It is with some relief that we leave the capital of the Chinese province of Gansu towards Bingling Si and its Canyon of Thousand Buddhas.
Even if we were fascinated by the uncharacteristic looks and manners of that strange city that the government of Beijing shaped modern and industrial, and the delicate coexistence of the predominant Han, Hui, and Zhan (Tibetan) ethnic groups, the hazy and dusty mess we had gotten ourselves into, without quite knowing how, began to disturb us.
Lanzhou evolved into the great petrochemical center in northwestern China. And to one of the most polluted cities on Earth. The smoke and noise produced by the first bus we got into, the second ones and the ones from the van that completed the grueling journey seemed to us to be a small thing.
From Lanzhou to the Yellow River
There, at the outset, the view of the vast Yellow proved to be far from what we expected for the pivotal and civilizational river in question, the third longest in Asia with almost 5500 km that crosses nine Chinese provinces.
We kept in our minds the image of ice skaters gliding gracefully over its stream solidified by months of atrocious winter. By the time of boarding, the summer had long since arrived at China. The near south of Gansu was swarming. Yellow himself flowed, at great speed, through the eccentric circuit of meanders that took him to the homonymous sea.
Indifferent to the macro scale of his place of work, when he detects us arriving, the boat owner only wants to see us on board, traveling along the stretch of river, despite the greenish name that guaranteed his livelihood.
A Chinese family approaches and inquires. We realized that they had the same intentions as us. We ended up dividing the vessel and the 400 yen that the owner had done everything to multiply.
The slight man, his face browned by the sun, installs us all, starts the engine and sets sail. For some time, we sailed along a shallow, parched bank that attracted little or nothing to our attention.
Before long, we enter a steep river loop surrounded by a range of sharp rock peaks.
The meander made Yellow stop. That almost pool of his reflected the cliffs in their entirety and doubled their monumentality. The launch we were following, like another rival, crossed the printed reproduction in the water at great speed.
Anchoring in the Hidden Domains of Bingling Si
Once that was over, we came across a large staircase that connected the level of the stream to an almost middle part of the cliffs. Seventy kilometers and four and a half hours after the early departure from Lanzhou. We finally dock in the mysterious domains of Bingling Si.
A modern portico crowned by small pagodas serves as a ticket office and entrance to the sanctuary. Payment completed, formalities completed, we proceed to the mouth of the Canyon of the Thousand Buddhas. We went through walkways, staircases and wooden platforms installed against its walls.
It is on these same faces that we find the first of the many Buddha sculptures that made the place special. Some are framed in niches carved into the rock. They focus on individual representations, or multiplied by two or three Siddartha Gautama, illuminated by halos.
Others – several colored – group a greater number of characters in conviviality and certain situations. They appear numbered and equipped with lacy windows, wide open during visiting hours, closed just after sunset to ensure the preservation of the works.
A Gorge of the Strong Asian Buddhist Current
In stylistic and geographical terms, the temple of Bingling Si emerged in the wake of the Mogao Buddhist Caves that we had explored, in Dunhuang, in the far northwest of Gansu, just a few days earlier.
It emerged as a logical historical sequence and as an intermediate point between the ill-fated “Afghan” Buddhas of Bamiyan that the Taliban decreed idols and, by order of their Mullah Mohammed Omar, dynamited, in 2001, and the Buddhist caves of China Central.
By the time of the Tang dynasty (618-907 AD), Dunhuang, had become one of the most important outposts on the Silk Road.
On account of the Buddhist monks who had settled there, under the patronage of clergymen and merchants, the ruling families of the region, their military subjects and even the emperors of the China, Mogao received more and more paintings that adorned the biggest galleries.
It also housed the massive statues of Buddha that remain there, two of the many more that the Empress Tang Wu Zetian had built throughout the territory. Dunhuang Thus, it also assumed the role of Buddhism's main religious center and pilgrimage.
A Monastic Work Brought Through the Silk Road
The first of Bingling Si's sculptures must have been worked around 420 AD In the extension of what happened with Mogao, it was Buddhist monks and priests who arrived from Central Asia on the Silk Road who inaugurated the religious decoration of the Canyon of the Thousand Buddhas.
They carved figures with Indian bodies, faces, poses and costumes. With the precedent set in that new setting, successive caves were used or opened, each one endowed with its images of Buddha. The style of the new works evolved to reflect the art and reality characteristic of dynasties and eras.
Buddhas for Every Taste
Along the two hundred meters and different levels of the cannon, we appreciate dozens and dozens of creative and distinct versions of the ascetic sage born in Lumbini, in the current Nepal, a few hours by road from where we write this text.
Each one of them reveals itself in such a unique way that it was entitled to its own characters. Shakyamuni, Kwan-yin, Amitayus Buddha, Maitreya Buddha and several other Buddhas. We look at their elegant postures, the picturesque details of their clothing and even jewelry.
We admire the different environments portrayed by the surrounding frescoes, palm trees. There is no lack of a lying Buddha. Nearby, cave 169 houses the Dali Buddha (mighty), owner of a round and solemn face that seems to supervise everything from the top of his crossed legs.
He is flanked by two Bodhisattva assistants, recognizable by their entwined hair and waving bare arms. Both Dali Buddha and Bodhisattvas preserve very intense colors that enhance the vividness of their characters.
Shooting Is Not Planned But…
Photography was once permitted in Bingling Si. But, as in the caves of Mogao, the Chinese authorities banned it with the main purpose of preventing the international proliferation of commercial works they had pledged to monopolize.
This castration irritates us and most visitors, who arrive, as expected, armed with state-of-the-art cameras and smartphones. The Canyon of a Thousand Buddhas is, however, extensive and the guards succumb to the annoyance of the shifts.
Almost all visitors take advantage of their indifference and make the registrations that the ticket price was supposed to contemplate. Faithful to the photographic component of our exploration, for the supreme good of the reader and the traveler who accompanies us, we follow their example, without consequences. Buddhas are never opposed. It gives us the idea that vigilantes choose to ignore.
The Tang Emperors' Resistance to Anti-Buddhism
By the end of the Tang Dynasty, Buddhism, its temples, monasteries and other places of worship were so influential that they overshadowed Taoism and Confucianism that had long been prevalent in the world. China. In 845 AD, The Emperor and his entourage decide to combat the threat to their power that the new religion posed.
They had thousands of Buddhist temples and monasteries destroyed. Even so, in the following dynastic eras, work continued at Bingling Si. Many more caves and shrines were erected, notably the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) in which Tibetan Buddhists endowed the lower section of the Canyon of a Thousand Buddhas of dozens of new caves.
The name Bingling itself is believed to be a transliteration of the Tibetan name for the place: "a thousand Buddhas." Over the centuries, earthquakes, simple erosion and looting have damaged or made disappear many of the caves, or at least their contents. Destruction, voluntary but probably necessary, has taken place even in our times.
The Capricious Flow of Yellow
A China and its Yellow River have always lived a bittersweet relationship. On the one hand, the river has been the foundation of the nation's civilizational success and continues to irrigate the lives and success of hundreds of millions of Chinese.
On the other hand, floods caused by the sudden increase in its hyperbolic flow caused too many catastrophes and loss of life. Aware of this setback, eager to increase Chinese electricity production, Beijing imposed the construction of several dams along the stream.
In 1969, the Liujiaxia plant was inaugurated, creating the largest body of water in Gansu Province, the Liujiaxia reservoir and China's largest hydroelectric power station. Countless families were forced to move elsewhere.
And around two hundred of the Buddhist caves or monuments were underwater. Buddhas are thus not a thousand, as the Tibetan name enunciates. According to one of the last counts, there are now 183 niches, 694 stone sculptures, 82 clay sculptures and around 900 m2 of well-preserved murals. Its preservation leaves us, moreover, frustrated.
Maitreya Buddha: after 1200 years, an operation that cannot be postponed
Following the exploration of the network of walkways and staircases, we soon realized that the Buddhist star of Bingling Si, a 27-year-old sitting Maitreya Buddha, was undergoing an intervention and was draped in scaffolding.
According to what we investigated, it was almost that it escaped submersion and, over time, the natural agents and surreal religious fanaticism that led to the collapse of the “sister” statues of Bamiyan. We settle for that lesser evil and complete our photographic mission as best we can.
The summer afternoon was about to last but the complex would close shortly. There was no place to stay overnight in the vicinity so we had to complete all the way back. We didn't return to Lanzhou until ten at night. The surely lasting memory of Bingling Si rewarded us. A thousand Buddhas, probably fewer, had blessed this strenuous pilgrimage.
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