Terrace fields

Lanzhou has a dubious reputation as one of China’s most polluted cities, if not the world. That’s because it sits in a narrow curving river valley which traps all the smog from the city’s countless steel factories and petroleum plants.

So why are we here? Because Lanzhou is the starting point to the Bingling Temple. And getting there is the best part.

As our bus makes its way out of the city of 2.6 million people, the smog clears and we’re surrounded by winding hills. Terrace fields are carved into the slopes, a system of farming that prevents water loss and soil erosion.

We can also see wavy fishnet-like patterns on the hill, left by herds of grazing goats.

After about two hours, we arrive at the Liujiaxia dam, one of China’s biggest hydropower stations. From there, we get on speedboats for an hour-long trip to Bingling.

As we zoom along the Yellow River, jagged craggy cliffs rise up on either side. We skim the water, hugged by a landscape painting. Clear blue sky, watercolour hilltops, jade green water. It’s like being surrounded by the Badlands or the Grand Canyon, but better.

Near the Bingling Temple

The speedboats land at the bottom of a flight of stairs. We’ve arrived at Bingling, but there’s more walking ahead. Past the odd monk or two, past the construction crews building a museum, past the stands selling “antiques,” over a creek, and up more stairs.

Here begins the Thousand Buddha Caves even though there are only 183. Bingling is unique because of its setting, and the fact it’s untouched by European treasure hunters or vandals of the Cultural Revolution.

Bingling Temple - Ten Thousand Buddha CaveThe first thing you see is the 27-metre high Maitreya Buddha. Then there are other Buddhist stautes and carvings of various sizes tucked into the caves. Like the Mogao Caves, these are in amazing condition and showcase the changing art styles through the centuries.

A word of advice: make sure you go to the bathroom before the bumpy one-hour speedboat ride. The facilities here are basic, at least until they finish all the construction to turn this into a full-fledged tourist attraction. Probably bad for the atmosphere, but good for your bladder.