Leaving Xiahe, we drive to take a boat to Bingling Si. The caves which are on the Yellow River have been partially flooded due to a dam built across the Yellow river creating a large lake. Our guide Lydia knew of a dock closer to the temple that would require shorter boat ride and lower cost. To find it, we had to navigate an unpaved, rutted dirt road off the main road.
Off season rates, or maybe special consideration for our guide, the cost was only 500 RMB for the round trip, 20 minutes each way. The day was calm and the ride was very smooth and we cruised at about 30 kts.
Arrival at the Bingling Si dock we decided to have lunch on the permanently docked boat. The food wasn’t too bad, Joann had an eggplant dish and I had the beef noodles.
At the ticket gate we tried the “We work at a museum in America, let us in for free,” approach, which did not work. We then went for the “Old person” discount, which gives us discounts and at BingLing Si was half price. Thing have changed over the past years, or maybe my Chinese has improved. Previously they demanded the Chinese card for old age, but now they look at my passport and give the discount.
BingLing Si is a very peaceful and serene environment. Cliffs and obelisks of sandstone surround the canyons below. This Buddhist site is clearly prepared for tourists with marble fences and tiled pathway. Beneath the walkway, which is probably filled with water at high water season, is marshy grass and reeds. So cool and serene. Very calming. I can see how monks would choose this space for meditation.
After a few minute’s walk you glimpse a silhouette of the giant Maitreya statue and then you come upon the carved niches in the mountainside. They have good descriptive labels, and they are numbered in sequence from our start, starting with number 3. Earlier niches were carved lower in the cliff and have been damaged by the waters of the reservoir.
We have arbitrarily agreed that niches do not qualify as caves in our goal of “30 caves in 30 days.” The art and architecture are from the same periods as earlier caves and they are great examples seen up close. There is a greater degree of carving and statue at Bingling Si. The style shows a great influence of Indian art in the clothing and body positions.
Cave 3 – Tang Dynasty. Central stupa, typical Tang architectural item. Niche in left hand wall had statues, barely seen, but quite Indian in style. Wall painting well preserved. Stories in blocks as in Kuqa, not free form as in Dunhuang.
Cave 4 – Tang dynasty. Buddha seated not in Lotus position. Nicely draped robes over legs. Ananda quite slim and fit figure.
Cave 5 – A nice niche with a seated Buddha.
Cave 10 – Tang dynasty. Buddha with disciples. Not only are there disciples painted on the wall, looking over at Buddha but we found images of disciples in Buddha’s aureole.
Niches 17 – 47 are a series of sculptures and reliefs along the wall of the cliff. They are wonderfully stylized. Much Indian influence in the postures and clothing of the women.
Cave ? – A sculpture of Avalokitsvara with five heads and eight arms. She was repainted later.
Niche 134 – A wonderful small composition of Buddha, disciples and attendants.
Maitreya – Best seen from across the canyon to appreciate her size and artistry. She is not completely Chinese, with a nose, eyes and lips more central Asian than Chinese, but with an oval face. Her not too complex drapery of the clothes indicates an early stage effort.
Unfortunately being off season, the upper floor caves and niches were closed to the public.
The pathways back crossed Grotto 16, from the Wei Dynasty which had a clay sculpture of Buddha in Paranirvana. In this case, Buddha had feminine lips and face.
We returned to the car and drove to Lanzhou. Rush hour in Lanzhou was a third world experience. One of three major North-South routes was under construction and was reduced to a one lane unimproved road. Lydia, our guide said that all roads in Lanzhou were under construction. This seemed more third world than economically developed nation. China still has a way to go. One mile took one hour.
Hotel in Lanzhou, a Crowne Plaza was certainly five star. Unfortunately we were there for one night with little time to appreciate. The accommodations.
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