Introducing Bǐnglíng Sì
Due to its relative inaccessibility, Bǐnglíng Sì (adult/student Y50/25) is one of the few Buddhist grottoes in China to survive the tumultuous 20th century unscathed. Over a period spanning 1600 years, sculptors dangling from ropes carved 183 niches and sculptures into the porous rock along the dramatic canyon walls. Today the cliffs are isolated by the waters of the Liujiaxia Reservoir (Liújiāxiá Shuǐkù) on the Yellow River. All considered, come here for a nice day out rather than for the cave art alone, which doesn’t compare to somewhere like Dūnhuáng.
Like other Silk Road grottoes, wealthy patrons, often traders along the route west, sponsored the development of Bǐnglíng Sì, which reached its height during the prosperous Tang dynasty. The star of the caves is the 27m-high seated statue of Maitreya, the future Buddha, but some of the smaller, sway-hipped bodhisattvas and guardians, bearing an obvious Indian influence, are equally exquisite. Photos are allowed. Across the canyon is a large 1500-year-old sleeping Buddha, his heart ripped out by treasure seekers. Art buffs can climb the staircase to Tang-dynasty caves 169 and 172 for an extra fee of Y300.
If you’ve hired your own boat, and thus have more time at the site, you can take a jeep (Y40) or hike 2.5km further up the impressive canyon to a small Tibetan monastery.
Note that from November to March water levels may be too low to visit the caves, so check before setting off.