Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region was really just a short added stop to the main target of our trip (although a spectacular stop); which was Gansu province, specifically Gannan Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. We were generously hosted by an ecology group at Lanzhou University who had field sites in the Gannan grasslands which sits on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau just at the transition to the Loess Plateau.
The plan was to spend as little time in Lanzhou as necessary as according to our hosts there’s not much to the city. Our impression seemed to corroborate their assessment. However, a daytrip away, are the amazing Buddhist grottoes of Bingling Temple (another UNESCO Heritage Site) so that’s where we went when we found out we had a free day before we trundled off to the field site.
Bingling Temple (or Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves or Bingling Si) is neither affordable nor easy to get to due to its location in a canyon along the Yellow River. We had hired a car to take us the one and half hours from Lanzhou to Liujiaxia Reservoir where we then took a boat to the temple. Total cost for our family for the visit: 300 RMB one way car transfer X2 plus fast boat to the temple 120 RMB X4 plus admission to the temple 50 RMB X3 (the boy was free) = 1230 RMB ($245 CAD/$187 USD). We considered this expensive for a day trip – amazing how we have defined affordable after living in Asia for nine months. There is bus service from Lanzhou to the reservoir but I am unsure of the cost and a large slow boat is available at half the price of the fast boat but it will take you two to three hours to reach the temple compared to one hour by fast boat. The downside of the fast boat was that they limit you to one and a half hours at the temple. We felt a bit rushed and had to miss visiting an area that required a shuttle ride to get to. If we had to do it again, I might have given one of the many boat touts in the parking lot at the reservoir a chance.
Regardless, Bingling Temple was worth the effort and cost. There are 183 niches, 694 stone statues, 82 clay sculptures and at least 900 square metres of the most well-preserved murals we have seen. The caves are the incredible result of work from a millennium of artists. Here are some of my 162 photos from Bingling:)