Surrounding the fertile confluence of the Yangzi and Min rivers 250km from Chengdu, where Sichuan, Yunnan and Guizhou provinces meet, southeastern Sichuan has some intriguing attractions. The town of Zigong is a treat, with some well-preserved architecture, dinosaurs and salt mines, especially worth checking out during its Spring Festival lantern displays. Some 80km farther south, Yibin offers access to the aptly named Shunan Bamboo Sea; and, further eastwards towards Chongqing, you shouldn’t miss the carved gallery of comic-book-like Buddhist rock art at Dazu.
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About 200km east of Chengdu and 100km west of Chongqing, sleepy Dazu town 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. 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.
ZIGONG, a thriving industrial centre, has long been an important source of salt, tapped for thousands of years from artesian basins below the city. In the fourth century, the Sichuanese were sinking 300m-deep boreholes here using bamboo-fibre cables attached to massive stone bits; by the 1600s, bamboo buckets were drawing brine from wells bored almost 1km beneath Zigong, centuries before European technology (which borrowed Chinese techniques) could reach this deep. Natural gas, a by-product of drilling, was used from the second century to boil brine in evaporation tanks, and now also powers Zigong’s buses and taxis.