Leaving Xi‘an after only 3 days, we felt like betraying the capital of ancient China. When our guide Rocky waved us goodbye at the train station, I almost regretted not having extended our time in Xi’an for a few more days. But I reminded myself to not forget our goal. The purpose of this trip was to discover the Ancient Silk Road…
About 630 km further west, we arrived in Lanzhou. It took the high-speed train only 3 hours to get to Gansu province’s capital. We were starving upon our arrival. But since we knew that we’d still have to drive for two hours to reach our destination, we wouldn’t have minded grabbing a sandwich.
No, no… no sandwich here. Our local guide Frank seemed offended. Then added: we’ll have noodles. Fresh hand-pulled Muslim noodle soups. And you’ll see, the Hui people can prepare the noodles very fast.
The Lamian restaurant we were driven to was small. There were only 6 or 7 simple tables surrounded by wooden stools. Behind the counter, two young men were twisting, stretching and folding doughs into strands of noodles. At a corner of the restaurant, two elderly men wearing a small white cap and a long beard were chatting cautiously. Frank whispered: these are Hui people. Chinese Muslims.
We had barely sat down that a waiter already approached to serve us two huge bowls of sizzling hot Lamian noodle soups. Look… Frank pointed at our bowls with his index finger. A good bowl of Lanzhou Lamian always contains five colors: yellow noodles and white slices of beef, topped with green cilantro and red chili sauce. And all this in a bowl of clear beef bone broth. Frank paused and smiled satisfactorily. Now eat! He said it with a low-pitched voice, but it still seemed like an order. Without saying a word, Kerstin and I ate up, and even slurped our noodles.
Unlike our previous guides, Frank was not very talkative. When we climbed in the car after lunch, he told us that we should rest. Somehow, he reminded me of my father. As a kid, whenever my father told me to rest, it meant “don’t talk”. And so, we both looked out of the window, let the brown water of the Yellow River slide away, and slowly drifted into a nap.
When I woke up, the scenery had changed. As far as the eye could reach, green fields surrounded by green terraced hills. On a hot summer day, it felt soothing to see so much green.
About 10 minutes later, we left our car at an outdoor parking, and followed Frank towards a wharf. The grassy meadows on both sides of the dock looked awesomely picturesque and void of tourist. A kid bathed and chuckled in the sunlight. A Muslim biker sped past us. An elderly couple was picnicking under a tree nearby, and a few sheep were grazing on the riverbanks. This was exactly the kind of place I was looking for in Asia.
For someone who was rather slow, Frank advanced fast enough, since he was already waiting for us at the end of the dock. I soon understood that this was not our destination, but merely an harbor to catch a boat to our “real” destination, the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves.
But the landscape was too mesmerizing to rush. So, I decided to slow down my pace. After all, this was a private tour, so we took all the time of our life to walk down to the dock. We watched the locals play with their kids in the grassy meadows. Enjoyed the views of abandoned boats lurking in the crystal-clear blue water. There was no disturbing noise, no car honks, no air pollution nor sound pollution.
When the helmsman was moving our boat out of the dock, Frank explained that we were in Liujiaxia Reservoir. And that this was a dam built by the government in 1969 to control the Yellow River which used to cause natural disasters. The Liujiaxia Reservoir is over 130 square kilometers, and in this dam two small rivers pour into the Yellow River.
The clear water of the reservoir slowly turned yellowish brown as we approached the Bingling Caves. And the surrounding green hills soon became brown towering stone peaks.
The Bingling Temple Grottoes, which in Tibetan means Thousand Buddha Caves, can only be reached by boat via the Liujiaxia Reservoir. And boats only circulate in summer and early autumn. Since the site is extremely remote, only few travelers venture out to explore it. When our boat docked in, there were only a handful of helmsmen sitting on the large inviting stairs. And all the way to the entrance, we saw no one but two wandering cats and a bunch of construction workers building a new trail.
As we walked through the winding stone way, we couldn’t help stopping on every turn to look up at the impressive peaks cut into sheer cliff.
The first caves we saw were amazing. And the further we moved forward, the more charming they became. The delicately painted frescoes are slowly fading, which adds to the appeal of the site. Altogether there are over 200 cave niches with Buddhist frescoes, carvings and stone or clay sculptures dating back to 420AD. And each alcove is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery.
At the end of the stone way along the cave niches on the northern side of the canyon, a 27 meter-high Buddha statue that was looking down at us dominated the front of the caves sculpture. And right next to the imposing Buddha, our sight was caught by a narrow wooden staircase that seemed to connect more niches high above at the top of the cliffs.
We asked our guide Frank if one can climb up to the top, without really meaning that we wanted to do that…. He said that the cave located on the peak of the cliffs holds the most ancient stone carvings executed by reclusive Buddhist monks, and are therefore more severely protected. So, not everyone can access this cave. But if we were really interested, he said that he could arrange it. Before we answered anything, he went off to pay additional money to a security guide. Dressed in army clothes, the young man scrutinized us for a second, then unlocked several gates.
Surprised, we hesitated a bit… but finally decided to follow him up the stairway. Our legs were shaking as the stairs got narrower and steeper, soon turning into ladders that creaked at each step. On the halfway, we had to leave our backpacks before continuing the strenuous climb, as the ladders were too narrow to carry on with a backpack.
When we reached the summit, the well-preserved frescoes and relief sculptures literally took our breath away! The colors are brighter that the paintings in the cave niches below. And the crimson, turquoise and emerald strokes are so finely traced. For preservation purposes, it was not allowed to take pictures. The young security guy who led us to the top was standing behind us, making sure that we wouldn’t take any photos. Frank, who also followed us, reminded us again to keep our camera in our pocket.
There was no other person around, but we still felt like a bunch of people were watching us. And suddenly I noticed three cameras fixed high above our heads, all turning towards us. They moved as we walked. I was surprised to see how serious security was in such a remote place. But at that moment, we still had no idea that it would get even worse in western China…
Since we couldn’t go far anyway, and we were there to explore the cave paintings, we tried to ignore the all-too-present cameras, and to keep studying the exceptional frescoes. After all, we were grateful to be even allowed to marvel at those treasures.
The way down was even trickier, because we had to climb down the ladders and stairs backwards. Although for the security guy, the descent was quick and easy… He waited for us to go down first. And after each flight of stairs, he closed and locked a hatch before descending.
During our our whole visit in the Bingling Caves, we only saw 6 other visitors, travel guides included. But when we stepped down from the top cave, we suddenly noticed that we were the last persons onsite. The sun started to set, but we still took our time to visit the abandoned temple and the gorgeous scenery.
The landscapes got more and more spectacular as we cruised back to Liujiaxia. The water frothed and churned. And the sunlit mountains gleamed around “in a hedge of inaccessible purity” (James Hilton, Lost Horizon, 1933). Now looking back, we can say with certainty that the Bingling Thousand Buddha Caves turned out to be one of the most unexpected highlights of our trip along the Ancient Silk Road.