Bǐnglíng Sì


With its relative inaccessibility, Bǐnglíng Sì is one of the few Buddhist grottoes in China to have survived the tumultuous 20th century unscathed. Which is a good thing, as during a period spanning 1600 years, sculptors dangling from ropes carved 183 niches and sculptures into the porous rock of steep canyon walls. The cave art can’t compare to Dunhuang, but the setting, few tourists and the remarkable terraced landscapes you pass getting here make Bǐnglíng Sì unmissable.

Today the cliffs are isolated by the waters of the Liujiaxia Reservoir (刘家峡水库, Liújiāxiá Shuǐkù) on the Yellow River and hemmed in by a ring of dramatic rock citadels.

The star 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.

As you loop around past the Maitreya cave, consider hiking 2.5km further up the impressive canyon to a small Tibetan monastery. There might also be 4WDs running the route.

You can visit Bǐnglíng Sì as a day trip from Lanzhou or en route to Xiahe via Linxia. Take a boat or taxi from the town of Liujiaxia. Six buses depart from Lanzhou’s west bus station (¥23, 2½ hours, 8am to midday) to Liujiaxia bus station. Two later buses (¥25, 2½ hours, 1.30pm and 2.30pm) also run daily to Liujiaxia from the east bus station in Lanzhou, but these will arrive too late for a trip to the grottoes. From Liujiaxia, you will need to take a 10-minute taxi (¥6) to the boat ticket office at the dam (大坝, dàbà). Try to catch the earliest buses possible from Lanzhou (starting at 8am) to avoid getting stuck on the way back. The last return bus to Lanzhou leaves at 6.30pm.

Covered speedboats (seating nine people) cost ¥700 for the one-hour journey. The boat ticket office will refuse to make the trip unless the boat is full, so independent travellers may have to wait for a small group to form; expect to pay around ¥150 per person in this case. In summer, you should have no trouble finding a seat, but in shoulder season, you may find yourself stranded. Note that no boats run from December to March.

Surprisingly, the much more scenic (and flexible) route to the caves is by hiring a private car (¥250 to ¥300 return). Out of Liujiaxia, the road runs high into the rugged hills above the reservoir, and for 90 minutes you will twist and turn, dip and rise through a wonderland of corn-growing terraces laddering and layering every slope, mound, outcrop and ravine. The final descent to the green-blue reservoir, with its craggy backdrop, is sublime. Driver touts ply the bus station in Liujiaxia; bargain hard for a good deal.

If heading to Linxia after the grottoes, there are frequent buses (¥21, three hours) from the station at Liujiaxia.

You can also opt to stay overnight in Liujiaxia for a less rushed experience. The Dorsett Hotel at the north end of town is a good option with huge rooms overlooking the Yellow River.