Leshan Journal

This was a trip I took to Leshan, a city near to Chengdu. We were there for two days. One the first we hiked a tremendously tall mountain, and on the second we saw a tremendously tall Buddha statue. I traveled with Alex and Mitch Lee, and (as usual) it was a blast.

(4/14) Planes Trains and Automobiles

Today was a day of travelling. I’ve taken almost every form of transportation I can think of: Walking, biking, by car, by plane, and by train. I just need a boat to finish it out.

I got up early this morning and took my bike to my thermo lecture. Afterwards I withdrew some money for the trip and then went back to ziroom to pack. Around 11, we got in a taxi which had been called for us by the lady at the front desk. It wasn’t really a taxi so much as it was just her friend with a car. But that was better than a true taxi, since the was essentially no risk associated with it.

We arrived at the airport and got onto the plane with no issues. This was shaping up to be the most interesting flight I’ll take in China, since it included a layover and we weren’t really sure what that entailed. Regardless, we got on our flight and off we went. After about an hour in the air, we landed at Anqing. This was where things got a bit strange.

Anqing was a tiny little airport/military base that boasted two whole gates for commercial flights. What was odd was that the same plane would be continuing onto Chengdu, but we still all had to disembark and go wait in the terminal. As we were leaving they handed everyone who would be continuing on a little slip with a number on it and that was it. We walked across the terminal to the airport, and then had to wait for about 40 minutes.

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So empty…

We became curious again when a mob of people suddenly formed near the gate to our flight. There was a whole bunch of commotion, so we pushed up to the front. We saw that a lot of people were being turned away from entering, but some were being allowed through. I couldn’t really tell why some were allowed and others weren’t until we heard a lady screaming “Honqiao” (truly screaming at the top of her lungs over the insane amount noise produced by the crowd). This is where we had come from so we jumped up and were allowed back onto the plane.

We continued our flight to Chengdu, landed, and the grabbed a taxi to the train station. From there we had another short wait before boarding a train to Leshan. The ride took around 45 minutes. Once we had arrived we walked to our hostel since it was only a mile away.

This is where things got a bit confusing, since our hostel was not well marked. By ‘not well marked’ I mean not marked. The address we had took us to a huge complex of apartment buildings, each one 23 stories tall. We walked around for a bit but were extremely lost and out-of-place next to all of the apartments. A lady walking by saw our confusion and helped us out. She knew a small amount of English and called the hostel for us. She was able to lead us to the correct building and even took us up to our floor, and waited by the hostel while the lady she had called came to meet us.

Once the hostel lady arrived, we thanked our friend and got checked in. This was where things got weird again. The room we stayed in for the first night wasn’t so much a hostel as it was an apartment/small condo. It had a kitchen, a sitting room with couch and TV, an upstairs area with lots of closets, a bathroom, and a bedroom. It was very nice, and totally unlike any place I had paid to spend the night before.

We talked with the hostel lady for a bit about hiking Mount Emei. She told us that hiking it in one day was not possible and that we would need to spend a night at the top of the mountain. I didn’t really know how I felt about this, since that was very much not what we had planned to do, but we did hear about a group from last year’s study abroad who had done this exact hike, got stuck on the mountain and were forced to spend a night, so we did take the suggestion seriously. The hostel lady agreed to taxi us to the mountain the next day which was super nice of her, and so we had a plan for tomorrow.

While still not having a concrete plan about staying on the mountain, we all got ready for bed to get as much sleep as possible before the hike tomorrow.

(4/15) I’ll Stay in Purgatory

We got up very early this morning, met up with the hostel lady, and headed out to Mount Emei. The mountain was about an hour to an hour and a half away from our hostel. After driving for around 30 minutes, we stopped at place to get breakfast that our guide knew. This was a little hole-in-the-wall shop that served wonton soup. Not what I would think of as being breakfast, but it definitely was what locals thought of as being breakfast, since the place was packed.

The soup consisted of wontons, rice noodles, some chunks of beef, and a large amount of garnish thrown on top. It was something I would have more thought of as being a dinner food, but I guess not. It was decently good, tasting much like wonton soup would taste in the US. It was however, very spicy. Sichuan (the province of China we were in) is known for its spicy food by China standards, so spice was a common theme at our meals on this trip.

After breakfast, we went with our guide to a nearby supermarket to buy snacks for lunch. We had stocked up the night before as well, so this was really just to get our guides opinion on what foods she would take on a hike. She showed us a snack that came in a rather large box and had the appearance of a large rice crispy. She told us that it was a sweet snack that many Chinese people would think of as being good for a hike. Worked of us. We bought one for the three of us and continued driving towards the mountain.

On the remainder of the drive, we were chatting with our guide when she asked us if we had considered moving to Leshan to become English tutors. We obviously hadn’t, and she explained that many Chinese people prefer to learn English from a native speaker. As such, native speakers can make crazy amounts of money as tutors. She had very good English and told us that she paid her English teacher 800 kuai an hour, which is about 115USD per hour. I hadn’t really ever considered moving to small town China to teach English, but I guess now I am! We figured that our guide most be overjoyed that we were staying at her hostel, since not only did she not have to pay to talk with native English speakers, but we were paying her.

After about another hour of driving (and a half hour of napping) we arrived at the midway point of Mount Emei. For our intents and purposes, this was the base. We thanked our hostel guide, paid her, and set out to get our bearings. We had been dropped in a small parking lot area that was ringed by shops and, a bit further our, ringed by mountains. There were busses to take you to the peak, taxis to take you back into town, and a cable car to get your hike started. While Mitch went to find a bathroom, Alex and I explored some of the shops, and found some bamboo walking sticks. We had seen people using these on previous hikes, but had never deemed them necessary. I’m not really sure why, but Alex really wanted to buy one. After learning that they were only 5 kuai, Mitch and I did as well. This was one of those decisions that seemed minor and unimportant at the time, but turned out to be the best and most important choice made all day.

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These little guys saved the day

We took the cable car up and had been awake and moving for about 2 and a half hours when we finally started our hike. We had some difficulty starting the hike, as our maps were horribly drawn and had no sense of scale. After shortly walking in the wrong direction for a little while, we started moving towards the peak. This is when we ran into the main activity of the day: stairs.

Our hike in Mount Emei was easily the most intense hike of my entire life, and I’ve been on my fair share of hikes, both in China and back home. The peak of Mount Emei is just around 10,000 feet above sea level, at the upper limits of human breathability. We did not climb this entire distance on our hike, but we did tackle a good 4,500 feet of it. In terms of walking distance, we chose the most direct path up the mountain which was about 26 kilometers long. Surprisingly, this was the express and easy path. Could have fooled me.

I’d say that roughly 60% of the trail that day consisted of stairs. Be them big stairs, small stairs, regular stair, uneven stair, steep stairs, or even stairs. At more than one point we would get to the bottom of a hill and be faced with a mountain of stairs that literally just ascended into the sky until they were obscured by clouds. It was like an actual stairway to heaven. If that’s what it takes to get to heaven, I think that I’ll just stay in purgatory, thanks.

I say this because these stairs murdered me. When we started the day, it was around 90 degrees with 93% humidity and I was immediately faced with around 100 flights of stairs to climb. After around 30 I just couldn’t go on. The group had to start taking frequent breaks to accommodate me and progress was slow. Unfortunately, this was the only way I was going to make it up the mountain, and so it had to be done. Luckily for me, there were frequent shops and restaurants along the path where we could stop, rest, and buy more water as the 2.25 liters I had taken with me ran out in the first 2 hours. We took to wondering how all the shops up in the mountain stayed stocked, but that was answered once we saw the first of several caravans of donkeys with big wicker baskets attached to their backs. That explained all of the horse poop on the trail…

My day soon just became a bit of a grind up the mountain. I focused on the path in front of me and just made progress by not really concentrating or looking at anything else. This was OK, because the mountain was surprisingly un-scenic. It just slopped off away from the path, so there was never anything close to us to look at. Any interesting things in the distance were obscured by an all-pervasive smog/cloud cover.

After a long, long trek up the mountain, we finally reached the top towards the end of the day. At this point the 90-degree weather had given way to 40-degree weather with wind-chill down to 35 and gusts as low as 20. With all the calories I had burnt on the way up though, my shorts and t-shirt were still the perfect choice to keep me cool. I was so incredibly happy and proud of myself to have made it to the top. There had been several points where I was basically ready to just give up and turn back but was persuaded not to by my friends. So incredibly happy to have them as well.

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I did get to see some fun stuff along the way. Mount Emei is nicknamed the Monkey Mountain because it’s supposedly filled with monkeys. I say ‘supposedly’ because although I saw a lot of monkeys on signs, I only saw monkeys once. That being said they were pretty cool, and one of them had a newborn that was still hugging its mother’s belly. Adorable. We also made friends with a little puppy for part of the hike. I don’t know where he came from, but he just hiked with us for a while before leaving us behind at a rest stop.

Much like the hike up, the mountain top wasn’t much to see due to all of the mist and clouds around. At some points the mist was so bad that we couldn’t see further than 20 feet in front of us which made finding some important buildings rather difficult. We found a hostel at the top which offered us rooms for the night, but we still hadn’t decided what we wanted to do.

There is a giant golden Buddha statue at the top of the mountain which is supposedly great and beautiful. We wouldn’t know because we elected not to go up and see it. This may seem like an odd choice because we had spent all day hiking up to the top, but had to be done timing wise. We only had an hour left at the top before the last bus of the day left, and if we stayed the night the first bus wouldn’t leave until 9:00, which would make seeing the giant Buddha rather difficult. Getting all the way to the top would have taken an hour in and of itself, even with the cable car. There just wasn’t time to do it all.

We grabbed a bus back off the mountain, which consisted of running across a bus terminal with an insanely slippery floor. We ran across the station, because we had run out of time exploring the option of seeing the golden Buddha, slipping and falling our way towards to bus line. We were told they didn’t actually sell tickets there, so a guy ran (and fell) with us across the station so we could get tickets. We then ice skated back to the bus line and finally got on bus.

We were on a bus heading down the mountain and I finally relaxed for this first time in the day and took a deep breath. Or at least I tried to. The air was very noticeably thin at this altitude and it was hard to take anything other than shallow breaths.

We rode down the mountain to the terminal stop (which took almost 2 hours. It’s a big mountain), grabbed a taxi and headed back into town. We eventually got back to our hostel and found that we had been moved out of our amazing apartment style room and were now in a more normal 4-person dorm. The beds were literally just a piece of wood on a spring, but whatever. It’s just one night.

We dropped all of our stuff in the new room and headed down to the ground floor to catch a taxi. We took it to the end of the street we were staying on which dropped us right next to the river. We could see the mountain that the Giant Buddha was near and so we walked along the shore front to try and see it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t actually see the Buddha because it’s blocked on both sides by giant mountain walls, and the area directly in front on it is all water.

Defeated on that front, we went to find some dinner. After walking around for a short while, we found an open-air restaurant that had an interesting serving style. When we sat down, we were given a giant bowl of spicy broth. There was a fridge off to the side that had a bunch of chilled (and cooked) meat and some chilled vegetables. We simply grabbed what we wanted, threw it into the broth and then ate. In true Sichuan style, it was insanely spicy. For some reason, I wasn’t expecting this, so I got a good shock.

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Overall, the dinner was pretty good. We taxied back to the hostel and headed back to our new room. We got ready for bed, and right as we were about to fall asleep, we were greeted by some random Chinese guy. Even though we had booked all four beds in the room, we were forcibly refunded one of the beds so that the hostel could sell it to someone else. Even though they had already sold it to us. That’s just China I guess. Our new roommate did not know a word of English, so we all just silently went to sleep.

(4/16) Creative Names

I got up around 7 today and got ready. We packed up everything and left the hostel, which was a little strange, since we didn’t have any room key to return, a deposit to get back, or a front desk to check out at. We literally just left. We walked down the street some ways to a Holiday Inn we had seen the night before on the way to dinner. We wanted something reliable and common for breakfast, and this was our best chance at that. We walked into the fairly nice and upscale lobby and instantly felt just a little out of place, dressed in t-shirts, shorts, carrying big heavy bags, and holding long bamboo sticks. Despite this, we saw a sign saying there was a café on floor four, so we headed for the elevator.

We quickly found the breakfast room, and ran into the predicted problem of them asking us for breakfast vouchers that we didn’t have. I just pulled out my wallet and gestured with it which got my message across. They told us it would only be 38 yuan per person, which was fine by us. Everything in Leshan is so cheap! Breakfast was great, they had rice and noodles, along with hard boiled eggs, toast with jam and honey, fruit, cereal, and a selection of juices. It was really great, especially considering our breakfast the day before had been a little off kilter.

All three of us ate a ton of food before heading out for the day. We went out front and grabbed a cab to the Leshan Buddha. This is a 220-foot-tall Buddha statue that was carved into the side of a mountain late during the 8th century. It was constructed as a way of memorializing and remembering Buddhism forever in the world. The Buddha is surrounded by a mountain of similar height, and a small park area with temples, shops, and museums. We got dropped off by the ticketing office, got tickets, and then walked over to the park entrance. We walked through a small park area and then had a short climb up the mountain. Although it was over 20 flights of stairs, it was absolutely nothing compared to the day before.

The Buddha itself was predictably massive. It holds a seated position, much like Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, while looking out onto a river which starts right at the base. It was carved down from the mountain, which looked like it’s had a big square chunk removed from it. This means that the monks who carved it all those centuries ago just started at the top and knew when to stop. We looked at it from a few different angles from the top. The park at this point was beginning to fill up even though it was still fairly early in the morning (we had gotten to the park shortly after it opened for the day).

After seeing all that we could from the top, we worked our way through what seemed like way too many queue winders which headed to the bottom of the Buddha. This consisted of a very narrow switch back path, which had also been carved out of the mountain. Thankfully it was single file for most of the way, and we were all carrying large bags and rigid bamboo poles, so very few people tried to push past us.

For how crowded the top and line had been, the bottom of the Buddha was surprisingly empty. We were able to get quite a few quality pictures and stay for a while without feeling overwhelmed or crowded. After this we headed out a different path (all the paths were one-ways to keep people flowing through) which was again, carved out of the side of the mountain. It went through some caves and whatnot, as well as following along the river for some time. It was very scenic.

This path led us out to a back area where we stumbled upon the Leshan bridge (such creative names for all of these locations and attractions). This was a bridge that Mitch had wanted to see but thought was too far away to get to in the time we had it was a really pleasant surprise to see! It was also a pretty bridge which a really cool bulge in the middle.

The whole area of the bridge was stunningly green, which is something I actually haven’t seen as much of as I would like in China, since I spend most of my time in Shanghai and there’s so much smog everywhere. It was really great to see such vibrant color. As we were moving to go across the bridge we suddenly faced a decision. There was a lot more to do in the back of the park than we had anticipated, but we also wanted to head back to the front of the park to try and catch a boat to see the Buddha from the water.

We discussed what to do while we crossed the bridge but didn’t really reach a final consensus. In the end, we decided that we’d split up and meet at the entrance around 2. Mitch continued hiking around the back of the park. Alex and I were kind of over the whole ‘stairs’ thing so we elected to go back to the front.

We turned back but then ran into a problem: we didn’t actually know how to get back to the front of the park. We also choose to be indecisive in the wrong spot, since we had a bunch of people coming up to us trying to sell a variety of things. One guy wanted to sell a nearby cave experience, another wanted us in his rickshaw to drive around the back of the park towards the boats, while a third wanted us to get in his van so that we could go all the way back to Chengdu. We eventually decided that even the cheapest option of 30 yuan to ride a rickshaw to the park’s front was too expensive and (unknowingly at the time) decided to walk back up the 20 flights of stairs we had just finished to go back through the park. So much for being over this whole ‘stairs’ thing. We passed back by the top of the Buddha and found it completely packed with people. So glad we got there when we did.

We eventually made it back to the front and got some boat tour tickets. We climbed onto the boat (which was about to leave) and were immediately told to get the hell off and go to another boat nearby. This one was not leaving immediately and we had to wait about 20 minutes before setting off. Why did we have to leave the first boat? That wasn’t rhetorical. I’d really like to know, so please tell me if you figure it out. Once we did set off we, quickly went over to the Buddha and got the pictures we wanted. These were nice because we were at the base, but a little further back, so it was much easier to see the whole thing at once.

After we disembarked, we met up with Mitch and tried to grab a taxi to the train station. Many of the drivers did this annoying thing of refusing to use the perfectly functional meter in favor of us just agreeing on a price beforehand. It took a few tries to find someone willing to take us and use a meter. We arrived at the train station and got on our train with no issues.

In fact, we had the opposite of issues since we had business class seats. We trying to book seats on this train two weeks ago, we faced an interesting problem of having to choose between standing tickets, business class tickets, or a train leaving 2 hours later. Since we didn’t want to stand for that long, wanted to have some time in Chengdu for dinner, and business class seats were only 17USD, we say ‘why not?’ and bought business class.

Oh my god, it was so nice. We didn’t have seats so much as pods. They were very plushy and comfy and could recline all the way back, essentially becoming a bed. After getting our free lemon water and box of snacks, I read for a bit with my legs all the way stretched out. I would have loved to take the train all the way back to Shanghai, even if that would take over 12 hours.

Unfortunately, I could only be on the train for 45 minutes, and all too soon I found myself arriving at Chengdu. We said our sad goodbyes to the train, and took the metro to the main street of the city for dinner. It was very upscale and busy. We walked around for a bit, identified some key dessert places, before finding a Japanese restaurant. Ordering there was a bit tough, since our waiter seemed to be Japanese and may have had a rough time speaking Chinese, let alone English.

After great difficulty, we all got ordered. I got two piece of salmon sushi, a roll called the ‘Eternal Aftertaste’ roll, and some fried rice. It was all pretty good, but I have to say that the aftertaste was very finite. After dinner, we got some donuts from a nearby shop which were superb. After eating them on the street, we headed to a German yogurt shop we had seen on the way to dinner. Mitch and I were too full to get any, but Alex got some all the same.

We then hopped in a cab and arrived at the airport. Our flight has been delayed by an hour and it doesn’t look good for leaving soon. They just keep saying that it’s been delayed, without ever telling us for how. There’s not even a plane at the gate yet and it’s coming up on an hour after we were supposed to leave, so that’s not a good sign.

—–

I wrote everything above this point at about 9pm in the airport before my laptop died. I’m not writing this the next day. That hour delay was indeed not a good sign. It led to another hour delay, which led to another, and another, another. All told, after a lot of reading, a lot of yelling, and a little napping, our 8:30pm flight out of Chengdu pulled away from the gate at 3:30am. My best guess for why this happened was that there was a thunderstorm in Shanghai that the airline was worried about. Alight. Fine. You can’t control the weather. You can forecast the weather though, and you can decide your departure time. The storm in Shanghai was forecasted to start around 4am and continue until 7am. Had we left on a plane at 8:30pm, we would have arrived in Shanghai at 11:30pm, well ahead of the storm. Since we had waited for so long, they had caused their own problem of wanting to wait out the storm. Utterly ridiculous!! Why wait then! You’re causing all of your own problems!! Why allow this to happen?!?!? (I’m still very tired from this night at time of writing and so my still be overreacting a little bit).

We departed the airport at 3:30 and arrived in Shanghai at 6:10 with a teeny, tiny amount of drizzle falling from the sky. So glad we avoided that storm! We were in a taxi by 6:30, but due to rush hour traffic and the fact that our driver seemed to have no idea how to drive around Shanghai (I would think that would be a trait to look for when hiring taxi drivers) we did not return to ziroom until 8:00am. Between the wait at the airport, the flight, and taxi ride at the end, I probably got a cumulative amount of 3 hours of sleep and now can only allow myself to sleep until noon, since I have a fair amount of homework to finish before tomorrow.

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