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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.

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