Exploring the Bingling Caves

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Leaving Xi‘an after only 3 days, we felt like betraying the capital of ancient China. When our guide Rocky waved us goodbye at the train station, I almost regretted not having extended our time in Xi’an for a few more days. But I reminded myself to not forget our goal. The purpose of this trip was to discover the Ancient Silk Road…

 

About 630 km further west, we arrived in Lanzhou. It took the high-speed train only 3 hours to get to Gansu province’s capital. We were starving upon our arrival. But since we knew that we’d still have to drive for two hours to reach our destination, we wouldn’t have minded grabbing a sandwich.

 

No, no… no sandwich here. Our local guide Frank seemed offended. Then added: we’ll have noodles. Fresh hand-pulled Muslim noodle soups. And you’ll see, the Hui people can prepare the noodles very fast.

 

 

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The Lamian restaurant we were driven to was small. There were only 6 or 7 simple tables surrounded by wooden stools. Behind the counter, two young men were twisting, stretching and folding doughs into strands of noodles. At a corner of the restaurant, two elderly men wearing a small white cap and a long beard were chatting cautiously. Frank whispered: these are Hui people. Chinese Muslims.

 

We had barely sat down that a waiter already approached to serve us two huge bowls of sizzling hot Lamian noodle soups. Look… Frank pointed at our bowls with his index finger. A good bowl of Lanzhou Lamian always contains five colors: yellow noodles and white slices of beef, topped with green cilantro and red chili sauce. And all this in a bowl of clear beef bone broth. Frank paused and smiled satisfactorily. Now eat! He said it with a low-pitched voice, but it still seemed like an order. Without saying a word, Kerstin and I ate up, and even slurped our noodles.

 

Unlike our previous guides, Frank was not very talkative. When we climbed in the car after lunch, he told us that we should rest. Somehow, he reminded me of my father. As a kid, whenever my father told me to rest, it meant “don’t talk”. And so, we both looked out of the window, let the brown water of the Yellow River slide away, and slowly drifted into a nap.

 

When I woke up, the scenery had changed. As far as the eye could reach, green fields surrounded by green terraced hills. On a hot summer day, it felt soothing to see so much green.

 

 

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About 10 minutes later, we left our car at an outdoor parking, and followed Frank towards a wharf. The grassy meadows on both sides of the dock looked awesomely picturesque and void of tourist. A kid bathed and chuckled in the sunlight. A Muslim biker sped past us. An elderly couple was picnicking under a tree nearby, and a few sheep were grazing on the riverbanks. This was exactly the kind of place I was looking for in Asia.

 

For someone who was rather slow, Frank advanced fast enough, since he was already waiting for us at the end of the dock. I soon understood that this was not our destination, but merely an harbor to catch a boat to our “real” destination, the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves.

 

But the landscape was too mesmerizing to rush. So, I decided to slow down my pace. After all, this was a private tour, so we took all the time of our life to walk down to the dock. We watched the locals play with their kids in the grassy meadows. Enjoyed the views of abandoned boats lurking in the crystal-clear blue water. There was no disturbing noise, no car honks, no air pollution nor sound pollution.

 

When the helmsman was moving our boat out of the dock, Frank explained that we were in Liujiaxia Reservoir. And that this was a dam built by the government in 1969 to control the Yellow River which used to cause natural disasters. The Liujiaxia Reservoir is over 130 square kilometers, and in this dam two small rivers pour into the Yellow River.

 

 

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The clear water of the reservoir slowly turned yellowish brown as we approached the Bingling Caves. And the surrounding green hills soon became brown towering stone peaks.

 

The Bingling Temple Grottoes, which in Tibetan means Thousand Buddha Caves, can only be reached by boat via the Liujiaxia Reservoir. And boats only circulate in summer and early autumn. Since the site is extremely remote, only few travelers venture out to explore it. When our boat docked in, there were only a handful of helmsmen sitting on the large inviting stairs. And all the way to the entrance, we saw no one but two wandering cats and a bunch of construction workers building a new trail.

 

As we walked through the winding stone way, we couldn’t help stopping on every turn to look up at the impressive peaks cut into sheer cliff.

 

 

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The first caves we saw were amazing. And the further we moved forward, the more charming they became. The delicately painted frescoes are slowly fading, which adds to the appeal of the site. Altogether there are over 200 cave niches with Buddhist frescoes, carvings and stone or clay sculptures dating back to 420AD. And each alcove is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery.

 

At the end of the stone way along the cave niches on the northern side of the canyon, a 27 meter-high Buddha statue that was looking down at us dominated the front of the caves sculpture. And right next to the imposing Buddha, our sight was caught by a narrow wooden staircase that seemed to connect more niches high above at the top of the cliffs.

 

We asked our guide Frank if one can climb up to the top, without really meaning that we wanted to do that…. He said that the cave located on the peak of the cliffs holds the most ancient stone carvings executed by reclusive Buddhist monks, and are therefore more severely protected. So, not everyone can access this cave. But if we were really interested, he said that he could arrange it. Before we answered anything, he went off to pay additional money to a security guide. Dressed in army clothes, the young man scrutinized us for a second, then unlocked several gates.

 

 

 

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Surprised, we hesitated  a bit… but finally decided to follow him up the stairway. Our legs were shaking as the stairs got narrower and steeper, soon turning into ladders that creaked at each step. On the halfway, we had to leave our backpacks before continuing the strenuous climb, as the ladders were too narrow to carry on with a backpack.

 

When we reached the summit, the well-preserved frescoes and relief sculptures literally took our breath away! The colors are brighter that the paintings in the cave niches below. And the crimson, turquoise and emerald strokes are so finely traced. For preservation purposes, it was not allowed to take pictures. The young security guy who led us  to the top was standing behind us, making sure that we wouldn’t take any photos. Frank, who also followed us, reminded us again to keep our camera in our pocket.

 

There was no other person around, but we still felt like a bunch of people were watching us. And suddenly I noticed three cameras fixed high above our heads, all turning towards us. They moved as we walked. I was surprised to see how serious security was in such a remote place. But at that moment, we still had no idea that it would get even worse in western China…

 

Since we couldn’t go far anyway, and we were there to explore the cave paintings, we tried to ignore the all-too-present cameras, and to keep studying the exceptional frescoes. After all, we were grateful to be even allowed to marvel at those treasures.

 

 

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The way down was even trickier, because we had to climb down the ladders and stairs backwards. Although for the security guy, the descent was quick and easy… He waited for us to go down first. And after each flight of stairs, he closed and locked a hatch before descending.

 

During our our whole visit in the Bingling Caves, we only saw 6 other visitors, travel guides included. But when we stepped down from the top cave, we suddenly noticed that we were the last persons onsite. The sun started to set, but we still took our time to visit the abandoned temple and the gorgeous scenery.

 

The landscapes got more and more spectacular as we cruised back to Liujiaxia. The water frothed and churned. And the sunlit mountains gleamed around “in a hedge of inaccessible purity” (James Hilton, Lost Horizon, 1933). Now looking back, we can say with certainty that the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves turned out to be one of the most unexpected highlights of our trip along the Ancient Silk Road.

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Mei is a 30-something Archaeologist, born and raised in Luxembourg. Besides traveling, she loves eating sushi and stinky cheese (although not at the same time), as well as listening to Kerstin's funny stories while driving on long road trips. She's afraid of heights, but adores panoramic views. Her favorite places are those she chose to live in: Paris, Greece, San Francisco.

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32 Responses

  1. Lara Dunning
    | Reply

    Wow! Sounds like you had a wonderful trip and a great guide. As someone who doesn’t like being in crowds, it sounds like this trip had many experiences wtih very few people around. To me, that is priceless. I would love to go here!

  2. Mel Butler
    | Reply

    Oh wow Bingling caves are so amazing, they may be a little far out but they are so worth the treck to get there. By the sounds of it though that you had some really great noddles along the way too. I can’t believe for such an area that you only saw another 6 other visitors. Definitely a place I am adding to my list thanks for highlighting it to me.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      If you have time for slow travel, tou should definitely take the extra time to head to Bingling Caves!

  3. Steph
    | Reply

    The caves sound amazing. It’s hard to believe that so few people visited. So thanks for sharing this hidden gem with us!
    Do you mind me asking how much you ended up paying to access the upper part?

    The camera situation in China sure is a very interesting one. It’s one of the few things I dislike about the country.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Actually no it’s not very hard to believe since you can only go to the Bingling Caves during summertime and early autumn. And in summer China is flooded with Chinese tourists, so not a lot of foreigners visit China in summer. We have no idea how much our guide Frank paid for us to go up to the top cave (we didn’t pay anything), but probably not a lot.

  4. pinkcaddytraveloguegmailcom
    | Reply

    Wow wow wow!! I’ve never heard of the Bingling Caves but they sound and look absolutely incredible. What an adventure you got to have! And how cool that you got to go to the top. That’s so wild that they had security cameras all the way up there. I hope I get the opportunity to go here one day!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      If you want to go to the Bingling Caves – and we hope you will! – make sure to visit China during summertime or early autumn.

  5. Thomas & Paloma
    | Reply

    Frank sounds a bit like a shady figure but absolutely stunning photos and a great read! Have never heard of Gansu before but thanks to you now I know! 😊

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Gansu province is not so well-known but so full of wonderful places to explore!

  6. ansh997x
    | Reply

    I didn’t even know about Bingling Caves in China. The country is amazing and the tourist destinations are slwoly coming in the knowledge of general people. Thanks for writing about this.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      You’re welcome. The good thing is that one can only visit the Bingling Caves during a limited time of the year. Hopefully this will stay like this, so the place won’t get too crowded.

  7. That’s an awesome place to explore. Everything looks so giant. Landscapes are extraordinary.

  8. Kevin | Caffeinated Excursions
    | Reply

    What an adventure! I’m really surprised by the drastic change in the landscape from where you got on the boat to where the caves are. Also, the bit about the sandwich made me laugh. Food from central and western China is such a treat and I’m jealous you got to try Lanzhou Lamian directly from the source. The journey up to the top sounds pretty anxiety-inducing (especially the creaking!), and it’s too bad to hear that security cameras made their way all the way to this remote archaeological gem that you had basically all to yourselves, even if it is to make sure visitors don’t cause damage to the art.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Haha! Yes, the Lanzhou Lamian were so yummy! And of course they were better than any sandwich in the world!

  9. The.Holidaymaker
    | Reply

    How fantastic, it sounds like you had it all to yourself. I am intrigued to know how you discovered this place in the first place, other than the guide you had. It definitely sounds like it is off the beaten path.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      It was suggested by our travel agent at China Highlights, who understood very well the kinds of sites and trips we like. When I told him that I’m an archaeologist and that we don’t mind hitting the extra miles to explore exceptional sites, he pulled out all the remote and lesser-known places for us. Totally loved it!

  10. Fares
    | Reply

    Excellent guide and great photos as well 🙂

  11. Tania Muthusamy
    | Reply

    I would love to see these caves. I’m amazed they have existed since 420AD. How gorgeous that each one is like a little temple.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      The Bingling Caves are truly amazing. 420AD is not that old compared to other archaeological sites we’re used to visit, but it’s the context and history that make them so interesting and worth exploring.

  12. Two Wander
    | Reply

    Wow so interesting, we’ll have to check it out before we leave China!

  13. Ada
    | Reply

    I love that you ended up going on that strenuous climb just because you asked an innocent little question. But it sounds like quite an adventure! Too bad about the security cameras, but hopefully you made amazing memories!

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, we had wonderful memories of this trip to the Bingling Caves! And the security cameras weren’t that bad after all, since there were even more cameras elsewhere in China and we soon got used to it. 😅

  14. josypheen
    | Reply

    Wooow, that is so cool that your throwaway comment meant you could go to the top of the Bingling Caves! Were the views from the top amazing? It’s always harder (and scarier) coming down vs going up, but what an amaazing experience.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yes, the views were awesome, but the ones from the boat and the ground in the gorge are equally breathtaking!

  15. Rhonda Albom
    | Reply

    The caves sound well off the beaten track and not so easy to get to. No wonder there were so few people around. The cameras following your movements are a bit creepy, though.

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      Yeah the cameras were a bit creepy, but it was still worth exploring the Bingling Caves. 🙂

  16. carolcolborn
    | Reply

    I know I won’t be able to go to many remote locations anymore so thanks for this peek. I was wondering why there weren’t more photos! But how did you get the one on the pin?

    • Mei and Kerstin
      | Reply

      The one on my pin shows the cave paintings on the ground level, not the ones on the top cave. And it’s allowed to take pics of the paintings on the ground levels.

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