A high-speed train takes me in a little over an hour from Chengdu to Leshan, and the K1 bus then takes me directly to the entrance of the Giant Buddha which, from here, is not visible. After buying my ticket, I walk up the stairs, and am dismayed when I see a sign suggesting that the Giant Buddha is closed for visiting due to repair works. I had read that the 1300-year old statue was under reconstruction, but when I checked with people in Chengdu, they confirmed that the works were finished. I walk up anyway, past Lingyun temple, and then suddenly see the top of the head of the Giant Buddha. When I come close, I am relieved to see that the statue is fully visible. The only issue left is dealing with the crowds. To get a spot with a good view, I have to queue, even though it is still quite early in the morning. I walk behind the head, and from the other side, I get a view of the head, the cliffs below me, the confluence of the Min and Dadu river, and the highrise buildings of Leshan.
After a short visit to a cave where Hai Tong, the monk who hoped that, by constructing a Buddha here, the wild waters of the Dadu river would calm down and make passage for ships easier, took shelter during the initial carving of the massive statue, I make it back to the right hand side of the head. After some 45 minutes waiting, I can finally start to descend the narrow stairs, which offer the best views of this colossal work of art. It is 71 metres high, and it dwarfs anything that comes close to it. From a distance, people seem like little dots, smaller than the pupils of his eyes. In the red sandstone cliffs on both sides of the statue, there are niches in which Buddhist scenes have been carved out. A little lower, I see people at his feet; his toes are higher than the tallest person. What is invisible to the visitor, is the ingenuous drainage system incorporated into the statue, which takes care of rain water, and has helped the statue to survive the centuries after its completion. Hai Tong did not live to see that: funds dried up, and he gouged out his eyes to prove his piety. When the statue was completed in 803, it still had a roof, but that was destroyed by the Mongols.
Did the Buddha really make life easier for passing ships? Yes it did: because of the deposits of the rock removed to sculpt the statue, the Dadu river became shallower which weakened the currents. The Giant Buddha oversees the river, looking towards the Emei mountain. When I am finally at river level, and look up, the impressive size finally hits me. I stand behind praying ladies. The head of the seated Maitreya Buddha now seems very far away: I can see his slender hands resting on his knees. Where people at his feet looked like ants before, I now am one of those ants to people higher up on the cliffs. When I am back up at the head, I see that the queue for going down is much longer than before. The Giant Buddha suffers from its own fame. This is both the largest and tallest stone Buddha statue in the world. Locals say that the mountain is a Buddha and the Buddha is a mountain. Later that day, when I walk the riverside in Leshan, and finally get a glimpse of the head and feet of the enormous work of art, I see the deeper meaning: the entire mountain resembles a reclining Buddha.
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