About 200km east of Chengdu and 100km west of Chongqing, Dazu is the base for viewing some fifty thousand Tang and Song dynasty Buddhist cliff sculptures, which are carved into caves and overhangs in the surrounding lush green hills – most notably at Baoding Shan, 16km to the northeast. What makes these carvings so special is not their scale – they cover very small areas compared with better-known sites at Luoyang or Dunhuang – but their quality, state of preservation, and variety of subject and style. Some are small, others huge, many are brightly painted and form comic-strip-like narratives, their characters portraying religious, moral and historical tales. While most are set fairly deeply into rockfaces or are protected by galleries, all can be viewed in natural light, and are connected by walkways and paths.
DAZU (大足, dàzú) is a small, quiet place whose centre forms a 700m-wide rectangle along the north bank of the mild Laixi River. The east side of the rectangle is Longzhong Lu, the north side Beihuan Zhong Lu, and the west side Bei Jie. The bus station overlooks the river down at the southeast corner. Right next door, there’s accommodation at the Xingyuan Lüguan (兴源旅馆, xīngyuán lǚguăn; beds ¥35, rooms ¥81–139) on Longxi Lu, or three-star comfort another 100m north up Longzhong Lu at the Dazu Binguan (大足宾馆, dàzú bīnguăn; t 023/43721888, f 43722967; ¥300–449), which is either packed with tour groups or empty. A further 500m up Longzhong Lu, the Jinye Binguan (金叶宾馆, jīnyè bīnguăn; t 023/43775566; ¥200–299) is a cosy alternative next to Dazu’s tobacco factory. For food, cheap noodle and stir-fry places are all everywhere, with a string of inexpensive restaurants on Beihuan Zhong Lu, near the intersection with Bei Jie – Panzhong Can does great dry-fried green beans, double-cooked pork and stuffed aubergines.
Leaving, there are buses until early afternoon to Chengdu, Zigong, Yibin and Chongqing.
The carvings at Baoding Shan (宝顶山, băodĭng shān; daily 8.30am–6pm; ¥80) are exciting, comic and realistic by turns. The project was the life work of the monk Zhao Zhifeng, who raised the money and designed and oversaw the carving between 1179 and 1245, explaining the unusually cohesive nature of the ten thousand images depicted here. Buses (¥5) from Dazu’s station leave twice an hour until around 4pm and take thirty minutes for the 16km run.
The bus drops you among a knot of souvenir stalls, with a path bearing right for a kilometre to the main site, Dafowan, whose 31 niches are naturally incorporated into the inner side of a broad, horseshoe-shaped gully. As every centimetre is carved with scenes illustrating Buddhist and Confucian moral tales, intercut with asides on daily life, you could spend a couple of hours walking the circuit here, though it’s only around 700m long. Don’t miss the fearsome 6m-high sculpture of a demon holding the segmented Wheel of Predestination (look for the faint relief near his ankles of a cat stalking a mouse); or the Dabei Pavilion, housing a magnificent gilded Guanyin, whose 1007 arms flicker out behind her like flames. The 20m-long Reclining Buddha features some realistic portraits of important donors, while the Eighteen Layers of Hell is a chamber-of-horrors scene interspersed with amusing cameos such as the Hen Wife and the Drunkard and his Mother. The final panel, illustrating the Life of Liu Benzun, a Tang-dynasty ascetic from Leshan, is a complete break from the rest, with the hermit surrounded by multifaced Tantric figures, showing a very Indian influence.