this pastoral paradise was punctured by a concrete jungle of commercial and housing blocks. Towns with obscure names, which even the Chinese are not familiar with, emerged out of the paddy fields, sprouting high-rises, flyovers and underpasses, signs that “development” had reached remote interiors of China.
Chengdu, of course, is a modern city like any other. It has its own metro and a sprawling city square large enough to land a Boeing Dreamliner. There is a steady stream of shoppers in trendy clothes. Sichuan has a university and a lovely museum, both located in Chengdu. The delights this city offers are myriad, but my friend and I are here for a specific purpose: to see the giant pandas in the Panda Breeding Station located on the outskirts of Chengdu. We make our way through a steady drizzle to the “Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding”, home to dozens of adult and juvenile black-and-white giant pandas.
Giant pandas are bears native to south central China—Sichuan, Gansu and Shaanxi provinces. They inhabit the broadleaf jungles, which are perpetually shrouded in mist. No one knows how they came to have such an attractive white-and-black coat, but it is surmised that their coat evolved as a camouflage in snow and rock which also form part of the landscape they inhabit between 5,000 and 10,000 metres.
Pandas are an endangered species on the Red List of the International Union for Conservation of Nature. As in the case of other wildlife, pandas’ habitat is threatened by relentless urbanisation. Not only have their numbers dwindled, but they have also retreated into the interior jungles. It is quite difficult to spot a panda in the wild; one may camp for a week and still come back disappointed. Originally, we had planned to go to the nearby Woolong National Nature Reserve to see pandas in their natural habitat but were told that many of them had been killed by the earthquake that shook this region in 2008 and the survivors had been relocated to this breeding station in Chengdu. It is estimated that there are fewer than a couple of thousand pandas left in the wild and only a few hundreds in breeding stations and zoos, of which this one is the largest.
Once you enter the formidable gates of the Panda Breeding Station, you are enveloped by a man-made bamboo forest. As you stroll through it, you are in veritable pandaland. Enclosure after enclosure entertains you with the antics of these cuddly animals, which seem to be conscious of their star status. They put up a virtuoso performance as the paparazzi click away. Some are sprawled on the grass, others climb trees. One swings from a branch while another chases a butterfly.
A wheelbarrowful of chopped bamboo arrives to great excitement and they sit down to savour their meal. While their main diet is bamboo, they are carnivores, preying on small rodents and birds. Bamboo is not very nutritious and pandas have to eat more than 20 kilograms every day just to keep alive. In fact, eating takes up the better part of their day. How they manage to extract all that fat from unyielding bamboo to become so cushiony and cuddly is a mystery. Their eating posture, sitting upright and stuffing bamboo into their mouths with their front paws, has a startling resemblance to humans. They look cute no doubt, but they could also charge like any other bear.
The next day, we go to see the Sichuan Museum, which has a lovely collection of local tapestries, pottery, paintings, statues and handicrafts. Entry to the museum is free, which is a surprise considering that even temples charge a hefty entry fee in Chengdu. We ride the metro to the Wenshu temple, a tree-shaded retreat of peace and tranquillity in the midst of a bustling Chengdu. Monks in yellow robes hurry past purposefully while local people lounge in one of the many ornamental pavilions. The shrines are arranged in the middle of concentric quadrangles. The trees are slung about with prayer sheets so numerous that you can hardly see the branches. The ponds are full of turtles and herons. The streets around the temple have become tourist savvy, offering fusion cuisine and trinkets.
Chengdu is also the springboard for a picturesque region called Mt. Emei or Emeishan. It was in Emei that Buddhism was first established in China. The 3,099-metre-high mountain is now home to the surviving 70-odd ancient Buddhist temples and monasteries. The landscape is so beautiful that UNESCO chose this mountain for conferring World Heritage Site status as much for its unique natural beauty as for its cultural and historical heritage. Mt Emei is a haven for all those wanting to glimpse a bygone way of life, one uninterrupted and unscarred by “development”. Hidden behind the eerie eaves of the ancient shrines, the resident monks here are rumoured to have halted time in its tracks.
The first Buddhist temple in China was built on the summit of Mt Emei in the first century A.D. The location became a magnet for more temple builders who built as many as 30 temples and monasteries, including the Wannian temple, which was built in the fourth century. With the majority of the Buddhist monasteries of the Ming and Qing period located near the top of the mountain, it takes some effort to see all of them. One can take the journey entirely on foot over several days, stopping en route at the many monasteries which lodge pilgrims and tourists. There is also a cableway for the indolent and the weary, whisking visitors up cliffs and past scenic waterfalls and gorges in a matter of minutes.
Back in Chengdu, we had gone scouting for tours to take us to Emei, but all we could find was an all-Chinese tour group; our Chinese vocabulary is limited to a couple of words. But our time in Sichuan was also limited, so we decided to take the tour anyway. The next day, a van pulled up in front of our hotel to take us to a central terminus where there were several tour buses going in all directions to various destinations. Spotting the right tour bus headed towards Emei was a challenge for us, but locating our tour group at every tourist spot where dozens of similar buses disgorge hundreds of similarly dressed Chinese was an even bigger challenge.
Our first stop was Leshan Dafo. Located at a distance of about 180 kilometres from Chengdu, Leshan is famous for the giant Buddha carved on a hillside. The statue, 71 metres high, is sculpted on the flanks of a vertical cliff and towers over the confluence of three rivers: the Minjiang, the Dadu and the Qingyi. These rivers used to wreak havoc on the town of Leshan and its neighbourhood and the floods they caused supposedly capsized many a trading vessel.
A Chinese monk named Haitong started the project of carving a giant Buddha on the adjacent mountainside in the hope that the deity’s presence would calm the raging waters and allow ships to pass. The enterprise took 90 years to complete and Haitong never lived to see the efficacy of his endeavour. But, miraculously, it did work, though perhaps not in the way Haitong had hoped. The sculpting of the giant statue and the construction of the numerous temples and shrines around it resulted in so much sandstone debris and rubble falling into the tumultuous waters below that it blocked the flow of the rivers. In fact, the debris sank to the bottom and fused the rivers into a lake, which is now lapping at the foot of the Buddha. The lake now offers pleasure boat rides to visitors. The gargantuan Buddha, said to be the biggest of its kind in the world, keeps a heavy-lidded but benign eye on the lake. You access the Buddha from the top and go down the winding pathway by the side of his torso to reach his toenail which can hold six humans at a time. The Buddha’s ear alone is seven metres long and his eyes, 10 metres wide. A 13-storey stone shelter built to shield the Buddha from the elements was destroyed by the Mongols during the wars at the end of the Yuan dynasty.
We spent a pleasant day strolling up the mossy steps and viewing the Buddha from various angles. There are also many temples and pagodas on the hill, dating from the Qing dynasty. The Wuyu temple houses the ninth century dash bronze Buddha and the 11th century Amitaba statue, cast in iron and gilded. Over 500 Han dynasty tombs inscribed with fine calligraphy are also located on a crag. A dial carved on the ground in front of a cave marks the distances to various cities across the globe, reaffirming the Chinese belief that their civilisation is indeed the centre of the earth—hence the appellation Middle Kingdom.
In the evening, we were taken to see a Sichuan Opera, famous for its mask-changing dancers. It was an impressive performance, with elaborate costumes, energetic swirling and quick music. What was amazing, however, was that the dancers changed their richly decorated and stunning masks in a fraction of a second, with a swipe of a fan, a movement of the head or a wave of the hand. Called Bian Lian, mask-changing is a skill that takes several years to perfect and is kept a secret, to be handed down from generation to generation. Traditionally, only men performed this dance since it was thought that women in the family could transmit the secret to others when they married. The Sichuan opera is rarely performed outside China, to prevent the secret from spilling out, although now there are a couple of dancers trained in Sichuan who have chosen to teach the art to foreigners in Indonesia and Malaysia. However, it is not easy to master this dance form and Sichuan Mask Changing Opera continues to delight and tantalise audiences.
We stayed the night in a hotel halfway between Leshan and the summit of Mt Emei and were to resume the journey the next day. However, in the morning, our hotel, in which many tourists were staying, came under siege by local people from the surrounding villages. A big crowd had gathered outside our hotel and on the street corner barring exit routes on all sides. The lane connecting the hotel to the main road was barricaded with tables, chairs and other furniture from nearby shops. None of us were allowed to go out. We wondered what this blockade was all about, which was so unusual for a Chinese town, but were hamstrung by our unfamiliarity with the language. Later, we found out that the protesters were demanding the withdrawal of a piece of local legislation that increased their taxes. The protest, which started early in the morning, gathered momentum as the day wore on.
My friend and I were impatient to get on with the rest of the tour so that we could get back to Chengdu the next day to catch our flight back home. But, even after several hours, there seemed to be no resolution to the dispute. A van full of policemen arrived, all unarmed and smiling. It soon became clear that they had no intention of dispersing the protesters. After some time, the bored policemen started playing games on their cell phones.
We had nothing much to do except sit and wait out the blockade, which we feared might last days. Our fellow passengers, colonising the lobby of the hotel and chattering away, seemed to be resigned to their fate. I tried to walk through the barricade on the street corner, but was promptly stopped and turned back. Eventually, I approached a policeman and explained to him that I needed to get back to Chengdu immediately to catch my flight back home, accompanying my entreaties with wild gesticulation and hoping to make sense. Finally, he understood me and gestured that I should go and get my bags. My friend and I grabbed our bags from the hotel and were escorted out of the picketing area by the cop and put in a police car. The protesters at the picket pretended not to notice. The police car dropped us at Leshan Bus Terminal from where we took a bus back to Chengdu. This was an unfinished journey and I resolve to go back to complete it some day.