26/01/17 – Chengdu’s Pandas and the Biggest Buddha of Them All

I’m there with you man, I am tired.

The city of Chengdu, one of China’s oldest and cleanest, is arguably the best for tourists and adventurers if you’re sick of the pollution and rudeness of Beijing, the sheer volume of crowds in Xian, and the intimidating massiveness of Shanghai. It’s easily accessible from a number of bullet-trains and overnight trains from all three of these cities, and has an extremely reasonable population of 12 million in its metropolitan area. It’s also a nice change from the hustle and bustle (and dry plains) of the North of China, introducing some much-needed greenery into the mix.

Although most of it ends up in a giant bamboo pile to feed the pandas.

There are two main sites in and around Chengdu that tourists come to see, and after a week of survey I was ready to be a happy-go-lucky tourist for a couple of days and see them both (of course, by archaeological standards a weeklong survey isn’t long by any means, but considering that I’m following up China with three months in Cambodia surveying Buddhist Terraces for my PhD research, I’m taking all the time I can to travel around and have a bit of fun).

The first, as promised, is the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding, one of the few places on earth where both Giant and Red Pandas outnumber their researchers. The second, which we visited yesterday, is the Leshan Giant Buddha, Tang Dynasty rock-carved Buddha which is approximately 71 meters tall and the world’s largest premodern statue by a significant amount. Saving the best for last, I’ll start with Leshan.

In comparison, Da-fo-si was 36.5 meters. If you want a reference of size, look at the trees by its head.

We got to Leshan yesterday morning after saying goodbye to De Ge and his daughter at the bus stop, and rode two hours from Rongxian on an extremely foggy highway. So foggy, that the high-speed highway was closed down through the morning and made our bus from Leshan to Chengdu half an hour late in the afternoon (buses are so rarely late in China…Erin, I know you’ll correct me on this but this is my first late bus in China). It created a very eerie vibe in the small city as we caught a public bus to the Giant Buddha, and even going over the bridge directly beside the Buddha we couldn’t see a thing.

To get to the Giant Buddha you pass a number of small rock-cut niches and shrines (groan, no more niches!!!!), but it’s the first time during the time leading up to Chinese New Year where the crowds have actually been substantial. It’s like…you’re somewhere where people actually want to go…

And the crowds look even larger if you put them all on a one-person rickety staircase with a bottleneck at the top.

Leshan is, and probably will be for a long time, the largest statue I’ve ever seen, but it’s much more than a statue: it’s a religious complex. It was commissioned in 713 CE by a monk who wanted to quell the current of the stream between his monastery and the town of Leshan on the opposite bank, and is carved into the figure of Maitreya, the Future-Buddha who essentially serves the same purpose as Jesus in the Second Coming (read the Story of the Buddha and the New Testament…they’re suspiciously similar). Da-fo-si at Rongxian was also a Maitreya, but the Leshan Giant Buddha is by far a superior construction:

The proportions are a bit off, but I’d still be terrified if he got up and started walking around, even if he immediately fell down afterward…

The area around Leshan is known for its beautiful red sandstone, but also its tropical climate and its abundance of jungle plants; even in Rongxian you don’t get an idea of how far south you are in China at this point.

The riverbank, completely tangled with ferns, palms, and bamboo.

Leshan also has some impressive carvings similar to the ones we found in and around Rongxian:

The “Vision of Heaven” motif found in a much worse condition at Da-fo-si and Longdong in Rongxian.
You also get post-holes, which means there was a multitude of wooden buildings surrounding the Buddha before they disintegrated. But this monster lives on.

There’s also a nice set of nature trails leading to various shrines and sub-museums, and are definitely better-suited to a set of feet that hadn’t been completely exhausted by a week of survey consisting of climbing up and down mountains on a diet of rice, vegetable stalks, and low-grade meat – did I mention I’ve lost ten pounds? Digressing, Leshan is a beautiful place to spend an afternoon, and for once it’s a place I would recommend going in the winter because the humidity and heat in Sichuan turns Chengdu into a boiler in the summer. Plus, as Francesca laments, Leshan is insanely crowded during the summer and the staircase you saw above can take upwards of two hours of queuing to reach the top of.

But enough about giant Buddhas, niches, and those 3D models that I’m currently breaking into chunks in order to not have my RAM run out: it’s Panda-time!

But first a word from our sponsors: Panda(TM)
And Angry Panda(TM)

Despite Chengdu’s new slogan: “Chengdu: More Than Pandas”, the city is Panda Crazy!!! Every gift shop, general store, museum, airport, kiosk, and building-front are littered with pandas. Every billboard has a picture of a panda eating bamboo, and every car has a small panda on its dashboard. And the products are ridiculous: panda plush toys, stickers, pens, notebooks, hats, sweaters, vests, gloves, action figures, cell phone cases (both plastic and furry), nun-chucks, perfume (eau de panda?) – the list goes on.

The Panda Collection: By Dolce & Gabbana

But I had dragged Francesca away from a bullet-train from Chongqing to Beijing to spend a few more days in the South looking at pandas, so obviously I’d been hypnotized at the prospect of seeing these adorable fur-balls up close as well. There’s two main places you can see pandas in Chengdu: the first is at the Chengdu Zoo, which is actually quite a good zoo by China standards but isn’t quite what you come to Chengdu for. The second, what brings millions of tourists through to Chengdu every year, is:


Founded in 1987, this NGO research facility, which I’m proud to say is partnered with the Metro Toronto Zoo in my own hometown, is the primary panda research center in China. During the 1980s, Giant Pandas had been hunted to the edge of extinction (and on a diet of bamboo most of them are impotent), but through a rigorous breeding program this organization was able to take six pandas rescued from the wild and breed them and their offspring to a point where 124 individuals had reached adulthood. 83 of those pandas remained in captivity. Now, Giant Pandas in the wild are still endangered, but organizations like this one help both breed and release adult specimens both Sichuan and Yunnan Provinces to unite with the wild populations that have survived.

For me, it was a chance to expand on the experience I had at the Metro Toronto Zoo a few years ago visiting the two pandas on loan from China…who were completely passed out in the summer sun.

These ones were incredibly active, playful, and most of all hungry. This guy above had so much bamboo (their staple diet) that he had no idea which one to pick first.

Here’s some of the best shots of Giant and Red Pandas (their red, raccoon-like cousins) from the day. And yes, there are baby pandas. And yes, they are cute as hell.

The panda equivalent of two bros and a bucket of wings.
But sometimes you have to just do you.
Doing his best John Coltrane impression.
Apparently the Research Center can’t grow enough of its own bamboo to feed 83 pandas so they buy the crops of local farmers.
But they don’t know any better. So they eat. And eat. And eat.
Two panda twins rough-housing.
And another frolicking and rolling around.
This was before heading up so far into the tree that she couldn’t get down, so she grabbed a bough and gravity did its work.
This is what I mean by cute as hell.
Red Pandas. Less endangered but less beloved.
In Canada we’d wonder what happened between a cat and a raccoon one night…
His conversation with that stump seemed both intense and metaphysical so I didn’t interrupt and ask for a selfie.

The Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding is ridiculously accessible, with special Panda Buses running from Xiongmao Road (literally Panda Road) Subway Station on Chengdu Line 3 and a special kiosk at the Chengdu International Airport. The price, too, is pretty tame by Chinese standards (RMB58 or MB29 for students/elderly), and the Panda Bus is included one-way…although it only costs 2RMB on the way back.

And there were also a few peacocks:


That plumage…turning me into a bird-lover.


Chengdu’s panda-crazy has also combined with some pretty fierce Chinese New Year decorations. Here’s some of the most excessive displays I’ve seen over the past two days in and around the city:


Plush pandas and plush roosters – this is one of about seven ridiculous displays at the Research Center featuring pandas and roosters.



This was at the Research Center as well, along the road to the pandas. It was a bit of a sensory overload.



The first lit ones I’ve seen.


Wuhou Shrine, a kitsch new cultural center on the grounds of an old Confucian temple – this row of lanterns went for nearly half a mile.

So that’s it for me today – I’m leaving for Xian tonight and then Luoyang tomorrow to visit Longmen Grottoes, arguably the most famous Buddhist grotto site in all of China, on the way back to Beijing. But before I go, here’s the last piece of Panda Propaganda I saw today, and I have no idea what this creative committee was smoking:


That is exactly what it looks like…

Andrew Harris




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