Bingling Ding Dong

7th September 2017

The big fella!We’re heading on again today. After our fascinating detour to Xiahe, we have an(other) overnight train taking us further northwest along one of the main Silk Road branches. First though, it is back on the bus for the drive to Lanzhou train station via the Liujiaxia reservoir on the Yellow River in order to see the Bingling Buddhist caves carved into a cliff-face. We have a 3 hour drive to the caves and so after meeting our new guide (Jack) and getting some much needed breakfast in a nearby hotel (oh, why can’t they do proper coffee) it’s all aboard another coach and we settle back and doze.

It's coffee, Jim - but not as we know it.On our way, we stop at a motorway service station, and get another glimpse of Chinese oddness. The service station occupies a huge plot of land but most of it is entirely unoccupied and there are almost no cars in the car park. The toilet block is massive – but there is only a tiny shop (and if you can count room temperature bottles of sweet, milky Nescafe as coffee, then I am well set). The overall effect is something akin to a ghost town. As I exit the shop, I’m approached by a young (Chinese) chap, who – in good English – asks about our trip. It turns out that he is going to study in London next year. It is only now, looking back, that I realise that this is possibly the only ‘normal’ interaction we had with a local the whole trip.

One of the many mosques visible from the roadAs we continue down the motorway, the main point of interest is the number of mosques that line the road. They differ in size and colour scheme but more with Arabic than with Chinese architecture. Lily also takes the opportunity to tell us more about the background to and history of Buddhism. It seemed very convoluted (and I have to confess to not giving it my full attention), but the key points I picked up were that in Xiahe, what we saw was Tibetan Buddhism and that at Bingling we’ll see a more traditional Buddhism. She also (as part of a history explanation) described how one of the local tribes in the area, the Huns, were forced out of China, migrated to Europe and settled in what is now Hungary.

River boats all lined upThe Bingling caves are on the shore of the Liujiaxia reservoir on the Yellow River. So, not only do we get to see another of the world’s iconic rivers, we also get a boat trip across the reservoir. Compared to some of the boat trips we’ve had on our travels, this was very sane – we were even give life jackets to wear. It was, though, a bit of a squish to get into the boat which is clearly not designed for 6’ tall westerners.

Some of the 10,000 BuddhasIt’s about a 30 minute trip across the reservoir and then up one of the tributaries. The local rock is (red) Sandstone which has not only been deeply cut by the river but the jagged peaks have been eroded into all sorts of dramatic shapes. Once we disembark, Lily starts putting names on to some of them (for example, The Lovers) and tells us that the overall formation is called 10,000 Buddhas.

A pair of the larger statuesThe attraction here is the 600-odd statues and painted alcoves carved into the cliff wall. The statues date back to the Wei-Jin dynasty (c. 220AD) and were developed and added to for over 1,000 years with most statues dating back to the Tang dynasty (618 – 907AD) when one or more of the emperors were Buddhist. Then in the C13th, the area was invaded by Kubla Khan and there followed fighting between Muslims & Buddhists which resulted in the destruction of the wooden temples that had been built around the statues. (Holes for the wooden beams can still be seen in the rock wall).

Caves covering the cliff wallNot looking particularly enlightenedThe site was forgotten and not visited until the 1950s when the government built the dam and then in the 1980s the first tourists started visiting. I suspect that it is only the need for the boat transfer that keeps larger crowds of Chinese away. As ever with these sites, it is hard to know what is original, what has been restored and what has been rebuilt. A case in point is the huge (27m) statue of Buddha. This was ‘restored’ a couple of years ago but, as Lily explained, the restoration changed the expression on the Buddha’s face. Whilst the whole statue has an ‘as new’ look about it, it was still an impressive sight – especially the unrestored paintings above his head.

Painting in some alcoves in good conditionDefinitely symbolising somethingEven more impressive were the (much smaller) statues and paintings in hundreds of alcoves carved out of the rock. Again, Lily explained the Buddhist significance of some of these works and, once again, it all went over my head. My only excuse is that I had come down with a cold and couldn’t really concentrate on anything. Fortunately, Janet was at full speed and was able to capture the detail in some of the caves and the overall setting and landscape.

Eight treasure (rip off) teaBy now, it was well past lunchtime and so we were essentially a captive market for the small restaurants back by the boat jetty. Generally, one of the pleasures of Chinese restaurants is that the tea is free – sometimes green tea, sometimes black, sometimes fruit tea. Here there was ‘special’ tea. We didn’t realise quite how special until the bill came and we were charged 35RMB ($5) per person. (Reduced to 25RMB after Lily gave the restaurant staff a tongue lashing). We later found out this is Eight Treasure Tea – made with goji berries, Chinese red dates, a chrysanthemum flower and big sugar crystals. Goodness knows what Starbucks would charge for this! (And, on reflection, after our experience with Civet poo coffee in Bali, we should have known better).

Nearly comfortableOur train was not until early evening again and so there should have been time to get back from Bingling and into Lanzhou town in time for a walk along the bank of the Yellow River. Unfortunately, the traffic in town was completely snarled up and by the time we made it to the centre it was too late to do anything other than find a restaurant and grab a meal before getting on the train. We are now well used to the routine in a restaurant. It’s easy on this tour – we let Laura get on with choosing some food for us and then getting stuck in. The only real challenge is not to get too carried away with the first few dishes to arrive because there is always another dish or two to come.

After our experience in Xi’an we’re a bit nervous about how busy the station is going to be – and how (un)comfortable the train is going to be. Whilst neither could be described as luxurious both were a mile better than last time – though there was a toiletty waft in the VIP waiting room. We were also able to get out and back to the ticket office to pick up our tickets for the Bullet Train from Shanghai to Beijing that we’ll need in a couple of weeks time. Better yet, we were able to get back in to the waiting room to rejoin our group. Another benefit of our previous sleeper experience is that almost anything is bound to be better and so it was – a distinctly better class of prison cell!

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