Carvings of the cliff-side grottoes known as Da Fo Wan (Big Buddha Cove) were initiated and directed by Zhao Zhifeng, a self-styled Buddhist monk whose brand of Esoteric Buddhism incorporated current religious ideas and popular beliefs. Beginning in 1178 with the construction of Shengshou Temple at Xiao Fo Wan (Little Buddha Cove) -- just north of Da Fo Wan -- the Baoding Shan project continued for 71 years, possibly halted by the Mongol offensive in Sichuan. If Zhao lived that long (he'd have been 90) it would explain the unity of design and absence of repetition that mark Baoding Shan. The carvings are a series of instructive and cautionary scriptural stories arranged in order around a U-shaped cove with interludes of inscriptions and caves devoted to Buddhist deities. At the bottom curve of the U is a massive carving of a reclining Sakyamuni Buddha as he enters Nirvana (no. 11). It is just one of the many imposing sculptures at Baoding Shan. Others that should be noted include the stories of parental devotion (no. 15) and Sakyamuni's filial piety (no. 17). Local guides usually say these attest to the merging of Confucianism and Buddhism during the Song. But scholars see their inclusion as either a concession to Confucianism -- when you want government endorsement, there's no point alienating folks -- or, possibly, an answer to it from Buddhist scriptures. (In the parental devotion story, look for the nursing boy at the far right wearing the same split pants Chinese toddlers still wear today instead of diapers.) The gruesome Hell of Knee-Chopping (no. 20) captures the many faces of drunkenness (none flattering) without crossing the line into kitsch. These carvings are first and foremost works of art. The last story in the cove (no. 30) depicts the taming of a water buffalo and is meant to be a metaphor for taming the mind in meditation. One of the most accomplished carvings in this cove is no. 8, the Thousand-Arm Avalokitesvara (aka Guanyin), said to be the only Thousand-Arm Avalokitesvara that really has a thousand arms (1,007, actually). Remarkably, each of its hands is in a different pose. Expect to spend 1 1/2 to 2 hours if you're exploring on your own, another hour if you've hired a guide.

Tip: The greatest obstacle to enjoying these caves is the crowds. The best time to visit Baoding Shan is at noon, when they go to lunch. Go to Bei Shan anytime -- tours usually skip it.