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I had no idea... Leshan, Emei Shan and the Wood Museum
by Dave Lambert - Oct 22, 2015
In China some of the things you see on the way to or from the main attraction can be as amazing as the famous sight you came to visit. I'd heard of the Grand Buddha at Leshan, Sichuan, the largest carved Buddha in the world. I'm already in Chengdu with a Chinese friend, who organises a two day bus tour.
The construction of the 71m (233 ft) statue was started in 713 AD but, due to insufficient funding wasn't completed until ninety years later. It was built in the hope that it would calm the turbulent waters of three rivers (Qing Yi, Da Du He and Min), that join at Leshan and apparently so much rock was removed in building the statue and tipped into the water that the currents were altered and it actually became safer for shipping. That's doing it the hard way though.
Leshan Da Fo
I'm determined not to overwork such words as, “colossal”, “gigantic”, “incredible” etc. and the only way I can avoid it is to create my own version of the conversation that led to their creation. Not historically accurate by any means but this is how it might have happened...
Master: We need a great symbol to represent the Buddha where those three rivers join.
Disciple (nervously): What do you have in mind?
M: There's a huge sandstone cliff overlooking the confluence, you know, near Leshan.
D: Er, yes. You'd like a statue of the Buddha on top?
M: I'm thinking it would look more impressive if we made the Buddha actually out of the cliff.
D: Are you serious, Master? It's solid sandstone. The cliff is over seventy meters high.
D: It'd take a good ninety years.
M: Time is illusory. By the way, you could carve some steps either side so future generations can appreciate the oneness of the Buddha and the cliff.
D: They'd be too steep. Visitors could kill themselves...
M: Death too is illusory...
Leshan Da Fo
After negotiating the incredibly narrow, uneven steps on the far side of the Grand Buddha there is the first “I had no idea…” moment; a large grotto on the other side of the cliff, carved out of the sandstone within the last century...
Master (a later one): We need something to complement the Great Buddha.
Disciple (nervously): What do you have in mind? (Quickly), There's no space for another seventy one meter high statue.
M: No, no, something that represents the sunyata, the emptiness that is the essence of matter. A carving of the one thousand armed deity in the cave on the other side.
D (puzzled): There is no cave on the other side.
M: The cave is there. With right intention, right action, right effort, right mindfulness you will perceive it.
D: I don't understand...
M: By removing the stone, which you know is purely illusory, the cave will be revealed.
D: (dismayed): It's what others might call carving. On the other side of the cliff. By hand?
M (with a satisfied smile): You are attaining clarity. We can call it a grotto if it makes it easier for you.
D (wearily): OK, I'll get some tools. How many arms on the one thousa – ah! It's OK, I remember.
Grotto in Leshan
The photos, taken on a grey, miserable day and can't possibly do full justice to the collection of statues, temples and pagodas, spread over a huge area with, of course, thousands of steps, maybe another reason why Chinese people are generally so slim. It's common to see people in their seventies and eighties here making their way up and down the most daunting climbs.
Leshan Da Fo
On a Chinese tour it is normal to be taken to various “museums” along the way, in the hope that you will buy something from the shop which is usually its major constituent. I assume the “Wood Museum” at nearby Suji will be the same. It's not. I had no idea...
Ebony here means not the African or Asian timber straight from the tree but wood that has lain underground for thousands of years and, hardening and darkening in the process. It is actually mined, not cut down, around Leshan and sometimes found when dredging the rivers. There are colossal (oops, I used that word, but it's appropriate) chunks of the stuff including whole trees and other, abstract, pieces created by the roots. Lots of guards and “No photography” signs. What a pity. There are pieces around 5 m (16 ft) long and 2 m (6 ft) high depicting famous historical Chinese stories, covered in small, intricately carved figures. After walking out thinking we are going back to the bus we are led into another building, with all of the Buddha's original disciples carved life size in row after row of beautifully crafted statues. As you can see I did photograph these. It's hard to believe both the scale and intricacy of the work. There are 500 of them! I had no idea...
500 Disciples in Ebony Museum
Craftsman 1: Hey, I'm pretty stuffed after carving that five meter long chunk of ebony into a detailed depiction of the Battle of Red Cliff. I don't even have room for it at home.
Craftsman 2: I know how you feel. I just finished the Dream of the Red Chamber.
C1: I want something a bit smaller for the next one. I was thinking maybe one of the Buddha's disciples.
C2: Great idea, I could do one too.
C1: Hey, mine turned out really well. Fancy doing another one?
C2: Yeah, lets...
C1: I've got two hundred and fifty now. And you?
C2: Yeah, same. That's all of them. What can we do with them?
C1: They're building this big museum down the road. They'd probably take the Battle of Red Cliff and the Dream of the Red Chamber too.
C2: I hear they've got an ebony carving of the one thousand armed deity, more than three meters high.
C1: That's crazy, hands are always the hardest bit to get right....
I can almost excuse the cheap lunch (the Chinese people on the tour are all obviously put out, finding that it consists of boiled rice and several dishes of green vegetables but only one small meat dish and one bony fish. The Extreme Budget hotel (not it's real name but it should be) at Emei Shan would be excusable IF there were hot water from the amazing contraption on the bathroom wall, which looks a little like the Time Machine from the H.G. Wells novel of the same name. There is no hot water in the morning either. A few days on the farm in Guangxi last week was good training (that's a story for another day).
I realise I know nothing about Emei Shan (Mount Emei). I gather it's a temple, one of four main Buddhist sites in China. Oh, well, maybe just another temple, I bet there will be a lot of steps, otherwise my expectations are a blank. After a breakfast as frugal as yesterday's lunch and dinner, we find the ticket office is in fact a bus station, with twelve ticket kiosks. For a visit to a temple? I'm intrigued. Not too many people around as it's a grey, foggy, winter morning. It can hardly be worth getting out of bed for. My expectations are low.
We finally get on a bus, once the computer system is restored. I could have written the tickets by hand (in Chinese) in half the time. The bus just keeps going, up, for an hour and a half. We have left the fog behind, the pine forests on the slopes all around are covered in snow and I'm surprised the driver doesn't stop to fit snow chains. The sky is now a deep blue, the only clouds to be seen are below us. This is the most fantastic view I've seen for ages. I had no idea...
Squirrel in Emei Shan
I am offered some metal spikes which are tied around your shoes. I should have taken them really. I manage the next stage of the journey up the steps covered with packed snow to the cable car station. That's another half hour or so with stops to take photos, to pick yourself up or to pick up fellow travelers whom you have knocked over during your fall. The local inhabitants range from intimidating (the perpetually hungry Tibetan macaques), to utterly charming (the tiny squirrels).
Macaque in Emei Shan
By the time we have reached the top in the cable car the clouds are well and truly below us and the view is one of the most magnificent I have ever seen. The original wooden temple burned down but another has been built, not all that big but quite recent and beautifully finished in gold. The most arresting sight is the golden statue of the Buddha, sitting on four, six-tusked elephants, with four serene faces looking north, south, east and west, another four on top of those facing between the cardinal directions and… just look at the pictures. I had no idea...
Despite the snow and the altitude it feels quite warm up here. It's great to feel the sun's warmth again. I am feeling short of breath. Not surprising as the peak is 3,100 m (10,100 ft) high. The scenery itself is breathtaking. There is a tiny temple building on a slightly higher peak some way along a path. It's tempting to go but I'm not sure when the bus goes back. That “small temple” is actually a three storey building.
The trip (literally on the snow covered walk back to the bus from the cable car) down the mountain and back into the cloudy, grey base of Emei Shan is largely spent sleeping. I think the rarified air has had a dramatic effect on all the travelers, a busload of sleeping heads, a collection of inverted pendulums ticking off the bends as we negotiate the hairpin road to the bottom. It's followed by another commendable effort by the caterers at a late (3 pm) lunch in competition with yesterday's rice and cabbage speciality restaurant to see how cheaply we can be fed.
There are thirty three temples, at various levels at Emei Shan. We visit one more, not, of course, as spectacular as the main attraction on the peak and TFS has by now set in. That's Temple Fatigue Syndrome for those not accustomed to such intensive, step-rich environments. You have no idea...