The City Revisited

Leshan Sichuan RestaurantIt now seems that I must make some additions to the little information that I was able to locate on Leshan.  Searching on Google told me that it was the home of Dafo, the giant Buddha, Guo Moruo, a famous author, and that the population was somewhere between one and five million.  Nice and specific.  As I continued to look, I also discovered that most people visited the city out of an exclusive interest in seeing the massive Buddhist carving, and that most did not venture into the city.  One particular blog that I read gave an account of the time that a couple had spent in Leshan.  They concluded their description by advising everyone to avoid spending any time there, as they were unable to locate even a single restaurant or place to hang out.  Common wisdom of the day:  Google can tell you a lot, but not everything

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The city of Leshan has a population slightly larger than one million people, a number which seemed to be agreed on by most of the residents that I spoke to.  Most of them also suspected that I must have been unimpressed by such a small city.  Though it felt absolutely enormous to me, there is some truth to its being small.  The characteristics of urban development within China are quite different than those at home.  In the United States, a city with a million people will typically have many very tall buildings, and in most cases spread over a sizeable amount of land.  Leshan was nothing of the sort.  The vast majority of the buildings did not surpass 5 stories in height, and the population density (As is the case in nearly all Asian cities) is far greater than any place at home.  The other fact that really jumped out at me was the difference in layout.  The standard American city is a sprawling creature, with the density of construction tapering out for many miles away from the city center.  These cities seem to fade away into their outside surroundings.  Leshan, and many other Chinese cities, had a more definite space.  One minute, you would be traveling within city streets, then suddenly find yourself on a road surrounded by an unknown crop.  The separation between rural and urban is drastically different, and in many cases I felt a need to label Leshan as a rural city.

Leshan City Sichuan

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This is not to say that the city does not have all of the modern desires of any other region.  There were long streets with bars and small clubs, all of which seemed to be thriving, packed with groups still in good spirits following the January 1st new year.  There was also a huge variety of food and restaurants, many of which specialized in and prepared only one dish.  While driving around one evening, my host father told me that he would have liked for us to be able to go out to his favorite restaurant, but that he had been given instructions not to take me out to eat in certain places.  This order probably came from fear of issues that related to food poisoning.  An American student that I met at the college told me that he had been hospitalized twice for food poisoning in the four months that he had been there.  It does not have so much to do with the food being bad, but that the stomach does not have the enzymes to deal with unfamiliar bacteria and cultures.  The trick to preventing such maladies, as it was explained, was to eat only small bits of street food at a time for the first few weeks.

Leshan Sichuan City Streetβ

One of my favorite memories from Leshan are the lights that decorated nearly all of the streets in the city.  Almost every tree that I encountered was dripping with nets of rainbow light, as well as long tubes of LEDs that replicated the effect of falling rain or icicles.  These lights gave the city an ethereal look, and reminded me of trips to Disney World.  I wondered how they could have possibly figured out how to power so many strands of lights, as I could find neither extension cords nor outlets, but a closer inspection revealed that all of them were battery powered.  Because they were all LED, entire strands were being run on AA batteries.  Very impressive, though I can only wonder how many dead batteries were left lying around after these lights were used for a month.

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There was more than one occasion on which someone told me that I was the first non-Chinese that they had seen.  At first, I was not sure how this was possible, but it soon became a bit more believable.  The Leshan Teachers College had only 30 international students, a good portion of which were Nigerian.  Zack (the one who had gotten the food poising) had much to say about the city, though I am not so sure about the validity of some things that he told me.  For now, I’ll say he was a great source for opinion.  This aside, I asked him how he enjoyed living in Leshan, and his thoughts on the city as a whole.  He pointed out the more common things (no English, trouble with the Sichuan dialect, girls all want pictures), but also brought up another point that I found interesting.

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“Leshan is a good place to go if you need to disappear”.  Um,  Like magic?

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“Many of the people that I have met, at least the ones that aren’t Chinese, are out here for a reason”, he continued.  “I mean, most people don’t really set their heart on living in Leshan”.

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This was true.  While in Beijing, I told a huge number of people where I was going in Sichuan, and not a single one of them had heard of the place.  Many knew of the Buddha, but could not pinpoint its location.  It was hard to determine exactly what Zack was implying by the word “disappear”, but I left with the feeling that the foreign population that settled in Leshan had done so with the hope of staying off the radar, or at least in an area where they could isolate themselves, whatever the reason might have been.  In my experience, people who move to a different continent in order to be left alone are typically ones you don’t really want to hang out with.  Zack told me that he was planning on getting on to a different city as soon as the term ended, preferably Beijing.Leshan Sichuan New year Lights

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