With a 1.5 hour drive from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, this is a very accessible day trip from Lanzhou. You could also do this trip as a larger itinerary that continues onto Labrang monastery or Hezuo and Langmusi as well which are in southern Gansu Province.
The Bingling Caves were a work in progress for more than a millennium. The first grotto was begun around 420 AD at the end of the Western Qin kingdom. Work continued and more grottoes were added during the Wei, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The style of each grotto can easily be connected to the typical artwork from its corresponding dynasty. The Bingling Temple is both stylistically and geographically a midpoint between the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the Buddhist Grottoes of central China, such as the Yungang Grottoes near Datong and Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang.
Sadly, over the centuries, earthquakes, erosion, and looters have damaged or destroyed many of the caves and the artistic treasures within. Altogether there are 183 caves, 694 stone statues, and 82 clay sculptures that remain. The relief sculpture and caves filled with buddhas and frescoes line the northern side of the canyon for about 200 meters along the reservoir. Each cave is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery. These caves culminate at a large natural cavern where wooden walkways precariously wind up the rock face to hidden cliff-side caves as if visiting an ancient civilizaiton. It is here at the top of these steps that you can view the giant Maitreya or Future Buddha that stands more than 27 meters, or almost 100 feet tall.This 100 foot tall Buddha is the main attraction to visit Bingling Temple and is certainly worth the trip from Lazhou. As you loop around past the Maitreya cave, you might consider hiking 2.5km further up the impressive canyon to a small remote Tibetan monastery. If you do this extra hike, be aware than there may also be 4Wheel drive ATV’s There might also be 4WDs running the route.
The sculptures, carvings, and frescoes that remain are outstanding examples of Buddhist artwork and draw visitors from around the world. The site is extremely remote and can only be reached during summer and fall by boat via the Liujiaxia Reservoir. Boats leave from near the Liujiaxia Dam in Liujiaxia City (Yongjing County’s county seat), and sometimes also from other docks on the reservoir. The rest of the year, the site is inaccessible, as there are very few roads in the area because of the rocky landscape.
You can hire a covered speedboat (which seats 9 people in total) for 700 RMB per boat for the one-hour drive across the Liujiaxia Resevoir. Boats do not run unless the boat is full of the required 9 people, so you may have to wait for other guests or you may have to pay the difference to cover the empty seats. In the peak seasons from May to October it should be no problem to find other willing Chinese tourists who will want to share the boat with you. In low season, though, you may have to wait 30 minutes or more for your boat to fill up.
From Liujiaxia you can also hire a private car for around 300 RMB to take you to the other side of the reservoir, although most people opt for the boat since this gives a very nice view of the cliffs from the expansive reservoir. Out of Liújiāxiá, the road ascends the rugged hills of southern Gansu and winds above the reservoir. While the drive is quite scenic, if you are prone to motion sickness this is not the option for you as the drive is about 1.5 hours and twists and turns through terraced fields. The final descent to the turquoise reservoir, with its craggy canyon backdrop, is well worth the trip.
You can also opt to stay overnight in Liújiāxiá if you want the overnight experience. Most people do Bingling Si as a full day trip, but the Dorsett Hotel at the north end of town is a good option with huge rooms overlooking the Yellow River.
Most people hire a private car from Lanzhou, but if you are feeling more adventurous (and have some extra free time) you can take one of the frequent buses from Lanzhou’s west bus station that cost 20 RMB and take 2.5 hours to get to the Liújiāxiá bus station. From there, you will need to take a 10-minute taxi ( to the boat ticket office at the dam (大坝; dàbà). Try to catch the earliest buses possible from Lánzhōu (these start at 7am) to avoid missing the bus on the way back to Lanzhou. The last returning bus to Lánzhōu leaves Liujiaxia at 6.30pm at night.
According to legend, in 366 AD a monk named Yuezun had a vision of a thousand radiant Buddhas on the cliff face. This powerful vision inspired him to begin excavating the caves. From the 4th to the 14th century, hundreds of caves were then hand carved out of the rock cliff face containing scriptures, statues, and vibrant Buddhist paintings.Today almost 500 caves remain and there are more than a thousand painted and sculpted Buddhas within the caves which contain the world’s largest collection of Buddhist art.
Excavated into a mile of cliff face outside Dunhuang, an oasis town at the edge of the Gobi Desert, the site’s Chinese name Mogao Ku means “peerless caves.” Indeed, these caves are “peerless” and are one of the largest and best preserved artifacts in all of Asia. The decorated caves’ walls and ceilings, have a total area of 500,000 square feet and are covered by elaborate paintings depicting stories of the Buddha, Buddhist sutras, portraits of cave donors, ornamental designs, and scenes of social and commercial life. The caves also contain more than 2,000 brightly colored clay sculptures of the Buddha and other important Buddhist scholars, the largest sculpture being over 100 feet tall.
The settlement of Dunhuang was one of the first places where Buddhism entered China, through a steady stream of meditation, monks, and merchants who moved north and east from India along the Silk Road. As a major stop on the Silk Road, Dunhuang was a crossroads of Buddhist, Muslim, Hindu, and even Christian thought. Although this is an area of specifically Buddhist worship, the art and objects found at Mogao reflect the meeting of cultures along the Silk Road, the collection of trade routes that for centuries linked China, Central Asia, and Europe. Discovered at the site were Confucian, Daoist, and Christian texts, and documents in multiple languages including Chinese, Sanskrit, Tibetan, and Old Turkish. Even Hebrew manuscripts were found there.
After the 15th Century, the caves lay forgotten and were buried by the sand of the Gobi Desert for many centuries until they were rediscovered by a monk. In the 1890s a Daoist monk named Wang Yuanlu appointed himself guardian of the caves. In 1900 he discovered a cache of manuscripts, long hidden in a small sealed up cave, coming upon one of the great collections of documents in history. Despite their great age, the sculptures and wall paintings in the Dunhuang caves remain remarkably well preserved, thanks in part to the dry desert climate and their remote location.
As more and more archeologists investigated the cave over 50,000 ancient documents were found there. The Library Cave (Cave 17), which was unsealed by Wang Yuanlu, contained nearly 50,000 ancient manuscripts, silk banners and paintings, fine silk embroideries and other rare textiles dating from before the early 1000s, when this cave and all its contents were concealed for reasons still unknown. Shortly after this discovery, many of the objects from the cave were acquired at the site by explorers and archaeologists from the West and Japan.The materials found in the Library Cave offer a vivid picture of life in medieval China. Accounting ledgers, contracts, medical texts, dictionaries, and even descriptions of music, dance, and games were among the finds.
Many of the objects found in the Library Cave can actually be viewed online now. Museums and libraries across Europe and Asia with objects from the Library Cave in their collections have digitized them and made them searchable for free via the International Dunhuang Project, based at the British Library.
The Buddha himself meditated in caves before achieving Enlightenment, and sacred cave sites are found throughout the Buddhist world, including in Thailand, Myanmar, and Sri Lanka. India is home to some 1,200 cave-temple sites, China 250. The Mogao site at Dunhuang is the largest of these.
Lanzhou is the capital city of Gansu Province in northwest China at an elevation of 1518 m (4980 ft). The Yellow River runs through the city and it is definitely worth an afternoon of your time to rent bicycles and cruise along the river for 2-4 hours. The city is the transportation and telecommunication center of the region and is the largest city in western China. Covering an area of 1631.6 square kilometers (629.96 square miles), it was once a key area of trade on the ancient Silk Road. Today, it is a hub for tourists as they begin their adventures out into the Silk Road, with the Maiji Caves to the east, the Bingling Temple Grottoes to the west, Labrang Monastery to the south and the ancient cave paintings of the Dunhuang Mogao Caves to the north.
With mountains to the south and north of the city and the Yellow River flowing from the east to the west, Lanzhou is a beautiful modern city with both the modern ammenities of a large city and the charm of southern cities. The downtown comprises five districts: Chengguan, Qilihe, Xigu, Honggu and Anning. Among them, Chengguan District, situated in the eastern part of the city, is the center of politics, economy, culture and transportation. Anning District, in the northwest of the city, is the economic development zone as well as the area where most colleges are located.
As a transportation hub, Lanzhou connects western and central China. Flights are frequent from many large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai. With three train stations, it is the termination of the Longhai Railway (Lanzhou – Lianyungang Railway), an important east-west rail route in China. Bullet trains to Urumqi also originate from this city.
Owing to its location on the Silk Road, local cuisine maintains characteristics with an Islamic influence. Locally sourced grass fed beef and lamb are common to most dishes. In fact, Lanzhou Beef Noodles or 兰州牛肉面 are famous all across China and most bowls are dirt cheap and very hearty at around 10-12 RMB. In addition, there are many local snacks that we recommend for those looking to try something new such as Niangpi, Hui Dou Zi (Gray Bean) and Fried Noodles. Although many restaurants serve Islamic food, various cuisines such as hot pot and western food are also offered for travelers. With KFC, Starbucks, Burger King, and a host of western restaurants, you will have no problem finding something you will like to eat.