What to do when you feel like your muscles and your fitness have disappeared? After two and a half lazy weeks fattening up on Sichuan food in the big smoke? You walk up a mountain and walk back down again. But first we visit a giant Buddha.
The Giant Buddha of Leshan
Imagine our happiness to be back on the bicycle again! We spend two very enjoyable days cycling South of Chengdu. We even manage to find a camping spot in the densely populated countryside.
Our first destination before we climb our mountain is the Giant Buddha of Leshan. A 71m high statue of a seated Buddha, carved out of a cliff rising up from a confluence of two rivers. It was made in the Tang dynasty, around the 8th century CE. The initiator was the monk Hai Tong who wanted to tame the wild waters at the foot of the cliffs. Coincidentally he did, as the rubble from the carving fell into the river and calmed the currents. The Giant Buddha is an AAAAA attraction in China’s tourist attraction rating system, but as it is low season and no weekend it is relatively quiet. We had seen pictures of the Buddha but to see it up close is impressive. A nice park surrounds the statue, and a short stroll takes you up to eye level.
From here we descend a steep staircase to giant toe level.
Another steep path carved out of the cliff face takes us back up to the plateau again. We wander into the 1000 Buddha Capital park, where we find ourselves alone. Possibly we have the place to ourselves because this is ‘only’ an AAAA attraction and not as suitable for taking selfies as the head of the Giant Buddha. It is a beautiful bonus to the main attraction and holds many surprises such as another giant Buddha, sheltered in a cave and with a beautifully serene face.
There is a tacky Kama Sutra cave with plastic sculptures depicting some pretty wild scenes, a 170m long sleeping Buddha carved out of a hill, so overgrown with foliage it is slowly becoming part of the natural landscape again. The whole park is on a hill that has been tunnelled through. In the tunnels there are modern statues that offer the history of Chinese buddhism told in a mix of Socialist Realism, Chinese nationalism and Buddhist styles.
Not far from Chengdu is one of China’s four holy Buddhist mountains. Emeishan is the holiest of the four, as it is the place where the first Buddhist temple of China was built in around 100CE. Many more were built in the following centuries. Today it is possible to walk up the mountain via thousands of stone steps.
Pilgrims can spend the night in one of the monasteries and see the sun rise over the ‘sea of clouds’ from the Golden Summit at 3077m altitude. It is also possible to take a cable car for one or two stretches of the way, take a bus all the way to the top, stay in a luxury hotel just below the summit or have yourself carried up the steps by traditional sedan chair carriers. On the way there are plenty of restaurants and souvenir shops selling bamboo walking sticks, incense, hiking food (unidentifiable dried… something. We didn’t try), rain ponchos and even warm coat rental services.
Needless to say, this is another popular destination for Chinese tourists so we were expecting large crowds. We are happily surprised when we find ourselves alone most of the way. Apart from a few monks, some fellow walkers, pack horses and cargo carriers lugging supplies and building materials up and down the steps we don’t meet many people. The people we do meet say chaiyo, chaiyo! This means fighting, fighting! A great encouragement, and we hear it more often when we are back on the bicycle.
We read a claim that the famous Shaolin fighting monks are from Emeishan (not true!) but we can imagine how this story came about: a monk with a walking stick, some wild Tibetan monkeys…
It is misty and wet, which gives the forest a beautiful mysterious silence. There are steep cliffs, dripping bamboo bushes and we cross a troupe of wild Tibetan monkeys. Hiking up some 15.000 stone steps is hard work, but eventually we are rewarded. We come above the clouds and climb the last few kilometers in the sun, looking down on the dazzling white clouds and the distant islands of other mountaintops.
We spend the night at Taizi Ping monastery, an old and charmingly ramshackle temple at 2850m altitude. It is recommended by our new friend Qi Lin, a monk who lives in a monastery a bit further down.
Taizi Ping is inhabited by one monk and a couple who manage the kitchen and the veggie garden. For a small amount we spend the night and enjoy a typical Buddhist dinner and breakfast of rice and vegetables. The food is prepared without the usual kick of mouth-numbing Sichuan pepper. This might excite the senses too much according to Buddhist cooking tradition.
The next morning we set off for the last stretch to the summit. We walk in the dark, the moon lights our path, and we are completely alone. We walk in silence. When we reach the cable car station and the resort it gets busier, but still, it is peaceful and calm. We walk up to the huge golden Samantabhadra statue, a four-faced representation of the Buddha, seated on four elephants. In the cold moonlight it looks magnificent. We walk to the East side of the summit. Below us is the slow moving sea of clouds, gradually becoming more visible as the first light appears, and we wait for the sun to rise. It is an unbelievable sight. Shortly after the sunrise busloads of tourists start arriving, and we start our descent.
Going down is easier on the heart and lungs, but much harder on the legs. We have to give up on doing the last stretch and take the cable car from the last monastery to the bus station, barely able to walk. The ensuing muscle pain is as epic as Emeishan, and lasts for days. We lurch like zombies with our stiff and sore limbs and can hardly climb stairs, let alone descend. We decide it is probably easier to cycle than to walk, so we start cycling the day after coming down from Emeishan.
We follow the S306 West towards Shimian, and from there we head South on the S108. There are other options South but they were either impossible because of road works or otherwise not enjoyable, and we hear the S108 is beautiful. This road also means we will climb once more to about 2500m. Our first plan was to head even further West, to the Tibetan plateau, but this is too cold at this time of year. It is possible, but we wouldn’t enjoy it. When we leave it is raining and the visibility is down to almost nothing, but we don’t mind because cycling is indeed a lot easier than walking. We are happy to be on the move.
It is super easy to find cheap accommodation so we don’t have to camp in the rain but we can sleep in a basic hotel for about $7 to $10 every night. Great! Camping is difficult because every square centimeter is cultivated. Every horizontal surface, right up until the edge of the road, is someone’s vegetable patch. In the end we only camp one night between Chengdu and Xichang, even though we love camping. The hotels are by no means luxurious. They are cold and the rooms are in various states of disrepair, and sometimes there is no hot shower. One is so depressing and dingy it would be the perfect set for a film noir, smoking, moody and silent. Or a gory splatterfest. We count ourselves lucky there are no rats or cockroaches.
The roads are fantastic. Meandering up and down hills, following rivers, passing through villages with shops and street food restaurants. There is not too much traffic and the truck drivers and cars give us plenty of space. The gradients are doable, there are some short stretches of about 9% and we rarely touch 12%, meaning we never have to push the bicycle up the hill. Until Shimian it is as much up as down, so we do 700+ climbing meters per day but always end up on about the same altitude as we started. One stretch of the road to Shimian is under construction. We are allowed to pass the road block, and we enjoy a beautiful ride through the spectacular Dafu canyon with zero traffic on brand new tarmac. After Shimian we start climbing from 900m towards 2500m, spending the night halfway.
Even more fantastic than the roads are the people we meet. We regret that we speak so little Chinese, as so many people are happily surprised to meet us, and eager to talk with us. Someone stops his car to give us two bottles of water. Kids get super excited when they see us, shop ladies give us the thumbs up, motorbike riders wave when they pass us. Sometimes people are so surprised they can only stare. But when we wave and smile we usually get a big smile right back. We make contact and joke as well as we can without language. The smart phone is a great ice-breaker, everybody wants to take pictures and we use a translation app. Some people of the older generations have a way of looking right through us that is somewhat unnerving. But we know what they have been through in recent history and imagine they have no time for frivolous gallivanting foreigners on bicycles.
The Yi people of Langshian
After one week of cycling we take a one day break in Xichang. A day to do small repairs, some bicycle maintenance, to write a blog post and to give our legs a little rest. Two days ago we did our last serious climb to 2500m and after a few very cold days we are finally getting closer to warmer weather. It is dry and around 15 degrees here, not bad for winter. The biggest attraction of Xichang is lake Qionghai, once very polluted but right now in the last stages of an extensive ecological regeneration plan. A beautiful wetlands park has been laid out around the marshes and together with the Xichang people we enjoy a sunny walk. This is the first time since leaving Dushanbe in early September that we are once again warm and well enough to fully relax.
Xichang is the capital of Langshian Autonomous Prefecture, the home of many of the 8 million Yi people. I try to find out more about them and read an interesting article about the Yi from a 1987 New York Times edition. It is amazing to consider how fast things have changed here, as predicted in the article. Yes, the Yi have lost some of their customs and traditional dress, but they have also benefited from economic development in the area. Most of the villages we see are tidy and well maintained, people are cheerful. They are a tribe of huge diversity. Every 30 kilometers we encounter a new headdress, a new style of decorating the houses, every area has its own language, there is a complicated caste system that until not too long ago allowed slavery. Again we regret not being able to speak the language. The young daughter of a hotel owner who speaks some English tells us proudly she is Black Yi, which is the ruling caste.
We are not comfortable with sticking our camera into peoples faces without first getting to know them, or unless they start with taking pictures of us first. Still, we’d love to share some of the beautiful faces we see on the road everyday. Here are some pictures of Yi women made by others.
Overall the countryside is lovely. Just like everywhere else in the world: the people are easier to connect with than in the big city. We exchange smiles and waves. Life is cheaper, there is less choice, you make do with whatever is available, people are happy to help you out. Great for bike tourists on a budget.
We can see that life is hard for the people actually living here. Everybody we see is always busy. Harvesting, cleaning, repairing, hauling heavy loads from here to there, selling produce, running a restaurant. The Yi are no longer living in the hovels as described in the above NYT article. But their new concrete houses, with identical ‘traditional’ murals, still have no heating and running water is provided by a hose outside. 20.000 Yi have been displaced when a hydropower dam created a new lake by Shimian. As is often the case in China, the (economic) greater good will have prevalence over minority concerns. Still, there is a government program that once again supports Yi culture after shamanism, slavery and chiefdom were eradicated during the Cultural Revolution and many people were killed. Today the official Yi script and language is taught in schools alongside Chinese. Since 2010 the Chinese government has built many new temples for the Yi Bimo religion.
As we are walking around Qionghai lake today we hear a trio playing and singing traditional Yi music by the waters edge. Life, for now, feels in perfect harmony.
As we are cycling further away from home it is increasingly hard for us to get on our Western high horse and simply say that the Chinese government is bad. Just like everywhere else, the reality here has so many nuances and there is no simple answer as to what would be the right way. Especially now, when democracy seems to be failing us and a wild monkey will be running the USA for the next four years. Who are we to judge? We can only try and understand.