Days 93-94; Oct. 19th-20th; 19,689km-20,280km; Chongqing-Leshan, Sichuan-Hanyuan, Sichuan
Scroll to the bottom of this post to read our Traveler’s Tips for visiting the giant Buddhas of Leshan and Rongxian
We had a late start out of Chongqing (as it usually seems to be out of rest days). We were willing to make the sacrifice though because we had made some good connections at the expo. We went back for one last visit before moving on to pick up a brand new gas tank bag from Shad (our Tank Racing one could barely hang on anymore with its three remaining suction cups having very little effectiveness left). We also met with a Shanghai based retail company Chikai that was interested in helping us out with some other equipment replacements we needed.
By 12ish we had our new bag attached (the universal bike attachment has been a game changer for me on the trip. No longer do I have to hold down the bag with my left hand whenever we go over huge bumps!). Because of our lost time in the morning, we wanted to make up some distance by leaving on the expressway. Luckily we didn’t run into any problems and had a clear path for most of the day.
Staying Awake On The Expressways
There was a corridor between two N-S running expressways that we decided to cut through on a smaller national road. The expressways are great for cutting through kilometers and making up for lost time, but they aren’t much for scenery or experience. Easy to get bored on the straight, wide roads. The monotony of 120km/h speeds being almost hypnotizing, I try and keep myself occupied by tracing Chinese characters I see on signs with my head in the air. There is only so many times you can write “追尾危险; 保持车距” （Tailgating is dangerous, please keep your distance) with your head before it starts to add to the monotony itself.
So when we got off the big highway and onto the country roads, it was only then that the sense of relief at being back on the road after a hectic week in Chengdu and Chongqing really set in. We drove past palm trees and yellow and green fields being farmed as rice paddies and small villages lined the relatively well paved roads. Then, just after passing our 20,000km mark (our latest huge milestone! Only 10,000km left, give or take a few thousand), we got to an unexpected scenic spot of a giant Buddha.
The Unplanned Buddha Visit
The Rongxian Buddha was not the giant Buddha we had been aiming for that day, but we were feeling receptive of the “Middle Path” and so decided to pull of the road and check it out.
I highly recommend this hidden gem if you’re in the area. Particularly since most people come here for the Leshan stone Buddha, 90km to the east. This leaves Rongxian devoid of much of the crowds that plague its larger, more famous cousin. It also is built in a bit of a different style and still has its large temple enclosure (apparently the Leshan Buddha used to have a similar housing painted in gold but was later destroyed by invading Mongols at the end of the Yuan dynasty).
We pulled into the parking lot just 1km off the national highway as it passed through the town of Rongxian and bought out tickets to go in. There’s a nice courtyard area lined with temple shrines on the sides as you walk towards the steps to climb up to the Buddha. The Rongxian Buddha, like most giant stone Buddhas, is built right into a stone mountain/hill. The area is nice too because if you have the time the rest of the hill serves as a park with other temples and sights to visit.
We climbed up to the hill and then wound our way through the temple’s stairs to the top to take pictures of the head and the view of the town before heading back to the bike. We did still have 90km to ride and it was starting to get dark!
Savoring Some Homemade Baijiu
We arrived at Leshan the town just in time and found a hotel not too far from the Leshan Grand Buddha park entrance. That night we found a local place to grab some dinner. What was meant to be a quick bite ended up turning into about 3 full glasses of homemade baijiu (the Chinese liquor that can range from 35-65% in alcohol content). The owner of the restaurant (who may have already been drinking) got very excited when he found we could reply to him in Chinese. He immediately brought out his 11 year old home brew, pouring me a full glass, and we sat talking for the next thirty minutes or so. He told us how special the baijiu was that he didn’t even bring it out for his daughter’s graduation. He told us how he came from nothing, a homeless orphan, but grew to owning his own restaurant with kids who had gone to university. He even covered the fallibility of governments and how they have to answer to their citizens. Some of the conversation got a little too dense for Amy and I, but we got the gist. It wasn’t until his wife scolded him and made him help with closing down the restaurant that it was finally time to leave.
The Largest Stone Buddha In The World
The next day we spent the whole morning until lunch time at the Leshan Giant Buddha. The statue is no joke. It is 71 meters (233 feet) tall, with 28 meter wide shoulders, and 8 meter long ears. Apparently it has a built in water drainage system to help with the runoff, an ancient preservation system built into the original plan.
If you don’t take the boat to view the Buddha, you first go into the park a few km to the ticket booth and then walk through a park with statues and grottoes on your left in the hillside as you climb up towards the head. The first thing you see when you arrive is a giant head looking over the crowds of people lining up for a view. The way to view the Buddha is along the cliff side walkway built in to the cliff right next to the Buddha so as you walk down you get a myriad different vantage points from which to view the seated Maitreya Buddha. The best (and most famous) view though is from the feet after you’ve climbed all the way down. There is a bit of a wait though as this is one of the more popular tourist destinations in China. We were not visiting during a holiday but it still took about 30-40 minutes before starting the cliff side walk and even then the stairwell is packed and the people are pushy. Apparently during peak season it can take as long as 4 hours until you get to start on the actual walkway.
After the Buddha there is a nice walk through a park overlooking the three rivers that join up at Leshan. The Buddha was originally built by a monk who wanted to protect the local fisherman and merchants from the dangerous currents in the rivers by having a Buddha to watch over them and keep away evil spirits. As it turns out, the monk’s vision was realized as all the rocks that ended up in the rivers left over from the carvings had the unforeseen effect of calming down the currents.
The park walk ends in a fishing village where you get swarmed by locals trying to get you to their restaurant for lunch, no matter what time it is. It was a 11am so we passed and got a rickshaw to take us to a main road where we could catch a cab to our hotel. We got dropped off at a bus station and laying in front of us right across the road was… another Buddha! This was a reclining/sleeping Buddha carved into the mountain side. Unfortunately, we only had time to take pictures from the outside but the sight did inspire us to start tracking the number of giant Buddhas we encountered on our trip on our Command Center page, and this one made number 7!
The Foggy Mountain Wilderness of Sichuan
The day wasn’t over yet though. There was still 200km to ride! We packed up and had a quick lunch of dumpling soup before making our way out of the city. Leshan city is right next it Emeishan city from where you can climb one of China’s most sacred mountains of the same name, Emei Mountain. No time to visit though unfortunately so we pushed on.
City driving is no fun but after about 40km we broke free of the hectic urban roads and plunged into some very remote mountain roads. Twisties galore in this part of Sichuan as we were driving alongside lush, towering mountains through wide river canyons again. Every now and then the road would run right into the mountain taking us into tunnels some of which ran as long as 4km (over 2 miles)! Some of these also had no lights on the inside. As both Amy and I are both a bit of Lord of the Rings geeks, it feels apt to describe the feeling as that that the fellowship must have felt when entering the mines of Moria. The mysterious intersections in the middle of the mountain certainly helped to accentuate the feeling.
These roads weren’t all fun and twisties unfortunately (the Tolkien mythology persisted somewhat however). We hit a stretch of about 20km or so of construction. With nothing around but clambering trucks on the stone and dust covered road, it was a bit intimidating, like weaving in and out from between lumbering Oliphants (two points if you get the reference), with pillars holding up the incomplete expressway above us casting long shadows across the entire scene.
The day ended with our riding around a massive man-made lake to a town that sat on a hillside overlooking it. We found a hotel but only after getting hassled by a bunch of women that insisted they had hotel rooms for as little as 50RMB with all the amenities. After going to take a look at a couple, they turned out to just be rooms in their own homes and were trying to rent them out to tourists that they could catch looking for hotels. Boarding with pushy, loud Chinese women was not what we needed after a day of Buddhas, mines, dust, and Oliphants though!
Traveler’s Tips: Rongxian and Leshan Giant Buddhas
- Apparently, visiting Leshan during the high holiday seasons can be hell. Cab drivers told us about traffic jams that came out of the park, across the river, and into the town. The line for the walkway can last up to 4 hours
- If you are not visiting during a busy holiday, we recommend taking the walkway instead of the boat to go view the Buddha. Even though the boat has less of a wait, it’s nice to be able to see the statue from the different angles of the walkway.
- You will likely be doing a trip to the Buddhas out of Chengdu.
Plan to spend a full day at Leshan and half a day at Rongxian
- If you do have the time, we highly recommend a visit to Rongxian not just Leshan. Rongxian gives you the opportunity to enjoy a giant Buddha without all the crowds and lines (and pushing) of Leshan. It’s in a beautiful park and we found the locals to be very friendly!
- If you have the time, you may also want to organize a day to visit Emei Mountain in the town neighboring Leshan (called Emeishan) for a climb up one of China’s sacred mountains. You can stay overnight on Emei and take two days for the climb up and back down (expect inflated prices though).