It was a simple choice: Mt. Emei and Leshan Grand Buddha: Route B, VIP ticket, a bus tour to two of China’s World Natural Heritage Sites, described in a few brief words in a brochure and often overlooked by vacationers on a rush through Chengdu to Tibet, Yunnan or the 3 Gorges. The tour is escorted by a well-informed Chinese speaking guide, who is like a wind-up doll: once started is guaranteed to talk non-stop for at least 30 minutes. Language could be a problem, but chances are someone on board is bilingual, so it’s possible to sneak away to take pictures and get a 30 seconds summary afterwards.
Early Saturday, the mini-bus rolls towards Leshan down the speedy expressway. The passing scenery is of miles of mus (an area measure of 1/6 acre) of rice paddies, sweet corn and lotus, dotted with the book-learned image of bent, barefoot peasants in straw hats at work with a water buffalo.
First visit to a Buddhist temple" It’s important to keep the red-shoed site-guide in sight. A leisurely climb up a broad, stone stairway leads to busy Lingyun Temple and Lingbao Pagoda. Unconditioned calves scream later,because the walk goes twice up and twice down at 35 degrees, Celsius and slope, over the same 75 metres of elevation. Of interest are the sequencing of buildings, the triad grouping of carved icons along with their distinguished arhat followers, (i.e. the amusing ear-picker) and collections of mini-statues. Devout adherents may be burning incense, kneeling on cushions and bowing. For them, the visit is spiritual. (It is permitted to participate as a one day Buddhist.)
Across the cliff top, Dafo, the tallest Buddha in the world, appears head first. The curly locks were reset in the last five years; the wrinkled face smoothed and redone with weatherproof make-up. If without a camera, a pose and a fee of 15 yuan will develop a Polaroid keepsake. The narrow,shaded Stairs of the Nine Turns descend past shapely biceps to fine hands and perfect fingernails, resting on dimpled knees, beside well-proportioned legs to well-spaced toes. Gender equality is not an issue as Dafo’s old body is neither robed nor nude. Looking up, Dafo is neither handsome nor pretty, but is, without a doubt, unforgettable. Carved out of the sandstone cliff in the 8th century, the mission was to offer safety over the currentsswhereswaters of three rivers swirled together and "swallowed boats" (It has been a long prayer.)
After a better life? This tour offers reassurance. For harmony, a female stands on the black part of the yinyang circle; if male, on the white. A quick rinse of hands and face and a push on the rotating yinyang stone at the water fountain add more balance. To gain merit and enhance karma, pay120 yuan for a sheaf of incense, set alight, bow three times and tosssintosthe flaming cauldron. A scheduled stop offers a Chinese lecture on Chinese herbal medicine. If purchasing, no-one says the same remedies will be one third the price the next day at booths on Mount Emei (Emeishan) from which they’re harvested.
An early, sunny morning start for Mount Emei promises a day to commune with nature. A European-made cable-car drops visitors and pink-jacketed guides 8 minutes later at the foot of 900 steps up to the beautiful, restful Wannian Temple,swheresincense is cheap and the strong scent and flower gardens are pleasant.
A soft rub on an orbed bridge pediment assures a longer life. Inside dimly-lit chambers shine gilded statues, larger than life, surrounded by thousands of miniatures. A smooth stroke to the back leg of a sculpted elephant carrying a smug Buddha on a gilded lotus, will relieve pain. A toad, alone in its pond, responds to clapping hands with a croak. From this serene monk’s complex, attributed to pilgrims from India in the eighth century, it’s all downhill through temperate, sweat-producing, rainforest.
En route, any aerie views are usually shrouded in mist. One hour of the twisty descent is over 3 kilometres of slippery steps. The intrepid or infirm can become easy riders in bamboo sling chairs, suspended between the shoulders of two skinny five-footers. The break at a waterfall and Qingyin pavilion is welcome and a place to decide whether to take the 90 minute round-trip detour to feed and fight off the hungry monkeys.
The hike is fine for the thousands of fit Chinese and few youthful backpackers, but for the rare ex-pat soft adventurers, a rest is preferred. It is another 3 kms further along a paved pathway under the eyes of curious stall vendors to the terminus,swheresa satisfying Sichuan luncheon is served before the fast return to Chengdu.