Pandas and a Gigantic Buddha in China
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Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda BreedingThe panda is on the endangered species list, and only about 2000 survive in the wild. Due to loss of habitat, they are mainly confined to bamboo forests in remote, out of the way high mountain areas and, even if you can get there, are extremely difficult to find.
Chengdu used to be a favoured location for them, and it's here, only about an hour bus ride from the city centre that the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding was established in 1987.
Although, as the name suggests, their main concern is with research into and conservation of these delightful creatures, it still attracts visitors from all over the world which, in turn, provides funds for the base's work.
There are, of course, pandas in some other zoos throughout the world. Usually, they just sit around looking cute and cuddly, and generally being pandas. It' pretty much the same here -- except there are many more of them. And, it does add an extra thrill to see them in something approaching their natural home.
In spite of its popularity, I was surprised to find it wasn't as crowded as I expected. We had a good sight of the pandas, which I was able to photograph and video easily.
There's also a small colony of red pandas, which are much more active, agile creatures. They aren't really pandas at all -- at least, not related in any way to the giant panda. But, someone thought they were, so the name stuck. Since they, too, are an endangered species, they also found a home here.
There are other things to see and do in Chengdu in addition.
Leshan and the Giant BuddhaThe city of Leshan is a short coach-ride away -- or, if you want to travel independently, there are frequent buses and trains. It stands near the confluence of three rivers, the Minjiyang, the Dadu and the Qingyl.
In ancient times, this was a very turbulent stretch of water, and many boatmen were lost trying to negotiate it. Around 700 AD, a monk named Hai Tong suggested that the waters might be calmed if a gigantic statue of the Maitreya Buddha was carved from the hillside, facing the sacred Mount Emei.
Surprisingly, the statue did have the desired effect, for the vast amount of stone and rubble falling into the river from the construction served to calm the waters.
The sitting figure is 71 metres (233 feet) tall, and, since the destruction of the statues at Bamyian, in Afghanistan is now the tallest Buddha statue in the world. A sophisticated drainage system within the statue ensures some protection from the effects of the elements.
Although many people set out to climb the stairs on either side, I don't think this is really the most satisfactory way to see it. Even disregarding the number of steps to be negotiated, you also have to deal with the hordes of people climbing them. Also, you won't be able to see the statues flanking the giant figure from the land; the best viewpoint is from the river. But, the crowds swarming ant-like up those steps did give an idea of how big the thing was.
The river view is quite easily arranged. Many boats take the short cruise from Leshan, and they sail close enough to the immense statue to ensure a good close-up view, then move further away, to give a better overall view -- something that wouldn't be possible from the shore.
It's an extravaganza of acrobatics, puppetry, shadow play, fire-eating and "face changing" -- and some singing, of course.
You probably wouldn't understand the words but, as happens with an opera in Italian or French at home, words don't really matter. It's the singing and music we go to hear, and, in this case, to see the opulent spectacle.
They attempted to give an idea of the story in English; An opera student named Sanquin fell in love with a girl called Huanhua. However, she was stolen away by the villainous Childe Ma, who ordered his henchmen to burn Sanquin's face.
So, he hid his face behind a mask, which, with the encouragement of Huanhua and the Master of the Opera, he practiced changing these masks so skilfully that the eye just couldn't detect the instant of changing. He eventually became "king of the face changers", and those who re-enact his role can also change six masks as adroitly and skilfully as he could.
(And, if you think this sounds vaguely like the story of *The Phantom of the Opera -- I wonder if the original story may have been based upon this tale?)
Of course, no evening out would be complete without a meal, and we dined in one of the quirkiest restaurants I've been in for a long time. We had actually seen the restaurant as we passed earlier in the day, and all of us did a double-take at it. How did they get a good-sized *cruise ship *so far inland?
Closer inspection proved, however, that this was no ship, just a building shaped like one. And, it was to this building, the Wanlihao Grand Hotel, that we went for dinner that night.
But, it wasn't really a replica of a modern cruise ship. It was more like one of yesteryear, with its art deco-ish styling; a throwback to the days when cruising was cruising. Or, rather, how we think cruising used to be, for it was well beyond the pockets of most people in those days.
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Having written as a hobby for many years while serving in the Royal Air Force, Keith Kellett saw no reason to discontinue his hobby when he retired to a village in the south of England, near Stonehenge. With time on his hands, he produced more work, and found, to his surprise, it 'grew and grew' and was good enough to finance his other hobbies; travelling, photography and computers. He is trying hard to prevent it from becoming a full-time job.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author