Some 150km southwest of Chengdu lies the edge of the Red Basin and the foothills of mountain ranges that sprawl into Tibet and Yunnan. Fast-flowing rivers converge here at Leshan, where more than a thousand years ago sculptors created Dafo, a giant Buddha overlooking the waters, one of the world’s most imposing religious monuments; an hour away, Emei Shan rises to more than 3000m, its forested slopes rich in scenery and temples. As Sichuan’s most famous sights, Dafo and Emei Shan have become tourist black holes thanks to easy access – don’t go near either during holidays, when crowds are so awful that the army is sometimes called in to sort out the chaos – but at other times they are well worth the effort.
Leshan’s accommodation is poor, so Dafo is best tackled either going to or coming from Emei Shan, just an hour distant. If you’re on your way down south to Yunnan, you might also want to break your journey at Xichang, a Yi minority town with a backroads route to Lugu Hu, right on the Yuannanese border. Emei and Dafo are best reached on buses, but it’s easier to get to Xichang via the Chengdu–Emei Shan–Kunming rail line.Read More
Set beside the wide convergence of the Qingyi, Min and Dadu rivers, 180km from Chengdu and 50km from Emei Shan, LESHAN (乐山, lèshān) is a spread-out market town with a modern northern fringe and older riverside core, a transit point for visiting Dafo, the Great Buddha, carved deep into a niche in the facing cliffs.
Impassive and gargantuan, Dafo (大佛, dàfó) peers out from under half-lidded eyes, oblivious to the swarms of sightseers trying to photograph his bulk. In 713 AD the monk Haitong came up with the idea of filling in dangerous shoals below the sandstone cliffs of Lingyun Shan with rubble produced by carving out a giant Buddha image. The project took ninety years to complete and, once construction started, temples sprang up above the Buddha at Lingyun Shan and on adjacent Wuyou Shan. At 71m tall, Dafo is the world’s largest Buddhist sculpture – his ears are 7m long, his eyes 10m wide, and around six people at once can stand on his big toenail – though statistics can’t convey the initial sight of this squat icon, comfortably seated with his hands on his knees, looming over you.
Thick forests and dozens of temples, all linked by exhausting flights of stone steps, have been pulling in pilgrims – and more recently, tourists – to Emei Shan (峨眉山, éméi shān) ever since the sixth-century visit of Bodhisattva Puxian and his six-tusked elephant (images of whom you’ll see everywhere). Religion aside, the pristine natural environment is a major draw, and changes markedly through the year – lush, green and wet in the summer; brilliant with reds and yellows in autumn; white, clear and very cold in winter.
You can see something of the mountain in a single day, but three would allow you to experience more of the forests, spend a night or two in a temple, and perhaps assault Wanfoding, the highest of Emei’s three peaks at 3099m. It’s only worth climbing this high if the weather’s good, however: for a richer bag of views, temples, streams and vegetation, you won’t be disappointed with the lower paths.