A Travellerspoint blog

August 2007

Eye to eye with China's biggest Buddha

. . . and the eye was three metres wide!

overcast 31 °C

As an avid reader of Jacquie & Lloyd’s Grand Tour blog, I gladly seized the opportunity to join them for the first part of their China leg. And, having had the audacity not only to participate but to amend their itinerary to include Leshan and Juizhaigou, I was “rewarded” with an invitation to write up our visit to the Grand Buddha of Leshan – so please excuse the temporary drop in quality.

Deciding to forego the challenge of the slightly cheaper but more time consuming public buses, we opted for a negotiated flat-fare taxi (negotiated by the hotel concierge that is, our Mandarin not being quite what it should be) and set off – relieved to be in the charge of a young, sober and awake driver. Having passed through the venerable but unsightly industrial town of Leshan, we pulled in at what I astutely observed looked more like a petrol station than the entrance to a tourist attraction. Our driver, being almost as deficient in English as we in Mandarin, began motioning for us to get out. After attempts to question where we went from this point to reach the Buddha, we hesitantly did so, and our attention was directed to a nearby sign. It turned out that it was a CNG filling station (Liquid Propane or similar) – and passengers were required to leave for safety reasons. This was graphically illustrated by photographs showing the back end of cars destroyed by explosions.


Buoyed by this concern for our welfare, Jacquie & I were lulled into sufficient complacency to brave the bathrooms. Needless to say, the enforced safety measures did not equate to any similar effort on the hygiene or odor front – you had to be able to hold your breath for the duration and concentrate your efforts in spite of fume-induced eye watering. I remain convinced that a naked flame in the vicinity of the toilets would have yielded the same results as a fuel explosion. Anyway, safely avoiding both hazards, we proceeded to the “Buddhist Paradise Amusement Park”.


Hand-carved into the rock face where the rivers Min, Qingyi and Dadu meet, the giant (233 feet tall) Buddha is certainly impressive. Work began in the year 713 and it took over 90 years to complete. Which is about the same amount of time it would take you to descend the narrow stone stairway beside it if you didn’t hold your ground against the coach-loads of very pushy (literally!) Chinese tourists. Whilst most Chinese we’ve encountered in other scenarios have been perfectly polite and charming, the tour groups seem to adopt a ruthless herd mentality and abandon all courtesy. As visiting Leshan also involved a four hour round trip, I’m afraid that none of us was able to obtain enlightenment in the face of such bad karma. However, the Monastery in the grounds was a much calmer experience – which I think Jacquie and Lloyd found more rewarding than the Buddha itself – I guess size really isn’t the most important thing when it comes to enjoyment!



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Almost Failing to Leave Yangshuo

Missing Boats and Drunken Drivers: Our Last Day in Guilin

sunny 34 °C

I’m sure that even a few years ago, it would have been very easy to find a bamboo raft to take you down the Yulong, but we found that our guide book information, internet research, and even information supplied by the hotel was outdated. Nonetheless, we headed out first thing on Friday, with the intention of walking for about an hour before renting a bamboo raft to take us back to our riverside hotel.



The walk was staggeringly beautiful. The karst landscape is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and the long river valley, with it’s lush green fields and tall bamboo groves lining the Yulong, perfectly framed with karsts, surely ranks as one of the most stunning vistas I have had the privilege to witness. It was hot and very humid, however, and – local farmers and builders aside – we were the only pedestrians. Bemused groups of Chinese tourists drove by in air conditioned vehicles, while western tourists bumped by on bone-shaking bicycles.

Working bamboo rafts, however, were more sparse than we were expecting. Turns out that the Government has clamped down on bamboo raft operators, perhaps contributing to our discovery that it was no longer possible to secure a raft on the route we needed to get us back to the hotel! With a plane to catch, we headed back at speed, picking up a couple of licensed rafts to take us the last half mile or so to the hotel. In retrospect, we were probably lucky NOT to pick up rafts earlier – it was very relaxing, and we were pleased to experience the karsts (and indeed the Mountain Retreat hotel) from a different perspective, but if we had picked up a raft where we had initially hoped, we’d likely have been late back to the hotel.

Lloyd and I floating down the Yulong...

Martin enjoying his Bamboo Raft. The Yangshuo Mountain Retreat Hotel is in the background. And yes, the karsts are that big.

After a much needed shower, we had time for one last lunch before climbing into the taxi for the one-and-a-half hour drive back to Guilin airport. We were disappointed to find that our return vehicle was not the comfortable, air-conditioned Volkswagen we had arrived in, but a regular taxi whose windows were more effective than the installed AC. No problem; after our fourteen hour bus rides, Lloyd and I can put up with intense heat and clammy skin for longer than the 90 minutes it would take to get to Guilin airport! Even more concerning, though, to find that our driver was either drunk or sleep-deprived, requiring regular stops to visit the bathroom and/or purchase multiple cans of Red Bull to keep him awake at the wheel. On more than one occasion, we discussed as a group whether we should bail out, but took responsibility instead to try and keep him awake. Martin was assigned to monitoring eye movement to see if he actually fell asleep at the wheel, while Lloyd would erupt with some kind of noise at strategic moments (i.e. when a big truck was headed at us) to ensure the driver was alert enough to deal with it. It’s the first time we haven’t tipped a driver since we’ve been here.

At Guilin airport, our Air China flight was delayed but passed without incident. A fairly decent Horror-Box was an unexpected surprise, and we arrived in Chengdu at about 7.30pm, reaching the hotel about an hour later. While we loved the Yangshuo Mountain Retreat, we were extremely grateful for the Holiday Inn’s power shower. We planned our three night/two day stay in Chengdu over drinks in the bar, while soft mattresses and lush duvets gently called us to slumber.

Posted by jacquiedro 08:08 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (1)

Karst Nirvana

Biking, Boating, Hiking and Sweating in Rural China

sunny 33 °C

After a light breakfast, we headed out to Moon Hill on the poorly maintained bikes we had rented from the Retreat. Lloyd’s back brake didn’t work so well, and the frame of my bike was so large my feet barely touched the ground, but the bikes were appropriately sturdy for the millions of pot-holes that – together – are called ‘roads’ around here. While our map was drawn with the best of intentions, we found ourselves a little off-route, which turned out to be simply perfect as we cycled through small picture-perfect villages with many Chinese in bamboo hats bent over attending to their rice paddies.



The pot holes were taking their toll, however (I think the Mongolian horses were more comfortable!), and we finally joined a main road about 1 kilometer or so from Moon Hill. As we drew closer, Martin and I observed a young Chinese racing after Lloyd (actually on a distinctly better bicycle than any of us were riding). When we pulled up to Moon Hill, the young lady was still hovering around us, only now with two friends. As we paid our entrance fee, I assumed that they were looking for tips to look after our bikes while we climbed, but someone else took 1 yuan each to lock up the bikes until our return. As we left the bike parking lot, all three ladies walked with us, and – with wide, un-rejectable smiles – indicated that they would be pleased to guide us and sell us cold soft drinks if we needed them at the top.

As I said, they were so engaging and pleasant that it was unthinkable to shoo them away. We started the climb, each of the three of us closely attended to by one of the young ladies. It was extremely humid in Yangshuo, and the hundreds of winding stairs quickly took their toll on us all. The ladies – as out of breath as we were – focused on their potential customers, however, and each fanned us furiously. Our discomfort at being fanned would have been obvious to any western outsider, but at the same time, we so desperately needed the (marginally!) cooler air that we could do nothing but accept it.


With our legs trembling as we approached the top, we still had little idea whether the view from the top of Moon Hill would be worth the extraordinary effort it took all six of us to get there. Happily, the wonderful karst scenery stretched out as far as the eye could see in every direction, and – although we had brought plenty of water – we celebrated the view with cold drinks purchased only to ensure that our guides would be rewarded for their efforts.


A young Chinese couple at the top confused us a little by offering to take a photo of the three of us and then asking not for a picture of them in return, but a picture of me with the young Chinese lady, and then a picture of Lloyd and Martin with the young Chinese man. We graciously went along with the scheme, although the fact that they gave me and had me wear a fresh floral tiara had us all wondering whether I had been selected as the sacrifice for some mysterious Chinese ceremony later that night!



As we descended the hill, our three Chinese guides invited us to lunch with them in the nearby village. At 20 yuan each (about US$2.50), we figured that it had to be worth the experience even if (i) this turned out to be a horrid tourist trap or (ii) the food turned out to be completely inedible. As we pulled our bikes up to their house, it was clear that they weren’t expecting to ‘sell’ lunch that day; chairs were hastily cleared and young children sent away so that we could be seated, and all three ladies disappeared into the kitchen for the next thirty minutes to prepare our lunch. Everything was cooked from scratch: squash and potatoes were peeled on the kitchen floor by one lady, while red onion and tomatoes were chopped by another. It was only when the ‘beef’ was prepared that the door was closed to us visitors; I was keeping a close eye on the cats in the vicinity to make sure none disappeared, and the beef really did taste beefy….. Our spread was wonderfully fresh and tasty, and I think we all surprised ourselves (especially me!) by the amount I was able to eat.


Yangshou is primarily a Chinese tourist destination. The ladies claimed that there were so many guides waiting for the opportunity to take “people-not-like-us” (i.e. non-Chinese) up the hill that they only made the trip twice a week, making 20 yuan per cold drink sold. So, we were very pleased that we were able to share lunch and contribute a few more yuan to the family coffers. It was a feast that we will never forget.

With only two days in Yangshuo, I felt guilty not getting out and about on Wednesday afternoon, but the fact is it was so hot and humid that it required superhuman amounts of efforts to do anything – even nothing! We rested up and headed out early on Thursday morning for an hour long drive out of XingPing where we rented a boat to cruise to the ‘Fishing Village’. This had been highly recommended as ‘unspoilt’ in our guide-book, but really that couldn’t have been further from the truth: food stalls and tacky souvenir stalls lined the winding, narrow cobblestone alleyways, and we had to seek out areas of the village that might reveal how it once was. Fact is, these villagers rely now on tourists more than fish, and we thought it a great pity. Areas of the village once devoted to industry were abandoned, and tens of villagers simply lay around – literally – waiting for a tourist to part with a couple of yuan.

Me Investing Two Yuan in a Mobile Air Conditioning Unit

Bill Clinton Was Here!

Perhaps the fault lies with Bill Clinton who – in 1998 - visited the village while US President and put the Fishing Village on the tourist map. We took our photos for 5 yuan each (and endured being shown where the President stood – exactly – and how many secret service agents there were and where they stood – exactly), and headed out just as three or four large boats of Chinese tourists pulled up.

So, if the Fishing Village wasn’t the highlight we had hoped for, the boat ride certainly was. Karsts flew by us on both sides, while cows plunged into the Yulong’s waters, anxious to cool down as indeed we were. Over time, the karsts have earned names based on their shape (e.g. Lion on a Carp’s back, Five Fingers), but as our Chinese boat-driver’s English vocabulary was limited to “hello”, he resorted to sign language to share the names with us. Boats with hundreds of Chinese tourists looked bemused as they passed the three white people in their own private boat, apparently playing charades with their Chinese minder. Each new round punctuated by “hello, hello?” with a vigorous point to the next subject karst.


Once back in XingPing, we took a stroll around the town, and actually felt as if we got closer to ‘real’ Chinese life by walking down some of the back-streets than we had at the Fishing Village. Just as we were finding our way back to our taxi, we heard some fire-crackers in a nearby street and dashed to see what all the noise was about. We’re still not quite sure, but we assumed that we were the very fortunate witnesses of a ceremony for a new home or business.

Feeling quite pleased with our day, we headed back to the Mountain Retreat for much needed showers and some cold drinks. The only thing left on our ‘Yangshuo To Do’ list was a ride on a bamboo raft, and that would have to be left for our final morning.

View From Our Room at the Mountain Retreat

Posted by jacquiedro 06:46 Archived in China Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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