It is only a short train ride from Jiayuguan to Zhangye. Less than an hour. Still it is late by the time i arrive in my hotel. I am staying in a nice hotel in the center of town. A driver will pick me up in the morning for a 2 day visit of the region. Tomorrow I will go and visit the spectacular Rainbow Mountains, but today I am going to visit the famous Matisi Buddhist Temple caves. It is I think necessary to get a driver for the day for trips like this. Most hotspots are a good drive away from Zhangye. The caves are 70 km away.
It is still to early to get breakfast in the hotel, so I venture outside to scout the area for a place that serves noodle soup. Zhangye looks still asleep. It is a small city. Around the corner I spot what seems to be the only place open at this hour. Some customers are inside eating what looks like a mean noodle soup, and some other customers are chatting with the owner while he is serving up more bowls of a delicious smelling, steaming hot soup. The chatter briefly stops when i walk in, but the owner is very friendly when he sees me enjoying my breakfast very much. I know where I will have my breakfast tomorrow! The day couldn’t have started better. The sun is out and i find a small bakery shop where i buy some bread and milk for lunch on the road. Unfortunately I noticed later that instead of plain milk I had bought yoghurt. That was a sauer surprise later that day…
Mati Si ‘Horse Shoe’ Grottoes
As we drive through the magnificent landscape I notice how different it looks from Dunhuang and Jiayuguan, even though it is not that far away. The valleys are green and the fields bright yellow of the grasses in early autumn, surrounded by the majestic Qilian Mountains.
Suddenly we have to stop. We are surrounded by sheep. I think its fantastic. You know you are in the countryside now.. As the sheep merily stride past the car, images of Xi’an street food flash through my mind and although still early, i am making dinner plans. As I look at the beautiful landscape around me, I remember that centuries of overgrazing caused desertification around Dunhuang (and many other parts of the world). I think moderation in farming and consumption should allow us to enjoy the best of both gastronomy and nature… in a perfect world that is..A few white landmarks (‘stupas’) next to the road indicate the vicinity of my destination today : the famous Buddhist Mattisi grottoes and temples. It is actually a group of caves excavated into the cliffs at different locations in the area : the North section, the Middle section and the South section.There was some snowfall that night up in the mountains, adding patches of white to the already beautiful scenery. I arrive at the gate of the temple site, and i am welcomed at the ticket counter where I receive a traditional white Tibetan scarf. Similar to the ones given to Tibetan singers by the audience while performing. It is clear that we are still quite close to Tibet, and that in this region the religion is Tibetan Buddhism, which is not exactly the same as Chinese Buddhism.
A road leads to a charming Yugur village. The architecture is beautiful and characteristic for this region in Gansu Province. But at this early hour public daily life is yet to start. It’s clear that everything here is focused on visitors of the temple complex, most of whom hadn’t arrived yet. And there won’t be that many today.
From here a smaller path leads further up to the actual temple. The views of the valley and to the other side the mountains are incredible. Left and right a small patch of snow. It is a warm day today so i recon it will soon melt.
I spot a small temple gate on the way that most people on the path seem to ignore. The colorful flags look inviting enough for me. Steps lead to a small temple. The main building seems closed and there are some signs of renovation work going on. Although not part of the cave temple, this little temple is very charming with beautiful colorful murals and representations of heaven and hell. I must say that the paintings of hell were quite vivid.I see some caves in the mountain cliff behind the temple. That is part ofthe North side. It appears to be closed today but i get some good views of the caves and i get some good pictures of its characteristic appearance and ‘stupas’.
Soon I arrive at the main temple site. Two large white shrines glow bright into the sunlight and an employee of the temple is posing in traditional local clothing of the Yugur minority with the main temple on the background.
All the Matisi caves cover a large area and excavations began in the 3th century AC during the Northern Liang dynasty and Yuan Dynasty. But even before that time this was an important place and the summer resort of the king of the Huns.They are one of the earliest sites along the Silk Road to spread Buddhism and they are the highest in the world. I only realized later I was above 3000 meters! Lets go to the main temple : 21 caves in 7 floors excavated out of a 100 meter high cliff. The shape is supposed to resemble a pagoda and each floor a level of heaven.
It’s a fantastic site to see how the pagoda style roofs and facades seem to cling on to the cliff. Amazing how it was constructed 16 centuries ago.
The entrance leads to small and narrow corridors and steep stairs cut from the rock to the higher floors. Some steps are 70° steep. I really am not that brave when it concerns heights…But it is all safe and fun.
The caves themselves are small simple, all with some statues and wall covered with carved Chinese Characters.
Each time you leave a cave and climb to a higher level, you can enjoy the magnificent views of the valley below and the Qilian Mountains. It definitely is worth the climb.
There are a few more caves to visit near the main and central caves. (33 caves representing the 33 layers of heaven) A golden statue stands in the middle of a big cave hidden behind the rocks. On the walls and ceiling remains ate still visible of rich and colorful decorations and drawings.
Other temples have rows of statues depicting different kinds of mythical heroes and demons. The last temple is is the one that gave the site his name : The Mati cave.
Here I see what seems to be the imprint of a horseshoe in a rocky floor tile. Legend says this is the imprint of the horse hoof of the horse of the mythical hero King Gesar. Therefore the temple is known ad the Horse Shoe Temple.After this interesting and unique site, I walk back to the car. It’s just a little drive to my second stop of the day, and I don’t mind driving at all. Really this is a beautiful area and I am not surprised the King of the Huns spend his summer holidays here.
King Gesar Castle
We stop in the middle of a valley surrounded by mountains and beautiful plains. The grassess are turning into yellow and brown at this altitude, but the sky is of the purest blue and on the horizon the gray and white snowy Qilian Mountains form a magnificent background to this idyllic scene. There are maybe 3 other cars in the small parking lot.
A few local people are sitting idle in the sunshine while their horses graze peacefully. A small path leads up to a small mountain peak from where a characteristic curved roof sticks out : the entrance of a small shrine dedicated to King Gesar. This is the mythical site of King Gesar Castle.
After a bit of (necessary) research I learned Gesar was a mythical hero who lived between 1000 and 1100 AC, and fought many demons with his 32 generals. Most important he united over 150 tribes and played a major part in the spreading of Buddhism in this region. The small temple is more a commemoration shrine than an actual temple. Statues of the generals are positioned on both sides of a corridor that leads through the mountain top and exits on the other side. From up here the views are breathtaking. Especially from the wooden entrance.
But where is the castle? Walking down to the parking I see it. It is the ruin of a small castle. At least the ruin of 1 wall. I must have passed it on the way to the shrine without even noticing. Too preoccupied with the horses and the scenery… It looks similar to the ruins of the Han castle in Dunhuang. I suppose this is what remains of what probably was a similar castle, part of the Silk Road defenses, and not the actual castle of this mythical hero.
There is one more stop today. I am going to visit the Thousand Buddha Temple, also part of the Matisi (Mati Si) caves.
Thousand Buddha Temple
It is spectacular. Maybe not as large and imposing as the main central section i just visited (Pudyang Temple), but at least as beautiful. Small temples are cut out from the cliff and now hang on to the cliff like bird’s nests.
Really cool ! In front of the cliff lies a small temple complex with several buildings. The temple is still very much active and I spot several monks going about their daily routines.
It is an amazing construction and I take far too many pictures from every angle as I visit all the cave temples in the cliff. There are far less statues here, I notice.
First I visit the temples at the lower levels. There is a pathway against the cliff leading to right where 1 temple is excavated.
I return and visit the temples on the left side. The woodwork is beautiful, and the panoramas fantastic. The passage ways are narrow but fortunately there are not so many visitors. I am wondering how to get to the one on top of the cliff in the middle… Incredible how it was excavated so long ago.
I see other visitors going to the small central cave temple. As I look up I see the facade of the small temple high up on the cliff. This must be how to get up there.
There is a narrow hole in the rocks leading up with a steep ladder and awkward carved rocky steps. People must go up or down through this hole, so you wait a while for a group of visitors to come down, before you go up with another group of about 10 people.It is great fun but not an easy climb to the top cave. And although I nearly created my own private cave in my skull, the views are breathtaking. What a unique temple this is.
And it is also the last one I visit today, and for a while, as I come to a conclusion of what my friends call my Buddhist Pilgrimage. Well.. is traveling and discovering and learning not what the old Buddhist monks used to do? I am not a Buddhist, but I certainly enjoyed learning so much about it, so I can better understand the culture and customs and rich history of this amazing country.
With its amazing food… The driver stops at a roadside restaurant, where, again, I thoroughly enjoy the delights of simple local Chinese cuisine. Sometimes I wish I was a Chef, so I could travel and write a book about the great diversity of Chinese gastronomy.
For now it’s back to Zhangye. Tomorrow I go to discover the incredible geological formations of Danxia.
Till next post !