Study Trip: From Leshan to Lijiang

The next day we went to the nearby city of Leshan to see the largest stone carved Buddha in the world.  The story behind its creation is equally as extreme as its physical dimensions: towering 71 meters (233 ft) in the air with shoulders 28 meters wide.  A Chinese monk, Haithong, started the construction in 713 in hopes that the Buddha would calm the river’s characteristically turbulent waters which resulted in the destruction of many ships every year.  He raised the funds necessary for the project and, legend has it, when local authorities threatened to take the money away he gauged his own eyes to show his piety and determination.  They never bothered him, or the construction of the Buddha, again.

Pathway Down the Cliff side

Me next to his enormous toe

Apparently the massive construction resulted in so much stone falling into the waters below that the very currents were altered, making it safer for the passing ships.

Majestic Pagoda Nearby

The next day, we took a plane from the Chengdu airport to Lijiang in China’s Yunnan province.  We arrived at night, and took a bus from the airport to the edge of the Ancient Town of Lijiang.  Peddlers came out to greet the bus, loaded up our bags, and led us into what was the most unbelievable place I have ever been.

That night it was hard to see and I didn’t fully comprehend what the town was.  I remember walking through the winding cobbled streets to finally arrive at our hotel–gorgeously fashioned as a traditional Chinese courtyard home.  Since our group was so big, we were split between two nearby hotels.  That night we walked around a bit, but were exhausted and soon went to bed.

Our Courtyard Hotel in Lijiang

Walking through the Streets of Lijiang

The next morning, with light streaming in through the curtains, I could start to appreciate the splendor of our completely wooden hotel.  I soon realized that our hotel was not alone; in Lijiang striking oriental architecture and ancient structures are ubiquitous.  Every other town I had been in my life had at most one street, maybe even one district that remained (or resembled) intact from its historic beginnings.  Lijiang was unlike anything I had ever seen before; it is an entire ancient city—literally.  Every single building is made of all wood; every street and path is made of original cobble stones and rivers and bridges over them can be seen everywhere in town.  Planks of wood beckon patrons to cross trickling waters into ornate shops boasting bone carvings or painted scrolls.

Kids playing on the street

Staff of a Restaurant Singing- they all have a pep talk outside and then sing a song before work

Walking through Lijiang's Cobblestone alleys

Lijiang is truly a hidden gem; although it is very tourist-oriented, the tourists are not international but mostly from within China.  The people are also the friendliest I had encountered during my time in China.  Lijiang is said to have an ethereal power over the people who come to it; it is not uncommon to discover from people that you talk to that they visited, felt drawn to the place, moved here and have been here ever since.  It is said that here, worries of money and worldly inhibitions fade away.  Even our teacher from Peking University who accompanied us on our trip said that he would love to retire here.

The town used to be a confluence of trade along the old tea horse road.  It’s traditional residents and culture are evident in every aspect of the city’s life today—the Naxi people are deeply ingrained in the identity of the city and are the object of great interest to many tourists.

Naxi Elder in Traditional Dress

The friendly people and inexhaustible appeal the town seems to offer around every corner results in a perfect opportunity to explore.  One day I stumbled upon a doorway which caught my eye.  A paint can hung above with a blue handprint on it.  After closer inspection, I looked within the entry way and saw paint and all types of crafts hanging from the walls.  The door was wide open and, having grown accustomed to the almost overwhelming hospitality which pervades the city, I walked in.  As I entered, an expansive room opened before me with large paintings on display along the walls, augmented by bright lights hanging from the ceilings.  On the far side of the room a man, with his back to me, slouched in a large leather chair facing a large painting, a cigarette dangling between his fingers.  Disguised by the tranquil music that filled the room, I walked along the studio to admire the various pieces.  He eventually noticed me, and we exchanged a few words before he asked me to sit down.  We talked for awhile and towards the end of our conversation I asked what he was doing tonight.  He replied that he would do what he does every night, drink Baijiu (Chinese vodka) and paint.  I asked if it would be alright if I came back later that evening and he said yes.  With two beers in hand, I returned that night and met one of his students (more like apprentice) who hangs out there and learns from him.  We all drank Baijiu together and watched an artistic movie the artist made with his friends.  From then on, I stopped in once a day to say hi to the artist and his student on my way into town.

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