After the “Big Gun” sights of Beijing and Xian, our Imprint tour moved on to Sichuan Province. We had four nights in Sichuan and engaged in four top drawer activities while there. An early flight departure from Xian was trying but bought us an afternoon activity on our way to the sacred mountain, Emai Shan. After a spicy Sichuan lunch we boarded a boat on the Minjiang River. Our waterborne excursion led us to one of those jaw-dropping sights most Americans don’t even know about. We visited the Leshan Buddha. Carved from a sandstone cliff, the LB is nothing less than the largest seated Buddha statue in the world. The Buddha, which faces out over the river, is 1200+ years old and a whopping 230+ feet tall. His big toes are 5 feet long. Pilgrims and tourists climbing up, over, and around the Buddha are dwarfed by it's tremendous scale. We had the perfect vantage from the top deck of our excursion boat. Leaving Leshan behind, we continued to Emei Shan, the Golden Mount. We settled into our hotel and had another spicy meal together before retiring. The next day we made the long trek (OK, shuttle bus and cable car) up to the top of one of China’s most sacred Buddhist mountains. ES has been revered by Buddhists for centuries as a place of spiritual enlightenment. For the first time on the tour, the weather was against us. It was lightly raining as we departed and dense clouds covered up the views as the shuttle bus wound up the switch back mountain road. A brisk, uphill walk brought us to the cable car station and we were whisked to the summit in comfort. At the top our positive tour karma exerted itself and a slight breeze swirled the clouds allowing peekaboo views of the surrounding landscape. I’m sure on a clear day the views are truly stunning. But the clear highlight of ES is the tremendous statue of Samantabhadra the crowns the summit. It is spectacular. The clouds parted several times for us, revealing the dazzlingly bright, gilt gold statue of Samantabhadra mounted on four immense elephants. At the foot of the stairs leading to the religious figure are braziers of and for incense. The faithful buy incense sticks, light them, and place them at the foot of the steps, much like Catholics do when lighting candles in a church. Tourists mingle with monks and porters. The porters carried building materials on their backs up, up, up the many steps to the temple.
The following day was had our cultural connection experience for the tour. At Imprint we always try to build in an activity that connects us as genuinely as possible with some everyday locals. On this tour, we visited a rural Sichuan tea farm and learned about tea cultivation and preparation from the host family. Another lightly rainy day did nothing to dampen our spirits as we were taken out into the terraces to pick tea leaves. Then back to the farm to learn about processing and “roasting” the leaves. A big highlight was the ancient patriarch who insisted on participating in the explanations though he knew not a word of English. But his passion and pride were evident in any language, and he charmed us thoroughly. We concluded our visit with a home-cooked meal, one of the best of the tour. Traveling with Intent!
Our final Sichuan activity was a visit to the famous Panda Breeding and Research center in Chengdu. Chengdu is another Chinese mega-city of multiple millions. But the previous days’ rain had cleared the air, and we again had blue skies and clean air for our visit. And the visit can only be described with one word (OK, two): UTTERLY CHARMING! My personal expectations were not great for the pandas. It seemed like little more than a zoo visit. But the Panda Center in Chengdu is a massive operation and one gets to see many pandas in nearly exact natural environments. Our guide Dennis got us to the park early when the usually somnambulant bears are most active. We saw very young pandas, full-grown adults chomping happily on bamboo, and adolescents wrestling and climbing trees. It charmed my socks off. And as a bonus, the park was crawling with school groups. Each group marching along two-by-tow in their school uniforms. Many wanted to engage and use their stock English phrases. So the morning was vigorously punctuated by cries of “hello”, “how are you?”, and “What is your name?”. Hand shakes or high fives often followed and the connection greatly enhanced the day’s delight.
We concluded our excellent Sichuan visit with classic Chengu Hot Pot dinner. My lips are still tingling two weeks later.