Sights in Sichuan: Leshan Grand Buddha & Mt. Emei

We headed out of Chengdu, a large city in China’s Sichuan Province, to visit some sights in the countryside including the Leshan Giant Buddha and Mt. Emei.

Leshan Grand Buddha

Leshan is about 2.5 hours drive west from Chengdu, nestled in the mountains at the intersection of three rivers (Dadu, Minjiang, Qingyi). Leshan itself is a busy thoroughfare surrounded by blue water and mountains — and overlooked by the glorious Leshan Grand Buddha.

I’ve always wanted to see the Leshan Grand Buddha. Maybe I didn’t know the name of it. Maybe I didn’t know it was located in China. But I knew what it looked like and it’s been on my (very long) list for ages. Our driver was a nice man with glasses and a wooden bracelet, who made use of the Google translate app to communicate. A single cigarette littered the floor of our van as we stepped in, yet another evidence of the prevalent smoking culture in China.

Visiting the Leshan Grand Buddha

View of the massive head of the Leshan Grand Buddha.After driving through the bustling city of Leshan, we were dropped off on a busy tourist thoroughfare next to a dock with thousands of people milling about. There were a lot more tourists at the site than expected…and than the secluded photos online indicate. However, we saw barely any other foreign tourists and proved to be an oddity ourselves.

You can see the Buddha 2 ways – via a  boat tour in front of it on the water, or via a walking path that goes down the mountain below the giant feet and back up. To do the latter you pay entry into the Leshan Grand Buddha Scenic Area (expired student ID alert – half off!), which we did wanting to get up close and personal with the Buddha. Inside we were approached by a girl offering guide services. We at first thought she was harassing us, but five minutes later were engaged in a [failed] negotiation over the price to hire her.

We wound through forested paths, mossy knolls and staircases to the impressive Wuyou Temple. While suffering from church fatigue in South America, we aren’t quite bored of temples…yet…so this one was very exciting. Shari (guide) explained to us the rituals of candle lighting and incense burning, showed us how to pray, and pointed out where to rub the laughing Buddha’s beads for luck. No photos as it wasn’t appropriate.

It was a national holiday so the line to see the Grand Buddha was 2+ hours long; children played with toys careening between our feet and off the mountain; men spit (as per usual); people ate snacks they brought; we sweated. Finally at front, they let the chain down and we pushed forward with our allotted group! The stone stairs were overcrowded, and a man with a large mole with scraggly hairs stood very close to us and brushed my shoulder.

Full view of the Leshan Grand Buddha from below the feet.It was crunched – but bearable – due to my excitement my heart filled with the spirit of the Buddha. Finally, we rounded the corner and the Buddha game into view! It was more massive than imagined – and awe-inspiring. Built over a period of 90 years, overseen by 3 separate architects (the third of whom was blind), the Leshan Grand Buddha is carved into the soft rock, meaning it has weathered a lot over the years. The ear serves as a drainage system, with a tunnel inside to funnel water out from the mountain.

After craning our necks and taking the obligatory photos, we began the strenuous hike back up the other side of the mountain.

Leshan: Zhanggong Bridge

We headed to Leshan’s food street Zhanggong Bridge for dinner, on recommendation of our guide. It was very cool – lots of little spots highlighted with colorful neon signs, with wooden tables in open-air dining under the awnings backing up to tiny, tiled kitchens. There were a variety of local dishes on offer; we glanced at what people were eating to decide, selecting a spot with purple tablecloths and a rotating glass circular.

Road on Zhanggong bridge food street in Leshan with colored signs and umbrella and restaurants.

Using our translation app and picture menu we managed (very little English in these areas of China), ordering rice, a chicken dish, lotus root, vegetables and beef, and some typical Snowflake beer we’d come to love. 

While dining I saw a haw (small crab apples on stick, covered in melted sugar kind of like a candy apple) vendor go by on bike. Having tried these years ago in Beijing and fallen in love, I needed one after dinner. After wandering the streets looking for him, forlorn and about to give up, I finally saw him approaching on his green bike, flagged him down, and paid the modest 5yuan (72 cents) for my stick!


We stayed the night in Emeishan, a small town near Leshan (similar rhyming names, duh!). Our hotel, which we found by copying the itinerary of an expensive tour we didn’t take (actually we stole all the activities we did off an expensive tour itinerary) was nicer than expected, lest the weird empty pool in a back parking lot and the chained-up gym down a dark murder-esque hallway. Next to the bed slippers, and some non-refrigerated yogurt snacks. I forgot pajamas in my overnight bag, so naturally I slept in my robe. Being with family in China meant no hostels…yet!

Exhausted, we planned to go for a “10 minute walk” which, due to the awesomeness of the town, turned into 2 hours. Globe lamps line the way to Emeishan’s main plaza, with glowing monkeys (a symbol of the city) lit up on the poles. The largest Buddha hand in China rises above with its golden fingers reaching for the sky. A block further, the entire square was filled with people dancing in large groups to music, performing song after song of choreographed dances they somehow all knew. “Competing” groups performed in areas across the square, while similar groups exercised to music – talk about a Saturday night well spent. Children played in light up cars, popped balloons, and a massive group of people ballroom danced in front of a hotel while others hung with tea.

Onward we went, through elephant statues towards a massive fountain lit in yellow and red, behind which an outdoor movie screen played a film and people sat on the edge of the fountain to watch. At right, we discovered an alley lit with red lanterns, quite magical at night. A random man approached us and spoke English, trying to sell us a tour. Locals asked to take photos with us, of course.

Mt. Emei

Our next stop was Mt. Emei, the largest of the 4 great Buddhist mountains in China and the ashram for Samantabhadra the Bodhisattva. This place is sacred, and home of the Golden Summit (along with 28 other temples, apparently, we did not see them all). We arrived at the mountains and got tickets for the 1.5 hour bus up wildly winding roads, blue barf bags swing from the ceiling for the taking. Halfway up, a bathroom stop where a weird man attached a large hose to the buses with water dripping out (I do not know why).

Finally at the top we TOppled out feeling ill,  into a thick cold mist with zero visibility. People began renting vile used coats, and my dad’s water fell from his pocket and careened into a dirty water pond below. We headed towards the cable car (you can walk, but with family we did not), up a stepped path past food vendors, mushroom vendors and men with bamboo sedans, called Huagans, that can carry you up the mountain. It looked fun, but the theme was only oldies were being transported, the men yelling some sort of chant to alert people as they came through. A vile and terrifying monkey appeared and tourists swarmed to take photos, despite many warnings “Do not take photos!”

We got tickets for the cable car (very difficult signage everywhere), not sure if we were going on the low capacity or reciprocating car (more stellar translations). People packed in well over capacity, and we started the scary journey up but we could see literally nothing so it was hard to be scared. But when we dismounted the skies are sunny – we are above the clouds! Amazing!

Excitedly, we headed with the hoards towards the Golden Summit, which literally looks golden shining down on you from 3,079 meters – the tallest Samantabhadra golden statue in the world (oddity alert!). The internet says it’s 48 meters high and weighs 660 metric tons. From here, you can see the 4 wonders of Mt. Emei – Sunrise, Cloud Sea, Broken Spectre, Holy Light (going to go ahead and say we only saw one). It seems unreal. One of the more unreal things I have seen. As the statue moves in and out of clouds, it is constantly shrouded and changing colors. We next headed into the temples and other viewpoints, seeing above the clouds since we were so high. Going back we literally couldn’t see 10 feet in front of us as the clouds had shifted. Family was tired so we headed back earlier than hoped; people vomited on the bus.

Man points at temple atop golden Mt. Emei.Back in our hotel in Chengdu, the English-speaking concierge approached us and thrust business card #7 at me, in case I needed anything.

Snapshot Selections

Country China | Dates September 22-23 | Accommodation Century Sunshine Hotel (Emeishan)

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