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Tripping in Sichuan: chili noodles, Buddhist peak and monkeyshines

OUR journey began with adventures in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province.

It was late April, and the weather was perfect.

It was lunchtime, so we were drawn to an open-kitchen noodle shop on the street corner. It was nondescript and greasy, but business was amazingly good. People were lining up to grab a stool and a bowl of spicy broad noodles, pugai mian.

We joined the queue. The cook looked us up and down and asked, "Travelers? Slight, medium or intense?"

"What?" I was confused, then understood she was asking how much chili we wanted in our noodle soup. "Ah, yes, medium, to be safe."

She tossed a medium spoonful of red chili into a bowl containing two palm-size pieces of dough just out of the wok, hot chicken soup, a sprinkling of green onion and a splash of sesame oil.

"Here you are," she said, cracking a big smile, shoving the big bowls in our face.

Wow, the taste of Chengdu! In two minutes, we were sweating profusely and panting like dogs in summer. We fanned our tongues and bravely ate more.

We spent the afternoon strolling around the city. Chengdu is both charmingly old and interestingly modern.

Not far from the food street, there's Du Fu's (712-770 AD) Thatched Cottage Museum, dating back to the late Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD). The museum is based on the ancient home of Du, one of China's greatest poets.

By late evening, we had a go at the Wide and Narrow lanes. The Wide Lane houses mostly the Chinese restaurants, noodle shops and food stands, while the Narrow Lane is filled with Western cafes, bars and charming gift shops. Children can enjoy the panda house, a chocolate workshop and occasional shadow puppet shows.

Every individual building along the two lanes has been carefully rebuilt according to the original look of an ancient Chengdu city house, with colorful painted wooden gates, carved stone walls and swooping eaves.

Each house, whether restaurant, shop or bar, bears a distinctive Chinese name, some humorous. For example, there's "Scent of a Woman," a teahouse, and "Just So-So" restaurant.

It was enjoyable to sit outside during the night, listening to the chattering of Chengdu.

The next day we took a bus to nearby E'mei City and famed Mt E'mei, a pilgrimage site.

The 3,099-meter peak is considered by many to be China's No. 1 sacred mountain, where you can see the "Buddhist Light" in the early morning when air temperature and conditions are right.

The patron bodhisattva of E'mei is Samantabhadra, known in Chinese as Puxian. We spent two days climbing up the steps and visiting ancient temples along the way.

Mt E'mei officially opens for tours every April 26, so we beat the crowds of pilgrims and could enjoy the tranquility and spirituality of the setting. We could feel and hear our pulse with each step we took upward.

In one seemingly deserted temple, we even got "lost" in the grand hall of many columns, altars and alcoves, and in the extensive garden in bloom.

When we knelt and prayed, we heard bells tolling.

Time froze as if Buddha was watching over us.

Night fell and we put up in a temple inn, sleeping soundly in the embrace of the giant mountain.

We got up early the next morning but missed the sunrise and "Buddhist Light" due to the heavy mist. But we had great fun with the monkeys on our way down the mountain.

E'mei monkeys are notorious for snatching things from tourists. They know how to pose before a camera, beg for food and behave themselves in front of the mountain keepers.

But once tourists move away from the keepers, the big monkeys take charge and follow them.

We had to shout for help several times before we were finally out of their territory.

After just a day's rest in Chengdu, we took another tour bus to Mt Qingcheng in the suburbs of Dujiangyan City, heavily damaged in the May 12 earthquake last year.

The peak, 1,600 meters above sea level, is said to be the cradle of Taoism in China.

Zhang Daolin, an Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) Taoist hermit, taught here and contributed greatly to spreading Taoism in China.

Surrounded by countless forested peaks, Mt Qingcheng turned out to be a steep climb.

It felt good to be climbing quickly, following the rough-cut steps and the zigzag turns, and feeling the wind get stronger.

We looked down and saw the pavilions we passed getting smaller and smaller as we ascended.

Only the "front" of the mountain is open to tourists as the rest has been closed since the earthquake.

We could see damaged temples, collapsed stonework and many landslides.

Reconstruction was underway and we were warned of the risks.

In a half-ruined temple, we saw a gilded 3 to 4-meter-tall statue of Laozi on his bull.

The roof had collapsed around his head and the left horn of the bull protruded through a window.

A Russian young man snapped a flash photo and a nearby hermit protested, "No photos!"

"Relax, Master," the Russian replied in clear Chinese. "Tao is the natural way of doing things."

Other tourists roared in laughter. It's true that Laozi didn't know camera flashes could make gold paint fade.

On the sixth day, we left Chengdu for Chongqing, a major municipality.

Walking along the streets in downtown Chongqing, we saw a city much louder and flashier than Chengdu.

Everything is tall, grand and dazzling.

We took a night cruise along the Jialinjiang and the Yangtze rivers,?savored a chicken hotpot at the Liberation Monument commercial area, and had a foot massage at a bath house opposite our hotel.

Our legs were sore after a week's intensive climbing and stretching, but it felt good.

It was time to go back. It's a pity that we had only a week's holiday and there is a plenty yet to see and to feel.


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