I’m on the road trip of a lifetime with my husband Charlie and our goofy Chinese rescue dog Hei-Hei. Over the course of a week, we’ll be clocking up no fewer than 1,660mi (2,670km) as we drive from China’s bustling northern capital of Beijing to the sun-soaked southern paradise of Lijiang, Yunnan Province.
Around halfway through our epic adventure we enter Sichuan, a southwestern province in China famed for pandas, incredible scenery, and spicy mala food. As both Charlie and I have been to the provincial capital of Chengdu before, we overshoot it by 75mi (120km) in order to explore Leshan, a city of 3.2 million (small by Chinese standards) towards the south of the province.
A figurative (and literally huge) selling point for us is the Giant Buddha of Leshan, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This 233ft-tall (71m) image of Buddha was carved into the Cretaceous red sandstones cliff at the confluence of the Min and Dadu Rivers between 713 and 803 AD. Visitors can climb to the Buddha’s head and ogle his earlobes, which are taller than most adults, before descending to his gigantic toes, or snap pictures of the whole buddha on a float-by river cruise.
After checking into our cozy dog-friendly Air BnB, we stroll along the river banks with Hei-Hei, enjoying some traditional music courtesy of the old men practicing under the shade of poplar trees.
Although the city so far seems very dog friendly, the sightseeing boats are not, so on reaching the cruise terminal we retrace our steps, drop Hei-Hei back at the flat and taxi out to the Leshan Giant Buddha Scenic Area.
Inside the park we join others in marveling at landscaped gardens, trickling fountains, and ancient stone carvings as we leisurely make our way up the steps to the Buddha’s head. Visitors can surround the head from three sides, which really helps put its size into perspective in photos.
As the steps down to the mighty toes are unfortunately closed for renovation work, we take a hair-raising Tuk-Tuk ride back down and board the ferry from the bottom. Surrounded by middle-aged Chinese women posing with their sun hats and colorful scarves, we get our best photos of the Buddha in all his glory from this unique vantage point.
Another highlight of Leshan is the excellent, unpretentious food. We pick live seafood out of tanks in one of the many unfussy riverside eateries, gobble up arguably the best duck and rabbit of our lives in a popular local restaurant, and snack on steamers full of satisfying xiaomi dumplings. Most notably, everything is served up with a smile, and even Hei-Hei is welcomed in some of the lower-key establishments.