Monday, July 29, 2013

The Dazu Buddhist Caves - An Epic Day-Trip

Lucia and I had been hearing a lot about these Dazu caves. Lonely Planet writes about them, lots of the China travel blogs I've read mentions them, and they are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. So, we figured, it was worth a trip, only two hours outside Chongqing.

The Dazu Caves actually refer to all the caves within Dazu County, about 75 locations comprising over 50,000 statues. So specifically, we were headed to the Baodingshan cave carvings. According to the tourist information at the site, the cave carvings were built under the supervision of Zhao Zhifeng, between 1174 and 1252, AD. (I'm quite certain this is the oldest thing we've seen in China so far.)

The caves were absolutely incredible, and definitely worth the journey. But before I go further about the caves, I'm going to give a quick sidebar about the trip required to get to the caves.

We left the house before 8am, hopped on the metro to get to the long distance bus station, which required a transfer. At the bus station, we waited one of 24 ticket window lines, hoping that the one we chose would sell tickets to Dazu - I had been warned that only 2 or 3 of the windows sell tickets to Dazu. Either out of incredible luck or incredible mercy, we managed to pick a window that sold us bus tickets. However, not until we sat and waited.

Here is the Chongqing Longtousi Bus Station, Terminal A, where we waited...
Boarding the long-distance bus at last, we settled into the longest part of the journey. I wish photos could capture the noise on this bus - not from the passengers, but from the movie they played during the trip (lots of swords, lots of yelling and fighting, I think everyone dies at the end) and from the incessant honking. It seems that honking is used instead of blinkers here, to alert anyone that you plan to pass. At this point, I was very much regretting leaving my headphones at home.

Finally, we make it to Dazu Bus Terminal, where we then transfer to City Bus 101, and take it to a stop just outside the center of town. At this stop, we transfer to a shuttle van which will take us the remaining 12 km to Baodingshan. But alas, the next one doesn't leave for another 35 minutes. So...we wait.

Here is Lucia drawing an audience as we wait for the shuttle to leave. We were surrounded - everyone wanted to look at the Lonely Planet map of China and point out Dazu!

The shuttle that takes us to Baodingshan. 
We finally board the shuttle, ride through some rural mountains for 20 minutes, and arrive! We are greeted by a laughing Buddha in the tiny town of Baodingshan.

Buddha laughs at our toils. 
And then, just because we can, we hop on a pedi-cab to take us from the tiny town to the entrance of the site. (It was a short ride, and we walked it on the return, but it was novel [and my first time in a pedi-cab!]).
The Last. Leg. 
And, finally, after over 6 hours of travel, we arrive at Baodingshan Cave Carvings. I thought this journey was epic, but then I read this article from 1990 about the caves. While much has not changed about this region since then, at least there are paved roads, now!

I was pretty shocked at how few visitors there were at this site. Almost all the visitors we saw were Chinese - there was a small tour group of academics from South Africa, and a gentleman from Korea, but other than that it seemed to be pretty exclusively domestic tourists. Quite different from my experience at Pompeii last July, which was teeming with foreigners despite the similarly staggering heat and humidity. On our way home, we met a traveler from Switzerland at the bus station who remarked that UNESCO is probably exercising some congestion pricing for these sites, charging a lot for the tickets to get in so they control the number of visitors (and the potential damage that is done to the site). Our tickets were pricey by Chinese standards - 135 yuan ($22) - but not pricey enough to be a serious deterrent to visiting, even for grad-school-broke students like us. Rather, I think the major obstacle is the location and lack of reasonable connections to and from the site. (It didn't take us 6 hours to get home, thankfully; only about 4 1/2 hours.)

Before getting to the photos, I'll relay one final comment from the Swiss guy at the bus station. China has 46 UNESCO sites - the second highest of any country in the world (topped only by Italy, and we all know how crazy they are about historic preservation). More sites are added to the list each year. Given all the development in China, it's interesting to think that perhaps a UNESCO designation is not necessarily intended to draw tourists to China, but rather because the global archaeological and preservation community wants to make sure nothing of irreplaceable value is permanently lost to the bulldozers, cranes, and break-neck pace of building that's currently going on here. (More on that to come, soon!)

And now, the photos!

Entering the UNESCO Site of Baodingshan
Some of the first cave statues we see

Beautiful pagoda on the grounds near the entry

Real-deal cave carvings, first glimpse

The faces of the statues are absolutely incredible. Each is unique, expressive, and emotive. 

This is the big daddy of the carvings - the one that distinguishes Baodingshan from the other 74 sites. This giant sleeping Buddha is enormous!

This statue was in a pleasantly quiet part of the site, which is why (I'm sure) the facial expression is so serene.

The Cave of Full Enlightenment 

The Wheel of Life

1 comment:

Hyeran said...

I can imagine how hot there was by your clothing...:D It looks amazing!