The Grand Buddha was carved in the eighth century to calm turbulent river waters. It worked - and it's quite good at soothing travellers, too
There aren't many major historical sites where you can stick your finger in an ear: except in China, there probably isn't much demand. The Grand Buddha at Leshan, in Sichuan province, suffers this small indignity with composure - the largest Buddha in the world can afford to be generous. Carved dramatically into the cliff-face where two rivers meet, "Dafo" was commissioned by monks in the eighth century to appease the turbulent waters.

On this cold January morning, the river is calm, but cloaked in fog. The ferry is half-empty, and those of us on board are wrapped in scarves and hats. In the white soup, we glimpse two ghostly figures on a small boat lowering fishing nets on a traditional bamboo frame into the water. As the ferry chugs steadily across the river, a huge face suddenly looms up out of the mist, then disappears again. Creeping nearer to the cliff, we are confronted by giant toes.

A Chinese tour-guide breaks into the silence with a loud-hailer, imparting facts of great historical importance, but the fog muffles her voice. We are content to float and stare at the huge stone feet.

The ferry edges further round the cliff to give us a full-frontal, and I have to admit it's impressive. Dafo's position protects him from the usual sprawl of souvenir stalls, and he retains an air of mystery, particularly in this drifting mist. Gazing calmly downwards, he sits with his hands on his knees, relaxed. Twelve centuries of weather have taken their toll, however: his nose is black and running, his fingers are badly stained and vegetation invades his orifices.

You can scramble over his toes and rough steps have been hewn into the surrounding rock to take you further, but you need a head for heights to get as far as his knees: I'm overcome by vertigo at ankle level, but then he is 71 metres high. At the top, Chinese tourists queue for the exact optical-illusion spot where, by carefully extending your finger, you appear to be penetrating the unreachable giant ear. One joker has even brought along a cotton-bud.

Back in the eighth century, waste rock from the carving of the Grand Buddha filled a treacherous river hollow, thereby calming the swirling currents. He was having an equally soothing effect on us after two busy weeks in China and, behind the giant statue, we explored several sites half- hidden in the trees but linked by steps and wooded trails.

At the foot of the cliff, near the spectacular Wuyou Temple and its gold calligraphy on red wooden walls, a Buddhist ceremony was in progress, and we watched from the courtyard as several hundred elderly ladies shuffled in procession through the courtyards, dressed up in bizarre combinations of orange robes, anoraks and bobble hats. After the prayers, two monks brought in a vast iron cauldron of steaming rice. The old women queued patiently with their bowls and chopsticks to dig out a lump of plain white rice while, nearby, in the temple restaurant, tourists tucked into vegetarian dishes named "Rib of Pig" and "Bear's Paw Stew".

Wuyou also has the most lifelike assembly of arhats (life-size models of Buddhist monks) that I have ever seen. One was a dead-ringer for my ex-husband and gave me quite a start, although what he was doing in such saintly company I'm not sure. There are a thousand terracotta statues, each with its own distinct personality and, for me, the experience was far more rewarding than viewing the famous Terracotta Warriors at Xi'an through binoculars.

A little further along, a beautiful stone bridge adorned with pink dragons and pavilions made a perfect circle with its reflection in the river below, and led us to the Mahaoya Tomb Museum, which contained some fascinating burial artefacts.

After exploring the Grand Buddha Temple, behind Dafo's head, it was back to the ferry for Leshan and our hotel. The Taoyuan was one of those clever combinations of luxurious foyer and spartan bedrooms so common in China. When we switched on the television the lights went out, and vice versa, but we risked a couple of nights there, as Leshan is more than just a starting point for the Grand Buddha trail. The town has a homely, provincial feel, and we enjoyed watching shadow boxing by the river and walking through markets.

The enterprising Mr Yang runs a popular, if rather chilly, "hole in the wall" restaurant and works as a kind of freelance tourist information centre. Over dinner, I did some copy writing for him for a new business idea (organising traditional Chinese weddings for foreigners) and, in return for my labours, Mr Yuan arranged for my ailing travelling companion to have acupuncture at the local hospital, at Chinese prices. This gave us an interesting glimpse of everyday Chinese healthcare as the busy nurse just roughly jammed 12 needles straight into his head, rendering him unable to speak or move.

Fortunately speech and movement returned, not to mention full health, so we were able to return to Chengdu, Sichuan's capital, a brisk, bustling city, where the old China brushes shoulders with the new. We holed up in the unappealingly named Traffic Hotel, which was actually quite quiet by Chinese standards. It was close to the river and we enjoyed some interesting walks along the riverside, where hundreds of old men sat playing cards round stone tables, and young women sauntered up and down with fluffy white lapdogs, wearing the latest fashions from Hong Kong. Inside the flashy new department stores, salesmen demonstrated the latest kitchen gadgets: electric cabbage shredders and heated hair rollers. Outside, shoeshine boys mobbed us, and poorly dressed women sat on the pavements with meagre displays of plastic combs laid out on dusty handkerchiefs.

The highlight of our stay was an afternoon at the Sichuan Opera. Most of the audience looked over 70, and everyone seemed delighted that two foreigners had come to hear the performance. Our neighbours passed down flasks of tea and pressed pumpkin seeds into our hands and the old lady on my right explained the complex plot to me at each interval. I don't speak Chinese and she didn't speak English so I wasn't much the wiser, but she was so good-natured she couldn't resist trying.

Before we left Chengdu, we had to visit a place unique to Sichuan - the Panda Breeding Centre. The black-eyed cuddly bears may be a cliche, but you'd have to be a determined cynic to resist falling for the real thing. Despite our fears about animal welfare (it's hard to forget the live food markets), the pandas looked fat and happy. We spent several hours watching a group of cubs scrapping and rolling down a grassy slope and rare red pandas feeding in the trees. Reluctantly leaving them behind, we returned to the hotel to pack. Some travellers were heading west on the Sichuan-Tibet Highway, but we were tempted by the eastern route, down the Yangtse river through the allegedly spectacular Three Gorges. I say "allegedly" because we boarded the wrong boat and sailed through them at night. As the Chinese government intends to submerge the Gorges with a controversial dam, we'd blown our one and only chance of seeing them.

We were quite calm when we realised what we'd done. In our travels, we must have absorbed the spirit of China's ancient religion. Traditional Taoist philosophy teaches that success and happiness follow from our ability to find "The Way", a road in harmony with the natural flow of things. We had obviously just chosen the wrong way out of Sichuan.