Bingling Si, Gansu Province
Work began at Bingling Si around 420 A.D., making it roughly contemporaneous with the Mogao Caves at Dunhuang. The caves are filled with paintings and carvings, most notably a 27-meter high statue of the Maitreya Buddha (right, covered in scaffolding). But surprisingly few caves are open for viewing on the tour. In those we saw, the most notable characteristic was the strong Indian influence, especially in some of the carvings. It is incredible to think about the journey that those aesthetic values — and the religion they honored — made, so long ago.
Although the Bingling Si caves are by no means boring, don’t make them a very high priority on your itinerary. I went to see them because I happened to have an extra day in Lanzhou, and unless you are a Buddhist-art buff, I think that’s about the only reason to go. It’s a pretty pricey day trip, and the travel time (at least six hours round-trip) is daunting. If you’re in the region, go to Dunhuang instead. (Yes, it takes longer to get there, but there’s so much more to see.)
Entrance to the caves costs 50 RMB (25 RMB with a student card). If you are a solo traveler, expect to pay around 95 RMB to join another group’s speedboat for the roundtrip journey from the docks to the caves themselves. Including the ticket price and all transportation from Lanzhou to the caves, the total cost of a day trip to Bingling Si is roughly 200 RMB, or 150 RMB for students.
Getting to Bingling Si is half the fun. Or rather, it’d better be — it takes more than three hours to get all the way from Lanzhou to the caves. The first step is a two-hour bus ride from Lanzhou’s west bus station to the Liujiaxia Reservoir (17 RMB). Buses leave every 20 minutes throughout the day, but I was told that, as a foreigner, I wasn’t allowed to buy a ticket until after noon. Why, I do not know.
When you’re on the bus, tell the driver that you are going to Bingling Si. He may be able to drop you off at the entrance to the speedboat docks, rather than taking you all the way to town. This will save the 10 RMB taxi ride from town back up to the docks.
For an independent traveler, the speedboat ride is prohibitively expensive unless you can hook up with a larger group. Fortunately, the people who run the speedboats are quite good about putting individuals on group boats. I ran into the ticket office hot, sweaty and desperate to get on a boat immediately because I had to get back before the last bus left. Fifteen minutes later, I was on a speedboat zipping across the reservoir with a group of chain-smoking coworkers from Qinghai. Fun times were had by all.
The boat ride itself takes about an hour and passes through a stretch of attractive scenery. It doesn’t get really beautiful until you’re quite close to the caves themselves, but even on a hot day it’s a fun excursion. On the way back, our engine failed briefly — a bit scary — but the driver was able to get it going after a half-dozen or so tries.
When you get back to the docks, you’ll need to take a taxi back to the Liujiaxia town to catch the bus back to Lanzhou. The bus ride back from Liujiaxia to Lanzhou costs 17 RMB, the same as the ride there. Don’t let your bus driver force you to pay 80+ RMB of “insurance” — it’s not required! Other people on the bus probably won’t help you out, so you’ll have to stand up for yourself.