Leshan; In which we pay a visit to the Grand Buddha

Leshan’s not far from Chengdu, so we thought we’d go and see the world’s tallest seated Buddha statue. It was an easy two-hour minibus ride from Chengdu’s bus station and a twenty-minute walk to the Buddha’s huge riverside park. The walk took us past one booth after another selling tickets to view the Buddha from the river, but the admission price was nearly enough to make us choke even without the boat ride, so we passed. The park around the Buddha is hilly and covered with gloomy bamboo forest. Mossy bricks lined the winding paths through the park, old and slippery and treacherous underfoot. Scattered here and there along the way were monuments, shrines and ruins. We worked our way up the tall hill, turned a corner and saw the top of the Buddha’s head, carved out of yellow sandstone and seated in a gigantic niche hollowed out of the cliff. We were behind him, and all I could see were the huge black-painted twists of his hair, each as big as I am.

Walking around the path brought his face into view. It was more abstract than lifelike - more as if someone had carved a gigantic stone doll. Eyes, nose and mouth were in shallow relief, but loving attention had been paid to his ears, with their long, dangling earlobes. His pupils, eyebrows and lips were painted on, staggering in their sheer enormity. I could have crawled inside his ear-hole, or stood on his lower lip without being able to reach his nose. And yet, even on such a scale, it was still recognizably the Buddha, serene and smiling enigmatically, gazing out over the river. And his face was just the beginning. I looked down from the dizzying height past his shoulders to his seated lap, hands resting on his knees, and further down to his vast feet, each toenail as long as a grown man lying down. Mosses and lichens had found purchase in the crumbling stone of his twenty-storey-tall body.

We’d chosen the right day to come and visit. At the top of the cliff was a set of railings arranged to channel a queue of people toward the statue, but it was completely empty. There were no tour groups, and only a few scattered families and sightseers. That made me happy - by all reports the crowds can be appalling there, sometimes. But we hardly had any company as we made our way down the nearly vertical stone stairs beside the Buddha. It took us twenty minutes to clamber down, and, once past the shrine at his feet, just as long to climb up the other side again.

Still with some time left before the park closed, Sheryl decided we should walk a hundred kilometres across a traditional red-lacquered bridge and up a million stone steps to find a monastery temple. What with the heat and the steep stairs we were both gasping and dripping sweat when we reached the top of the hill and had to take a break and watch the monks mixing cement. Sheryl had wanted to visit the monastery because its shrine hall held a thousand terracotta statues of Buddhist sages and enlightened souls. She thought it might be a nicer version of Xi’an’s Terracotta Warriors. Not so. It was all I could do to keep from laughing when I saw them. They were lifelike statues posed in various meditating or teaching poses, all painted in the most hideously garish, lurid hues, like a colourized version of a black and white film. And they had all been captured with the most comical grimaces, and with all their flaws intact - giant drooping eyebrows, furry moles, wall-eyes and buck teeth. I couldn’t believe we’d climbed all those stairs to see something so weird, but yet so funny. Of course we couldn’t laugh or even smile - it would have been horribly disrespectful. So we walked up and down the aisles not daring to look at each other, desperately trying to hold in the laughter, with constipated expressions (not unlike those on some of the statues).

We caught the bus into Leshan proper to try and find a place to stay the night. There were only two hotels in town, as far as we could see. Two places that we could identify as hotels, that is - there might have been others. The problem in China is that a lot of buildings have lobbies that look like they could be hotels, and there are a lot of indecipherable variations on the characters that mean hotel so when wandering around looking for lodging you waste a lot of time. We took the cheaper place, which was still twice the price of a hostel. It was nice to have our own room for a change, though.

In Leshan, like most Chinese towns, life is lived in the streets and mostly after dark. The place was deserted while we were looking for a hotel and bustling when night fell. A thousand street stalls and restaurants had set up in the alleys, and we walked around awhile to try and find something that wasn’t wobbly animal bits or chicken feet. We settled on a hole in the wall serving Leshan’s version of stick-food: cook-it-yourself hot-pot. A cauldron of boiling soup is set on a gas burner on the table, and you choose from the sticks available. The ends of the bamboo skewers were stained in different colours to show the prices. A coalition of staff and locals assembled to show us how it was done. Nobody had any English and our attempts at Mandarin met with blank looks, but everyone was friendly and bossy and with lots of hand gestures we managed to figure out what is, in essence, a pretty simple operation (put the sticks in the pot, take them out when the food is cooked, and dip them in the sauce). We avoided the organs and weird things (which are the most expensive anyway) and stuck with tofu, eggs and vegetables. It was quite good - spicy, but not murderously so. After India nothing really seems spicy any more, but the further we penetrate in to Sichuan Province the less that statement holds.


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2 Comments on this Dispatch:

April 24th, 2010

Great to see ne additions to your travel diary. Keep up the good work…Bill

¬ Bill McKee
April 25th, 2010

I haven’t given up yet! It’s just taking awhile…

¬ Chris
June 20th, 2010

You’ll never let me live down the detour to the hideous terracotta statues. I couldn’t believe how brutal they were…. um… but we had a good laugh :).

¬ Sheryl
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