It?s not really getting any warmer as I head south. I?m still carrying around the coat I bought in Xi?an and the scarf and hat I bought in Xiahe.
My first short stop from Chengdu was Leshan, a town which is overpriced and moving as fast as it can toward Westernization. Towns like Chengdu and Xi?an are already very Western with McDonalds and skyscrapers but they still have a few pockets of traditional buildings. Leshan consists mostly of large tile-covered ?modern? buildings. The town has one tourist attraction–the largest Buddha in the world. Since it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site prices have doubled and it?s nearly impossible to see the Buddha through the swarm of Chinese tour groups. I took the ferry to the far island and made my way through the temple complex to the other island where the Buddha is. The tourist literature proclaims ?The mountain is the Buddha! The Buddha is the mountain!? Which is true in a way because the Buddha is the entire height of the mountain, but I wouldn?t exactly call it a mountain–it?s more like a large hill. Still, it is impressive when you get up close to it. A small path has been carved into the side of the hill so tourists can walk from the head down to the feet. I fought my way through the tour groups to the first viewing platform but couldn?t get any further. People were shoving each other to get to the railing and I decided that although eventually I may be able to fight my way down I may get hurt in the process. I waited back at the top for the tour groups to disperse but they just kept coming. After a while I gave up, went back to town, ate some dumplings and caught a quick bus to Emei Shan.
Mount Emei, a holy Buddhist mountain, is only 40 minutes from Leshan. A lot of people hike the entire route to ?The Golden Summit? and back down again over the course of 2-3 days. However, I decided that one day of hiking was enough for me and took a bus halfway up the mountain to start. The mountain is covered with temples interconnected with stone steps. There are very few flat surfaces, you spend most of your time walking up or down steps. I started at a nice but overcrowded temple called Wannian Si. It had some interesting statues of Buddha riding an elephant and distinctive architecture. I watched in amusement as the Chinese tourists were taught how to pray and bow with incense by their tour guides for their photo op. Following the crowds I walked down toward another small temple sitting over a waterfall and further on to the ?joking monkey zone.? Mount Emei has a lot of indigenous monkeys. They?re quite small and harmless but tourists find them extremely entertaining for some reason. I quickly headed back up the mountain to a small Monastery called Hongchunping. Along the path I only saw a handful of people and I was finally able to enjoy the trees and streams. The monastery wasn?t especially impressive but I was happy to get away from the crowds. Just below the site was a small shack where a friendly woman cooked me fried noodles with vegetables while I watched a Chinese soap opera on her satellite TV. She seemed very pleased with me and my interest in her little white dog named Toto. Walking back down the steps wasn?t as difficult but when I got to the path that could lead me down to a bus or across to more temples it started to rain. Apparently I was very lucky because it appears to rain here most of the time. Overall the mountain was unimpressive but worth a day if you have the time.
I am not sure which route I will take over the next few weeks. I have a 12-hour train tonight followed by a 6-hour bus ride to Lijiang in the Yunnan Province. After that I may head north to Tiger Leaping Gorge if I?m feeling athletic. I would like to see a number of areas in the South and Western areas of the province but am torn between spending a lot of time there and heading into the northern area of Vietnam or heading all the way out to Yangshuo near Guilin.