Bingling Temple, or Bǐnglíng Sì, is a series of caves filled with Buddhist sculpture and frescoes dating from 420 C.E. to the 17th century. Though Dunhuang’s Mogao Caves are more famous and elaborate, Bingling—located in a canyon on the Yellow River—is more difficult to access, making it far less touristy. It’s one of the best places to see ancient Buddhist art in China.
Despite erosion and looting over the years, there are still 183 caves, over 700 sculptures, and more than 9,600 square feet of frescoes intact. While Bingling boasts many finely hewn sculptures of the Buddha, Bodhisattva, and guardians, the highlight is Maitreya, a seated Buddha carving that’s over 88 feet tall.
The main caves, which are numbered, include 169, where you’ll find the earliest art, including a giant Tang Dynasty Buddha; 126, which has the most sculptures and walls covered in bas-relief; 6, which includes a pair of standing Bodhisattva and narrative frescoes; and 3, which includes a Tang Dynasty pagoda. Beyond the Maitreya cave, you can take a mile-and-a-half hike to a Tibetan monastery.
Getting there: Bingling Temple can be a day trip from Lanzhou. You’ll need to take a car or bus to Liujiaxia, then hire a car or a boat to take you to the caves.