October 1st-2nd; 16,647km-16,927; Xining,Qinghai-Yongjing, Gansu-Linxia, GS
For our “Traveler’s Tips” section on what to do when visiting the 10,000 Buddha Temple, skip to the bottom.
We had a stop planned along the way as we started to make our way towards the south of China at a famous attraction not far from Lanzhou, Gansu, Bingling Si or the 10,000 Buddhas Temple. The temple itself is actually a collection of Buddha grottoes, similar to what we saw in Dunhuang, carved into sandstone cliffs along the Yellow River. What’s sort of funny about this is that over a month ago now when we were making our way out of Xi’an and through Gansu, we couldn’t have been more than two or three hundred kilometers away from Lanzhou. Now, on the first day of October though, it was time to finally make our way over.
The road between Xining and Lanzhou is pretty well traveled since they are both relatively large cities so there’s not much to report on there aside from the several towns you pass through on the way (on the G109, the expressway is all clear I’m sure).
Yongjing, which is the town that serves as a launching point for a visit to the temple, is around 100km south of Lanzhou. Now where I can’t say much for the 109 to Lanzhou, the winding roads we took from the turn off towards Yongjing is another story. It became pretty clear that we were making our way towards “river country” as we wound our way through canyons and the countryside got noticeably greener.
When we stopped for lunch at a little village restaurant, we ran into another traveler, a Frenchman who had bicycled all the way from Georgia (the Eastern European country and not the state in Southern US presumably). Apparently, and neither Amy or I remembered this, we had actually run into each other in Kashgar! Pretty crazy that while we were waiting out our delays over there and then made our way through Tibet, he had essentially kept pace until our paths crossed again on this small country road.
Those familiar with China will know that October 1st marks the beginning of the week long National Holiday in China, also known as Golden Week. Now, even if you’re not that familiar with China, you can probably guess what tourist sights in China are like when over 1 billion people are all given a week off.
So with that said, Yongjing, a little town right on the Yellow River, was packed. We woke up early the next morning to head to the dock where a boat would be able to take us to the temple which was in a secluded area up river. There were three options for boat trips of varying speeds-8 hours, 3-4 hours, and 50 minutes. At 110RMB per ticket, we took the 50 minute one.
The Scenic Park and 10,000 Buddhas
The collection of grottoes is actually part of a larger protected nature reserve with hiking trails and other Buddhist temples that you can go visit. The whole operation isn’t very well organized, particularly if you’re a foreigner, and once you’ve bought your boat ticket they really just rush you along, to your boat, from the boat to the ticket office at the park, and then into a little motorized tour cart with about 9 other visitors to take us around the park.
What we didn’t realize is that where we were dropped off at was not the actual Bingling temple but a trail head to some other scenic spots. It was a pretty steep climb and people in the group started dropping off and turning back. We shrugged it off though and kept going just figuring the Buddhas were remote. Soon, when we were the only ones left on the mountain, we started realizing this probably wasn’t the main attraction. In China, when there’s a famous sight to see, no matter how remote, they tend to make them as easy to get to as possible so as many people as possible can have access to it. So yeah, people turning back from the climb should’ve been a clear sign.
A Hiking Trail To OurselvesWell we’d hiked long enough that we thought the rest of the group had probably moved on and we had started to find ourselves in the rare situation of being somewhat secluded while at a tourist sight in China. We looked at the map, saw we could probably hike to the Buddha Grottoes, and decided we should take advantage of the isolation. There were a few lookout points along the way and then after about 5 or so kilometers we had made our way back to a road. We followed the road until arriving at the Upper Bingling Temple, which was just regular Buddhist temple. We looked around and then started to make our way down towards the lower and most famous temple before hitching a ride with a cart of people going in the same direction.
The Bingling Temple 炳灵寺
We got down and owing to 27m (86ft) tall sandstone Buddha that was sitting there to greet us it was hard not to know that we had finally arrived. I’ll let the photos tell the story of the visit there:
Getting Back On The Road
Luckily our timing worked out quite well as when we walked to the Bingling Temple dock, our boat operator saw us, scolded us for leaving and told us to wait while the rest of our boat finished up seeing the temple.
We got back to the hotel where we had left our luggage behind the front desk. After packing up, we were mobile again by around 2:30pm. The route we wanted to take on the G213 was blocked up by construction and of course there was absolutely no signage as to how to detour. We found another road that crossed the Yellow River and met up with the G213 at the next city, Linxia, about 65km away.
The detour had some nice mountain roads that we passed through along with some small villages before getting to the ferry. Mountain roads and ferry crossings though not a good combination for making good time when getting a late start so we called it a night at Linxia.
We start making our way south in earnest now towards province #14 (Gansu didn’t count as we’d been through twice already now) Sichuan! The G213 is a road that goes all the way from Lanzhou to Chengdu (the capital of Sichuan) and had been recommended to us by a rider from Chengdu way back when we were in Jiayuguan.
Traveler’s Tips: Visiting The Bingling Temple Buddha Grottoes
Thought we’d try to add a new section to posts about specific tourist sights that we visit since we are trying to see as many as possible along our route and it might be helpful to other travelers to share some tips. We will be trying to retroactively add these to the other places we’ve visited as well.
- Avoid visiting during peak Chinese travel seasons of course. Namely Chinese New Year and the National Holiday which are the two longest. The National Holiday, aka Golden Week, is the busiest time for tourists with up to 100 million people a day in transit around the country.
- If you can spare the time, try and stay somewhere in Yongjing county near the dock rather than leave directly from Lanzhou. There’s a lot of traveling involved with a visit to the temples, so might as well make it easier on yourself!
- Do yourself a favor and just take the fast boat. It’s still scenic and you won’t spend half or all of your day on a boat. You have to wait until the boat fills up, 8 or 9 people should do it.
- We would highly recommend walking most or all of the way to the Bingling Temple. We got dropped off at the trail head for the “Nvwa Patches the Sky” scenic outlook. (女娲补天 is a Chinese myth explaining the reason for all the colors in the sky). 3/4 of the way up the mountain you will have the park to yourself. They give you a map of the park with your tickets but it’s in Chinese so make sure you understand where you are and where you want to go to before heading out on your own. Make sure you let your boat group know ahead of time too!
- From the Upper Temple, about 2.5+km away, you can hitch a ride on a kart to the main attraction. They charge 10RMB per person though to get on the cart.
The Bingling Buddha Grottoes are second in notoriety only to the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang. The two are very different experiences though. Mogao is very tightly controlled, presumably for preservation purposes, with many more Buddhas to see and very intricate paintings inside the caves as well. Bingling has it’s own charm with the very scenic Yellow River scenery and the fact that you are much more on your own rather than on a guided tour. Feel free to take pictures at Bingling too, but at Mogao, keep that phone in your pocket!