When In Roam

Carl Chu's Food & Travel Blog

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Day Trip to Leshan -- Sichuan Province

I took a day trip from Chengdu to see the Giant Buddha of Leshan (樂山), a stone sculpture carved out of a tall cliff facing a spot where three rivers converge. In 1996, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and since 2001, it is the world’s largest Buddha following the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan by the Taliban.

Legend tells the story of a local monk named Haitong who devoted his life to building the Buddha so that boaters would be protected from the rivers’ turbulent waters. And indeed the Buddha has accomplished that. The stones chiseled off the cliff were dropped into the rivers, slowing the currents such that the rivers became forever safe for sailing.

It is a two hour drive to Leshan. You could either take a bus or hire a car. The concierge at the Sheraton suggested a private van tour for RMB 2,200, or roughly $275. I went outside the hotel and found a taxi who agreed to take me there and back for RMB 600, plus tolls (about $75). So off I went.

There are actually a lot more things to see at Leshan than the Giant Buddha itself. On the hills behind the sculpture is a sprawling complex of Buddhist shrines and monasteries. There are also several hiking trails, gardens, and true to the Sichuan love for ambience, teahouses.

To get to the Buddha itself, you have to make a grueling hike up to the top of the sculpture. Then you walk down a steep staircase down to the feet, and then climb back from the other side. It was nearly three in the afternoon when I finished my climb. The taxi driver was waiting for me in the parking lot, as promised. I bought him lunch before heading back to the city.

We drove through the town of Leshan itself and found it a colorless assortment of stores and apartments. Nothing struck us as particularly appetizing, so we decided to just bear our hunger and head back. Then, across the street from the bus station at the outskirts of town, we came upon an eatery filled with local people. We stopped in.

I was overjoyed when I first glanced at the menu. I did not recognize a single dish on it because everything was local! The proprietor of the place was a saucy lady with a curvaceous smile. She recognized right away that I wasn’t a local. She didn’t believe me when I told her I was from Taiwan, so I elaborated that I came from Taiwan via America. That satisfied her, and she began answering my questions about the dishes and describing them in tremendous detail. She wasn’t really trying to hard sell me, but obviously she recommended much more dishes than the driver and I could possibly eat. But I happily obliged, not wanting to miss out on this opportunity to taste some real local flavor.

The food was delicious—simple and rustic, yet the flavors were pleasingly complex. It was true Sichuan cooking, deeply ingrained with the prosperous peasantry that has long inhabited this blessed land. And yet, despite the generally accepted reputation of Sichuan food, these dishes were not exceptionally hot. Yes, you see a lot of red chilies, but their use is controlled and balanced with the multitudes of flavors from the other ingredients.

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