Tuesday, July 14: Xiahe, China
8:00 We leave Xiahe bound for the Yellow River and the the Bingling Caves. The site, which dates from AD 420, includes 694 stone and 82 clay sculptures of Buddha in 183 caves. It’s widely believed to be the World’s best repository of Buddhist caves. I’m hoping that it will be less of a circus than other tourist sites we’ve visited in China. The fact that it’s located on a river, accessible only by boat, and only in the summer, leaves me hopeful.
9: 35 We stop to buy firewood at a roadside sawmill. The workers gather around to have a look at this odd truck and its even odder passengers.
11:40 The caves and grottoes were semi-interesting but IMO the authorities have done their level best to ruin them. The “Big Buddha” has recently been restored, and by that I mean covered in stucco with his features made more prominent. Sandstone doesn’t stand up well to the elements, especially after a 1500 years, so it’s understandable that there would be some erosion. Why pretend otherwise? In addition to the restoration work, they have spray painted numbers beside each of the carvings, and some have been encased in plexiglass cages. Photographers have to be pretty clever to take a shot that doesn’t include a light post, sercuity camera, speaker, sign post, railing, walkway or electrical wire.
13:15 The boat ride to the caves was pretty good but the return trip was even better. With a thunderstorm bearing down on us and the water becoming choppier by the minute, the Captain put the pedal to the metal. I sensed that he was nervous as he had been chain-smoking Marlboros on the way out, but on the return trip he left the pack rolled up in his sleeve while he bit his lip for the duration of the 20-minute ride.
17:30 We’re driving through the grimy industrial areas that surround Lanzhou and I’m struck by the fact they are embracing urban intensification rather than suburban sprawl. Large tracts of inner-city land are being cleared for redevelopment. I probably wouldn’t choose to live in Lanzhou, but if I was forced to I could survive here.
18:32 We arrive at the Hualian Hotel and head out for street food. It’s the standard stuff: lamb skewers, noodles, spicy flatbread and a few bottles of semi-cold beer. Finding chilled beer is an issue in parts of China.