A Nearby Grotto: Bingling Si -- Once a long day trip from Lanzhou, Bingling Si is now far more accessible. The town nearest Bingling Si is Liujia Xia, which was recently connected with Lanzhou by an expressway. The trip takes about 90 minutes. Unless you have a passion for cave temples, this one's probably not worth the long haul from Lanzhou, but if Xia He has re-opened to foreigners and you're on the way there, it makes for an agreeable stop en-route.

You can get to the caves by bus from the West Bus Station at Xijin Dong Lu 486, or more simply arrange a private car through CITS (¥400). However you get here, on arrival at Liujia Xia, you'll be bundled off to the ticket office, where you purchase an entry ticket for the San Xia Dam (¥30) -- formerly China's largest and single reason that the Yellow River ends well short of the sea -- and a boat ticket. The public ferry costs ¥30, though the staff may deny its existence and it's far quicker to take the fast boats instead. The price for a private speedboat is ¥600 to ¥800 round-trip, or you can share a boat with other travelers for ¥60 to ¥80 per person. Those continuing to Linxia (25km/16 miles; 40 min.; ¥5; last minibus 6pm) and then Xia He (107km/66 miles; 2 1/2 hr.; ¥9), if open, should ask to be dropped at Lianhua Tai on the way back. (If you've got your private boat, you can ask that they take you here.) The last bus back to Lanzhou (¥16) leaves at 6:30pm. If you stay in Liujia Xia, the best lodgings are the Huang He Binguan and the cheaper Liu Dian Binguan.

A mock-fort hotel sits to the left (west) of the grottoes. Head straight for the caves, as most boats only wait for an hour. Two-thirds of the caves were carved in the Tang dynasty, but examples range from the Northern Wei (368-534) to the Ming dynasties. Pay ¥80 at the ticket office and turn right; follow a narrow pathway around. A 27m (90-ft.) Maitreya (Buddha of the Future) with prominent nipples -- a decidedly non-Han Chinese touch -- dominates the valley. Higher up the cliff face is Cave 169 ★ (¥300 extra!), one of the most ancient in China, showing Indian influences. Unlike most cave temples, the upper caves are natural. Unfortunately, 200 lower caves were flooded when the dam was completed.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.