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Giant Buddha of Bingling Si

Some time ago I was in Lanzhou in Gansu Province, China with a group of friends. We decided to drive to a town around 100 km from Lanzhou called “Liu Jia Xia” which has built up around one of the hydro-electric dams along the Yellow River (Yangtse). Our plan was to visit the Giant Buddha of Bingling Temple (Bingling Si), sometimes referred to as “Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves” – there are quite a few of these Buddhist grotto sites in China.

On the way we passed some beautiful scenery and saw some of the terraced farm land on the hillsides – the so called “Dragon’s backbone” terraces… these are often rice terraces, but ones seemed to be cereal crops.

Bingling Si is a little off the beaten path in that there are not many roads in the area. The site is hidden away in the remote Liu Jia Gorge (Liu Jia Xia) and can only be reached by speed boat from various docks on the Liu Jia Xia Reservoir. The reservoir holds back the waters of the Yellow River (Yangtse).

It was a little over cast and wet as we travelled over the reservoir, but the views were still nice. Once you reach the site you’ll have to run the gauntlet of woman selling polished stones and necklaces, but if you’re like me you’ll enjoy the banter… be careful if you say “On the way back…” as they will remember!

Bingling Si is not so much a temple, but rather a series of grottoes filled with Buddhist sculptures of Bodhisattva and Buddha. The sculptures are carved into niches, caves and caverns along the side of the cliff. The earliest grotto is thought to date back to around 420 AD with more added over the centuries.

The reliefs and carvings at Bingling Si have been damaged over the centuries by earthquakes, erosion, and even looters. Even so there are many caves that still contain buddhas and frescoes, stone statues, and many clay sculptures.

The big draw of Bingling Si is the giant Maitreya Buddha (27 metres) – like the one that stood at Bamiyan, Afghanistan before the Taliban blew it up. This one looks out across the gorge and beside it is a precariously positioned wooden walkway which winds up beside it to a hidden cave.

The site of the upper temple at Bingling Si is now the home of about 15 monks and we walked up the dry river bed to the temple. It took about 40 minutes and we were greeted by a single monk, who gave us tea and bread – very dry, stale bread, but a kind gesture nonetheless. This was all a bit sad really as the place was run down with empty beer bottles and satellite dishes lying around…

A few of us felt lazy on the way back and took a jeep back down the valley to one of the bridges. From there we took the walk way which winds around the valley and took in a couple more sites.

Bingling Si is well worth a visit if you find yourself in Lanzhou for a few days. You’ll get more out of it if you’re into Buddhist art, or indeed a Buddhist. We were lucky as we had our own transport, but there are buses as I understand it, so it wouldn’t be that difficult, but it is quite a time consuming trip and probably expensive. You’d probably be better off stopping over in a hotel in Liu Jia Xia rather than trying to get back to Lanzhou.

Here are a few more photographs of the Bingling Si’s “Thousand Buddha Caves”:

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Sarah Wu

Great photo essay. I love the hillside photos. I have never seen that before and i hope to see it one day. It’s also makes a great photo opportunity

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