Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Those of you who know me personally and, indeed, those of you who only know me through this blog and DOS HERMANOS, will agree that my life is one of almost monastic abstinence.

So, it would seem only fitting that the highlight of my time in Sichuan Province would come courtesy of time spent in three monasteries.

But, more of that later. First some pictures of some cute and cuddly pandas. Everybody go ahhhh.

Just outside Chengdu is the catchily named “CHENGDU RESEARCH BASE FOR GIANT PANDA BREEDING” and, despite the fact that the Chinese seem intent on destroying the world and everything in it by any means possible, they take the business of saving their national treasure very seriously.

The research centre has been incredibly successful in breeding pandas in the last ten or so years and, luckily enough, three had been born in the few weeks before our visit and we were able to “ooh” and “ahh” over their pink little bodies as they lay in incubators.

Outside in large, open spaces, the adult pandas sat in glorious isolation from one another being, like me, solitary animals at heart, and we were able to get close enough for me to take some decent pictures.

OK, enough about cute animals, let’s eat.

I had read a lot about the Manjushri monastery back in Chengdu. It is widely acknowledged to produce some of the best vegetarian food in China. Not only that, but alongside the obviously veggie dishes, it is also famous for producing food that looks and tastes like meat, goes by the same name as their meaty equivalents but is, in fact, made entirely from tofu.

So, as soon as we were done looking at big animals, we headed back to Chengdu and to the monastery where, within half an hour of sitting down, our table was laden with plates that contained “sausage” alongside “gung po chicken” along side “sweet pork” alongside a dish of beans with “quail egg” and about twenty other dishes for which not one living thing had been harmed in any way. Well, that is, unless you count the soy plants.

Now, if you have been reading carefully, you will know I am a man who likes his meat (no sniggering at the back) but, even a carnivore like me would have to admit that if all vegetarian food was as good as this there would be no need for anything with eyes and a face to ever have to die again.

I felt quietly self righteous after that and ready for the next stage of the journey which saw us head out of Chengdu to spend the next three nights in two monasteries on the slopes of Emeishan, one of China’s most holy mountains.

First, however, two stops, one to see the largest Buddha in the world carved into the rock

and the other to visit a small town called HualanXie which is a picturesque little place on the edge of a river where we managed to pass an agreeable hour or so.

Intrepid, with whom I was travelling, support many local charities in China and, in fact in every country where they organise tours and, because of this, they had managed to organise access to the guest accommodation in these monasteries for their groups to experience something quite out of the ordinary.

Well, it was certainly that. In fact, it was unlike anything I have ever experienced before. In a good way.

The first monastery, Baoquo, sits in the foothills of the Mount Emei and is a destination for pilgrims from all over China. Our rooms were towards the rear of the main building and I was intrigued to find out that, in the time of the conflict between Mao Tse Tung and Chang Kai Chek, the latter had commandeered these premises as his headquaters and our rooms had once been his office.

If there was any left over bad spirit from the occupation by one of history’s great mass murderers, then, the good spirits conjured up by the chanting of the monks must have seen it off because I cannot, in my entire life recall a place of such peace and tranquillity even when the silence was broken by the clanging of the holy bell and the low hubbub of the daily prayers.

There is precious little to do there but to sit and ponder on ones navel. There is, apparently, a Buddhist saying that goes something like “sometimes, you have to stop doing and start being” So, that’s what I did for the rest of the day. Well, that and read the new Harry Potter novel.

The next day, saw us leave our large bags in the monastery storage area and take lighter day packs for the walk to HongXangping , a smaller monastery some four miles and 1200 steep steps up the mountain.

First a visit to one of China’s other holy sites, The Golden Buddha of Emeishan which is usually shrouded in mist, but appeared (just for our benefit, of course) as we arrived.

Then, on to the monastery which is even more secluded than Baoquo and offered yet more chance for solitude. Oh, and the chance to use the squat toilets which were, to all intents and purposes, holes through which ones, er, business plummeted down some 400ft to the river below. Efficient if not wonderfully hygienic and fun for those below.

A night of almost blissful quiet followed, ruined only by the fact that a small mosquito had managed to find its way under the protection of my net and had feasted on my plump body for the evening until it was about twice the size.

It didn't seem to spoil my appetite much however and, after a walk back to our original monastic home, a few of us headed out to the nearest large town of Emei to try the delights of the night market which, alongide the inevitable dishes rich with red chilli, included blocks of blood and 1000 year old eggs ( which of course, are nothing of the sort)

A good way to end our time in this lovely city before the next train journey to Xi-an

Finally, another little gem of "chinglish" spotted when I went to buy some shower gel. Please note the nature of the "Men" brand product in white packaging on the right.

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