The 18,000-square-meter space features regular exhibitions on the Silk Road, Buddhist art and ancient painted pottery from the Neolithic Age. It contains ancient silk and textiles, wooden and bronze vessels and well-preserved Buddhist sculptures from Tiantishan.
It takes at least three hours to see the three major exhibitions. Other halls contain a four-meter-tall mammoth fossil replica and exhibits of dead and stuffed pandas, golden monkeys and red-crowned cranes. Children enjoy it.
The 1,800 year-old Galloping Horse, renowned for its grace and dynamism, was excavated in 1969 in Wuwei County. It appears to be flying, with three hooves in the air, its head perked up and its long tail flowing. One hoof lands on the back of a small, flying bird. The horse is considered the epitome of ancient people's imagination and craftsmanship. It's the logo of the China National Tourism Bureau.
Bingling Temple is hidden in the mountains, 35 kilometers west of Yongjing County in Lanzhou City. Bingling means "ten thousand Buddhas" in the Tibetan language. Most 183 niches, 694 stone statues, 82 clay sculptures and some 900 square meters' of murals are well preserved, probably because of their remote location. To get there from Lanzhou requires a two-hour bus trip and an hour's journey by boat.
The highlight of the temple is the No. 169 cave, where experts found a clear mark of the date, AD 420. This makes the temple one of the most important stone caves in China along with the Mogao Grottoes. The sculpted figures wear facial expressions of harmony and mystery, prompting visitors to pause and reflect.
The influence of Tibetan culture is evident in Bingling Temple with its sculptures and paintings featuring the image of Nandikesvara, also known as Ganesh, the elephant god.
After arriving Liujiaba in Yongjing County, visitors can get to Bingling by boat or car on a new paved road. I saw a flock of pheasants along the way.
In April and May, don't miss the opportunity to visit the annual peach blossom festival at Renshou Mountain in suburban Lanzhou.
The Maijishan Grottoes is the reason most people visit Tianshui. It's absolutely worth visiting because of the Eastern Venus sculpture and stone steles. Other places to visit are Nanguo Temple and the Temple of Fu Xi, a cultural hero said to be the inventor of writing, fishing and trapping in Chinese legends.
Experts recommend different "best" caves. My favorites are the No. 44 cave of the Eastern Venus and the No. 133 cave with stone steles. The cliff murals with 3D effects are praised by experts.
The sculpture in No. 44, probably modeled on a queen in the Eastern Wei Dynasty (AD 535-557), wears an elegant facial expression and garments like like flowing water. She is considered the most beautiful woman in Maijishan.
In Cave No. 133, several steles describe Buddha's life from birth, preaching to nirvana. A statue of a boy monk is famous for its sweet expression. The profile has been compared with that of former premier Zhu Rongji.
Nanguo Temple, located on a hill in suburban Tianshui, attracts trekkers on the weekends. After a 30- to 45-minute trek, you can see two 2,500-year-old cypress trees and walk in several gardens filled with bamboo and peach blossoms in spring. Newly married couples often have their photos taken in this setting, Zhou Fatian, a man over 80 years old, is a famous guide who charges 200 yuan (US$32) for a tour.
The Tianshui railway station in Maiji District is fairly near the Maijishan Grottoes. Other sites including Fu Xi Temple and Nanguo Temple are in Qinzhou District, 40 minutes' drive from the railway station.