Travelers with the patience and money to endure the journey and entrance fees are well rewarded when they finally reach the Bingling Caves (Bǐnglíng Sì Shíkū, 炳靈寺石窟). Featuring a massive 27-meter (89 ft) statue of the Maitreya Buddha, fantastic frescoes, 183 caves and statues painted in strikingly vivid colors, Bingling is considered one of the top four Buddhist grottoes in the country.
Travel to the caves is fairly involved but worthwhile. The trip starts with a 2-hour bus ride from Lanzhou to the Liujiaxia Reservoir (Liújiāxiá Shuǐkù, 刘家峡水库). You're dropped off just to the left of the Yellow River Travel Service. This is where the boat leg of the journey begins.
If you're lucky you'll be able to tag along with a group hiring one of the speedboats. These cover the 50-kilometer (31 mi) journey across the reservoir in an hour but the covered variety come in at a steep RMB 400, RMB 200 for uncovered boats. These can take up to eight people apiece, so the more people there are, the cheaper it is.
Otherwise you'll be stuck with the ferry option, which is inexpensive at RMB 30, but takes a much longer three to four hours. Some might find the trip dreary, but nature shows off her own exquisite carving skills here. On every side are the loess plateau's red-sandstone cliffs, weathered into an ever-shifting sequence of beguiling forms.
Once at the grottoes, there's still a RMB 300 charge to negotiate for access to the best caves, but for Buddhist art on par with Dunhuang's Mogao Caves, its definitely worth it. Sadly, no photography is allowed.
Situated along the Silk Road, development of the grottoes was sponsored by wealthy traders, the zenith of their glory coming during the golden age of Chinese culture, the Tang Dynasty. Sway-hipped Boddhsattvas and guardians allude to Indian influence in the religious icons.
The caves survived the perils of the 20th century, multiple wars, bombings and the Cultural Revolution, due to their isolation. Keep that in mind if you start to begrudge the journey its length.
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