The circular Walk with Sister Rocks

SYNOPSIS:  About stone forests, stone Buddhas and sublime settings. 

I am not religious, but I don’t know how many times I mumbled Oh my God!  to myself, today; in utter awe of what I saw.  Gansu Province is known for its natural beauty.  That’s why people come here.  And Binglingsi is one of the six most important Buddhist Grotto sites that have sprung up along the Silk Road in China.  It is known not only for carvings that go back to the 4th century, but also for its spectacular setting; and spectacular it was beyond all my expectations.

Like a pro, at 6 AM, I had hopped onto city bus #2, to lots of astonished looks.  Not only was I the only Westerner far and wide, I looked like I knew what I was doing — only, of course, because I had made every possible mistake last night.  Just like I had timed it, I arrived at the station by 6:30AM  for the 7 AM bus.  This was the first bus going.   I had to ride for 2.5 hours and then transfer into a boat or a taxi, to reach the remote location of Binglingsi.

Because of its remote location, it escaped the fervor of the Cultural Revolution that hit so many other precious religious and imperial sites, notably the city walls of Beijing.   In the 1960’s the mountainous area around Binglingsi had been filled in as a huge Water Reservoir creating a massive artificial lake.  That’s why the preferred mode of reaching the site is by speedboat.  However, unless you are in it for the thrill of the boat ride, you will have a pretty boring hour-long ride.  Even more boring if you opt for the 2+ hour long ride via the slow boat.  The air, here as in Lanzhou, is far from clear.  Today was a particularly hazy day.  Sky and water seem to merge in an endless curtain of gray, and who knows where the horizon line was. 

Thankfully, I had done research at home.  Even though much confusion existed on Trip Advisor as to when the site opened and how to reach it, I gathered that taking a taxi to the site, surrounding the lake rather than crossing it, would provide me with a much more scenic approach.  The taxi costs more and takes longer, but it was the best decision I made.  Unfortunately, I got stuck with a stone-faced driver whom I called Mr. Wang Tung He.  This was as close as I could get to it.  In all fairness, he did not get my name, either.

The ride took me through town, first along the shores of the reservoir where fishing boats were anchored among picturesque willow trees, semi-immersed in the water whose levels had passed the standard mark.  We crossed sandy mountains that had been terraced in unfathomable amounts of hard labor by the villagers.  We passed adobe homes left abandoned most likely for a more prosperous life further down in the valley.  The mountains grew higher and rockier.  I was reminded of my native Elbsandsteingebirge, a Mecca for rock climbers and a paradise for wanderers.  But soon the villages stopped, and there were only the mountains, vast, silent, void of any evidence of life.  We serpentined up and down and up again only to end up down at the shores of the Reservoir where breathtaking sandstone formations invited the imagination to see anything from lovers embracing, chatting heads, or groups of people or animals.  Sand had given way to stone; wind and weather had carved numerous  cavities into the cliffs and every turn opened up new and unexpected vistas and formations.  That alone was worth the trip. 

But somewhere at the end of the road, a U-shaped valley had invited traders and travelers to carve deities of their new religion, Buddhism, that had spread from India to China via the Silk Road, into the malleable stone.  From tiny niches with miniature Buddha figures to large caves with gigantic statues of the Buddha, Bodhisattvas, attendants, and devotees, it was all there.  Splendid caves attested to the wealth of the patrons while some unfinished images spoke of the decline, even persecution of Buddhism.  And intrusive Taoist figures attested to the competition between religions which ultimately settled into co-existence. 

The reservoir had not existed at the time these images were made.  But it only added to its beauty.  Binglingsi became only recently part of the UNESCO list of monuments.  In preparation for this status, the site was equipped with a circular walk along the mountains, right above the lake.  Before the lake had been filled, some of the lower caves were secured and their content moved.  Some images found their way into museums, others were relocated at the site, such as an 8-meter long “Sleeping” Buddha, more correctly a Buddha who has attained Nirvana.  A special temple hall was erected for it across from its original location, which does the image full justice.

For better or worse, the central statue of the site, a gigantic seated Buddha, was fully restored.  I for one, am perfectly happy with decayed originals; but that sensibility is not shared by all.  After all, many of the earliest images had been over-painted or repaired in later centuries, which from our perspective is hundreds of years ago.  And that adds its own layers of historic development. 

Mr. Wang Tung He drove me crazy as he insisted on accompanying me to get tickets.  The site entrance corresponds to the dock where the boats land.  We came in by the back door, so to speak.  We were the only car there.  I guess, he did not trust me to pay?  No matter how many phrases on my translator phone I held into his face, he would not budge but kept trotting by my side.  Eventually, I ignored him and eventually, after I had dutifully bought my ticket, he left me alone. 

Several of the caves were not open, others were under repair.  Most unfortunately, the entire upper walkway leading behind the head of the gigantic Buddha to one of the most important murals of the site, was closed off to visitors.  That was a big disappointment.  But I could not let this get in the way of this amazing experience.  The Upper Temple should not be missed.  It is about 2.5 km outside the main cave area.  By taxi, we passed it naturally on our way.  A visitor who came by boat would either have to hike there, or rent the car onsite, ready to shuttle visitors back and forth.  The site is not huge and could be seen in about 1/2 hour.  I could have spent all day just taking in the setting and the vibes and imagine the people who once roamed this valley.  After 2.5 hours I could tell that Mr. Wang got restless.  And so we left.

Up through the rocky mountains we wound our way, passed the terraced slopes, the abandoned villages, the misty lake, back into town.  I caught a bus back to Lanzhou, hopped onto #2 and got off at my home station without incident. 

That was a 14-hour excursion.  Well worth it!

Good night.