A Day of Buddhas in Leshan

After a leisurely breakfast and some last-minute packing, we set off on our overnight trip to Leshan and Emeishan. It was the day after Qingming Jie (Tomb-Sweeping Day, a national holiday); most people were back at work, and the roads were uncrowded. It took us about two hours to drive from Chengdu to Leshan, including a fairly lengthy break at a rest stop decorated with large sculptures of teapots. We found a restaurant near the ticket booth for the Leshan Giant Buddha and sat down for lunch before entering the park. As a bonus, the restaurant waived our parking fee for the afternoon in exchange for our patronage.

After we ate, we bought our tickets, brushing off half a dozen tour guides eagerly hawking their services. We made our way into the park and up a shallow but steady set of steps. Along the path, we found diversions such as this statue of a tiger…

this emerging view of the confluence of the Minjiang and Dadu rivers and the town of Leshan…

and a number of sandstone buddhas, many of which had disintegrated into little more than bumps on the cliffside.

At the end of the climb, we stepped through a doorway into a courtyard, from which we could spot the top of the Giant Buddha’s head.

After clambering for the obligatory pictures, we proceeded down a series of steep steps that had been carved into the cliff beside the Buddha.

Alongside these stairs, the cliff was decorated with alcoves, some fenced off, containing more carved buddhas.

It was slow going, with quite a bit of crowding on the way down and bottlenecks as the path narrowed to single file and as visitors stopped for photos. (I, too, was guilty of holding up traffic here; the stairs down are the only vantage point for seeing and capturing the Giant Buddha from certain angles.) At the bottom, a small area by the Buddha’s feet provided more photo opportunities.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Once we finished posing for photos with the Giant Buddha’s toes, the only way to go was up. We made our way through a small cave, emerging on the other side of the cliff (out of sight of the Buddha) to a series of stairs the same height again that took us back up to the Buddha’s head. We powered our way up these, only pausing once for photos; there were few spots to rest along the climb, and those we passed were so crowded with smokers that we would have caught only lungfuls of smoke rather than our breaths.

Back at the top, we found several forks in the path, leading to the rest of the park. Although we consulted the posted signs, we followed these paths pretty haphazardly. It was more or less by chance, then, that we stumbled across a gated entryway, beside which was posted a sign with pictures of several other giant buddhas. At first, we thought that the sign was merely telling us about other giant buddhas around the world, but a woman nearby informed us that, no, all of these other giant buddhas were right here, in an adjacent but separate park called Oriental Buddha Capital. Admission was 80¥ per person, and she promised we wouldn’t be disappointed.

We exchanged glances, a bit befuddled. Three of the four of us had previously visited the Leshan Giant Buddha, but none of us had ever heard of Oriental Buddha Capital, even though it had supposedly been here during our previous visits. It hardly seemed possible that there could be several more giant buddhas so nearby without any of us ever having heard mention of them. Was it a scam? Was it worth checking out? Lawrence’s enthusiasm decided the matter, and we paid the entrance fee and entered.

Once inside, we made our way along a winding, hilly path and down many flights of stairs, which (I noted) we would inevitably need to climb back up later. Finally, after walking for 10 or 15 minutes, we spotted the mouth of a giant cave and made our way over to it. This was the view that greeted us when we stepped inside.

Known as the Pharmacist Buddha, it’s a bit shorter and much newer than the Giant Buddha. Yet, between the dramatic perspective of the cave, the echoing stillness of having this enormous chamber to ourselves, and the unexpected nature of the whole venture, its impact felt even more striking.

From behind the Pharmacist Buddha’s feet, we entered Ten Thousand Buddhas Cave, an astonishing and almost otherworldly experience. From one cavernous room to the next, the walls were covered with carvings and statues of buddhas, tiny, huge, and every size in between. I audibly gasped when I turned a corner and spotted this buddha at the bottom of a tunnel of stairs.

From there, there were more caves and more open spaces. The landscape was a lush, vivid green, decorated with buddhas of every variety.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The largest of them, the Long Giant Lying Buddha, was 170m (558ft) long and slept across the span of a mountainside.

I felt as though we had been transported to a place outside of time, a panorama of mighty artifacts with hardly a soul around to witness them. Toward the end, when we came upon this intimidating-looking staircase, steadily ascending each step felt like a pilgrimage.

And the view from the top was pretty spectacular.

From Oriental Buddha Capital, we made our way back to the Leshan Giant Buddha, around its head and back down the stairs we’d climbed at the start of the day. We piled into the car and drove to Emeishan, where we had dinner and sorted out a hotel snafu and settled in for some well-earned rest. New adventures awaited us in the morning. But much later, when our trip was coming to a close, Lawrence would tell me that seeing the many buddhas of Leshan was his favorite experience in China. For me, it lingered as a reminder to approach even familiar places with fresh eyes. After all, it only takes one act of serendipity for an old haunt to open into a new world.