I mulled over the dilemma of visiting the Giant Buddha of Leshan or not.
The Chinese have a witty saying about such dilemmas: Chicken Ribs. Flavorless to chew on, yet a shame to discard. We normally don't enjoy monolithic monuments because they tend to be surrounded by 10 cityblocks of souvenir stands, but this is arguably THE most recognizable landmark in Southwestern China. After all it's one of the largest surviving statues of the medieval world, after the ill-fated one at Bamiyan.
Still the Giant Buddha alone wasn't worth the detour for me, so I planned to combine it with a second destination en route. It was a choice between the popular Buddhist enclave of Emeishan, or an obscure Qing Dynasty town known as Shangli. We chose the road less traveled and were richly rewarded, but that's a story for later. We're stopping by the Buddha first.
Another dilemma presented itself -- we could see the Buddha up close on a hike, or we could gain a wide-angle view from a riverboat which was the original plan. In fact we picked our hotel strategically next to the tour boat pier, except this is China and plans change. Too few passengers showed up on this cool November day and the boat owner wouldn't depart until it became economically feasible. At the end we took a taxi to the Buddha and hiked up.
At least there's no dilemma about the hiking route. The Buddha was accessible only via two twisting, half-eroded and slippery footpaths chiseled out of the sheer cliff, with the most precarious staircase down the left flank of the Buddha also offering the best photo spots.
Luckily we did arrive ahead of these hordes of visitors and actually had the chance to pause for photos in the middle of the staircase. By about 10:30 the entire surrounded area was flooded by busloads of domestic tourists on high heels herded by their loud-speaker wielding guides. It was time to leave.
Everything worked just about optimally in retrospect -- hiking was definitely better than the boat in terms of photo angles, and a half-day in Leshan was enough for the one sight we wanted to see. We could have used more time to sample the local cuisine, but my wife did get the one MUST TRY delicacy she really wanted.
The Tianpiya, or Sweet-Skinned Duck, has historically been Leshan's indigenous version of KFC takeouts. My wife had previously seen such a store in Chengdu and I promised to show her the real thing in Leshan.
So the first thing we did in Leshan, even before the Giant Buddha, was to take a taxi to the famous Zhaoji Tianpiya, recommended by locals as one of best places for Sweet-Skinned Duck. I didn't take a picture of the storefront as I had to hurry out of the taxi, buy my duck and then hurry back to the taxi. But most taxi drivers should be able to take you there if you show them the above picture of the bag. This is a genuine Leshan institution, and one that most peasants can afford.
Our dinner that night was a half duck plus some local beer, all washed down while lounging in our hotel room watching Chinese game shows on TV. Everything in this massive bird, from the crispy caramelized skin to the plump and juicy meat to the bones in the well-marinated cavity, was finger-lickin' good. And it cost just RMB 30 (CAD$5.2) for the half duck, not to mention the freebies ...
I guess this is the local equivalence of free popcorn chicken, but apparently buying a take-out duck gets you free samples of the shop's other offerings -- a Duck Wing and a Duck Foot, both marinated in an exotic mix of Green Sichuan Peppercorns (Tengjiao).
And it was a mouthwatering combo -- not the chili pepper type of spiciness, but more akin to the "numbing" or "tingling" sensation associated with Sichuan Peppercorns, coupled with a fragrant herbal aroma. It was so addictive that I probably liked this new flavor even better than the original recipe.
Another memorable local flavor came from this breakfast stall in the street market next to Leshan Harbour. This mom-and-pop place churned out some of the most flavorful, most concentrated Soy Milk we've had anywhere. It was so good that we had to come back for more upon returning from the Giant Buddha.
Two cups of Soy Milk and a few Steamed Baozi for breakfast, all for a mere RMB 7 (CAD$1.2). This Soy Milk was miles better than any we've ever had in our previous trips to China, Macau or Hong Kong. The only thing comparable was a tiny cup I had at a Tofu specialty restaurant in Nara, but at a much higher price which was really not a fair comparison. I'd prefer this RMB 1.5 (CAD$0.3) cup of Soy Milk over Starbucks for breakfast any day.
We stayed only one night in Leshan ... in fact I'd much prefer staying in a smaller and prettier town (i.e. one more night in Shangli or Pingle). But we did find a comfortable hotel (Jintaoyuan) on CTrip at the reasonable price of RMB 188 (CAD$33) -- a comfy bed, a good air-con system, hot shower and wifi with a river view. It's also conveniently located across from the pier for tours boat to the Giant Buddha ... if you happen to be visiting in peak season. If you're not, avoid the dilemma and hike up like we did.