The trip from Lanzhou to the Buddhist caves of Bingling Temple is one of the best excursions you can make in all of Gansu Province - enough in itself to merit a stay in Lanzhou. Not only does it offer a glimpse of the spectacular Buddhist cave art that filtered through to this region along the Silk Road, but it's a powerful introduction to the Yellow River.
The Buddhist caves are carved into a canyon beside the Liujiaxia Reservoir on the Yellow River, and can be reached only by boat at certain times of the year (see "practicalities"). The most convenient way to see the caves is on a pre-booked one-day trip from Lanzhou - the whole trip takes up to twelve hours, which includes less than two hours at the caves, but the scenery en route makes it all worthwhile.
The ferry docks are just below the Bingling Temple Caves. Cut into sheer cliff, amid stunning scenery above a tributary of the river, the caves number 183 in all. They are among the earliest significant Buddhist monuments in China - started in the Western Jin and subsequently extended by the Northern Wei, the Tang, Song and Ming. Since they were spared through inaccessibility from the attentions of foreign devils in the nineteenth century and the Red Guards in the twentieth, most of the cave sculpture is in good condition, and some impressive restoration work is in progress on the wall paintings. The centerpiece sculpture, approached along a dizzying network of stairs and ramps, is a huge 27-metre seated Buddha, probably carved under the Tang. The art work at Bingling Temple reached its peak under the Song and Ming dynasties, and though the wall paintings of this period have been virtually washed away, there remain a considerable number of small and exquisite carvings.
Unfortunately, you'll have less than two hours before the boat leaves - only enough time for a cursory look. If you want a detailed guided tour, encompassing all the caves, ask about a private trip at one of the Lanzhou travel services.
Most travel services in Lanzhou can arrange trips to the caves (see Lanzhou's "Listings"), though if you are on your own you may have to hunt around to find a pre-existing group which you can tag on to. For a maximum car-load of three passengers, an all-inclusive price (car, boat, entry ticket and insurance) usually comes to ¥400-500; the Gansu International Hope Travel Agency in the Huaiyi Hotel work out their rates at ¥200 per person. There may also be larger (and therefore cheaper) group tours operating out of the Shengli Hotel - enquire here for details. Before booking any tour, take heed of the following: the water in the reservoir is only high enough to permit access between June and October. Some years, however, the caves remain out of bounds through most of the summer as well, and some tour operators have been known to take people all the way to the reservoir before "discovering" that the water level is too low - no fee refundable. Make sure your travel service gives you information about the situation at the reservoir before you book. Alternatively, you could consider travelling independently to the reservoir on a public bus. Both from the West bus station and from a special stop outside the Shengli Hotel, there are buses to Yongjing , which pass the ferry departure point (if you fail to get off at the right place, you'll have to walk back thirty minutes from the bus terminus). From the ferry departure point you can usually charter your own motorboat to the caves, which will cost around ¥500; on the way back you may end up staying the night in Yongjing, if the last public bus back to Lanzhou (around 5pm) leaves without you.
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