Sichuan (or Sezchuan) is famed for its spicy food - we loved it, the cultural and scenic spots, and the pandas. At 84M people, it is China's most populous province.
We got to Leshan by waving the little note to the right at the ticket window - we had become adept at having bilingual locals write out instructions in Mandarin. Leshan, a small city (only 3,400,000, close to the population of NZ), has one claim to fame in the tourist guides: DÓ Fˇ, or the Giant Buddha, a 71m high sitting Buddha statue. It was interesting, but we had one of our best experiences when a local tour guide, Mr. Yang, gave us a cultural tour of the nearby village of Suji. His tour included:
Pedicab - A pedicab ride into the village,
Kindergarten - A visit to a local kindergarten, where we and the kids had fun with pictures, 'high fives', and singing. The teachers were good-humored about the interruption and made our visit very enjoyable.
School for Deaf - A visit to a local school that educates deaf and mute children; we liked one of the pictures painted by a student so much that they gave it to us, and we donated some funds to the student in return. The school seemed to be doing very good work, and was trying to expand their facilities.
Noodle Factory - A tour of a family-run noodle factory where 5 people turn 2000 Kg of flour into noodles each day with the aid of aging machinery and ingenuity. They operate in a 1-room factory where they pour flour into one end of a machine, and noodles pour out of the other end, to be hung outside to dry. There were several factories in the neighborhood.
Tea House - A tea house, where we shared tea (cheap!) with many men, some in blue Mao suits, and women as they sipped tea, played cards and MahJong. Just outside was a street barber, taking customers from the passersby.
This entire day cost only $US30 for both of us and was the best education we had about life in everyday China. Mr. Yang also runs a small restaurant that serves outstanding Sichuan meals - we recommend his trip and restaurant very highly.
Our next stop was one of the 5 sacred Buddhist mountains of China, a scenic area with strong religious significance. Buses transport tourists to all scenic areas of the mountain, and some people stay at the top to view the rising sun. We rode part way, watched the macaque monkeys beg from the tourists (next to people selling monkey food were signs saying "Don't Feed The Monkeys"), took photos of exotic temples and pagodas, and then hopped the cable-car to the top. The Golden Summit Monastery has views over the entire mountain, and the hand-railing on the final 50 m is covered with locks, remnants of lovers who pledge their eternal love with a lock, and throw the key away. In the town, we hung out at The Teddy Bear Cafe, one of the few places in town with an English menu that caters to Westerners, particularly backpackers. At the central bus station, brand new and well marked, it proved easy to find a bus to our next destination, Chengdu.
Thrown out! - Our arrival in Chengdu was memorable - the bus driver signaled for us to get our stuff and come to the front of the bus, pulled along the median strip and said something in Chinese that seemed like: 'go that way'! So there we were, standing along a busy highway with all of our bags and thinking, "OK, what do we do now." We were rescued when a taxi stopped; we quickly hopped in and pointed to the Mandarin characters of the address of our hotel in the Lonely Planet Guide. Ten minutes later we were checking into the Tibet Hotel, where they spoke even less English than the bus driver. The highlight of this city is the The Giant Panda Research Base. The base has 14-20 pairs of pandas, which they breed for research and foreign zoos. We were able to get within a couple of feet of these teddy bears, and watch them munch on bamboo - their favorite food, which is pretty much all that they do. They are even less active than the Koala bears in Australia. Later on while wandering the streets we found an Internet cafe, with a blazingly fast connection that downloaded pages in 2-3 seconds - all for $0.25/hour. The next day we caught a flight to what we hoped would be a fantastic scenic area: Zhangjiajie.