As the days move right along, I continue to receive various emails in regard to my upcoming trip. Most of these letters are in regard to missing paperwork, confusion about where to send said paperwork and, most importantly, money. Spaced intermittently among this variety of notices are a few bits of golden information about the program itself, and what we will actually be doing. A day or two ago I was most excited to find that I had finally received not only a list of the people that would be living together, but also the schools to which all of our sub groupings would be assigned for the second half of the trip (the main group is massive, and will be broken down into 13 subgroups, each of which will be hosted by an individual university). My initial understanding of the arrangement was that all of us would be staying in schools located within Chengdu proper or the immediate vicinity. As I looked down the listing for each of the groups this remained the case, until I came to my assignment, however, at which point I saw that I would be staying at the Leshan Teachers College. I believe it is time for a small geography lesson.
If you go to Google images and type in Leshan (乐山), you will be hard pressed to find much of anything other than a huge number of pictures of a large, stone Buddha. This is no mistake, in fact most references to Leshan stem only from a notation of the city as being the home of the world’s largest carved Buddha. Second in mention to the Buddha is the Luding Suspension bridge, a chain link bridge which was captured by the red army during the course of the Long March, but this is a significant number of miles away to the northwest.
The Leshan Buddha is quite a thing to behold. At 71 meters in height, this mammoth religious relic is thought to have been created in the early 8th century, the middle of the Tang dynasty. Leshan proper is situated at the confluence of three rivers, the Minjiang, Dadu and Qingyi. As history tells us, the location was at one point a region of major distress for boat traffic as the river currents were known to sink boats with great regularity. In an attempt to appease the anger of the river and to grant safer passage, the prolific Buddha was commissioned and crafted over a period of 90 years. Did it work, you ask? In fact, it did! Modern study of the area surrounding the Buddha has shown that the sizeable removal of stone and its subsequent dumping into the river to some degree altered the flow of the currents, reducing their ferocity. It seems prayers are not always answered with thunder and flashes.
Leshan lies almost 100 miles to the south of Chengdu, within the central portion of Sichuan Province. Sichuan is one of the poorest regions within China, and is home to a massive number of the migrant workers who travel to the coastal cities in search of greater employment opportunities during the non-harvest seasons. As I stated above, it is rather difficult to find consistent information about the city of Leshan A search for the Leshan Teachers College revealed a meager nine or ten pictures, a third of which may very well be generic examples of Chinese schools. When looking for a simple figure such as the size of the population, there is a wide margin between the estimates. We’re not talking about a difference of thousands either. One source puts the population at about six hundred thousand, while others put it as high as five million (which is, in fact, not all that large in terms of Chinese cities). Discrepancies lead me to wonder about the facts. The lead up to the “Discovering China” program has been nothing if not mysterious, a fact which, although at first I found to be rather frustrating, seems now to only add to the overall allure of the trip. If anything, the mystery only adds to my excitement. I am a part of a group of ten young students who will be spending a week and a half living in Leshan, China, a city at which even the all knowing internet is at a loss for words.
For those that are interested, here is a map, courtesy of our friends at Google, showing the greater region in which the “Discovering China” trip will take place.