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December 19, 2009

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Exploring lesser-known Buddhist grottoes in Gansu

A friend and I were in the middle of a six-week backpacking tour of western China when we heard about the fabled land of Mati Si, Horse's Hoof Temple.

Mati Si, we learned, lies smack in the middle of the legendary Hexi Corridor and is nestled in the Qilian Mountain foothills of the Sunan Yugu (Tibetan) Autonomous Prefecture.

We were in Zhangye City, in the middle of the Hexi or Gansu Corridor on the Silk Road.

Upon further investigation, we immediately decided to go: Mati Si had the appeal of wild nature, and it was known for eight marvellous temple complexes carved into sandstone hills, along with cave networks filled with Buddhist rock art.

It also hasn't become a crowded tourist attraction like Dunhuang, 680 kilometers away in Gansu Province.

Perhaps not for long, though. The area, like Dunhuang, has long been a pilgrimage site on the Silk Road. Legend has it that the Chinese Pegasus landed there, leaving a giant horse's hoof imprint that can still be seen in the Puguang Temple.

It has since been complemented by eons of sacred paintings and carvings. Marco Polo even wrote about them in his "Travels to the Orient," calling the caves "carved in a masterly style."

Spectacular would have also been accurate, if the 33 Caves Temple were any indication, impossibly carved into a sheer cliff face from the 5th to 14th centuries AD, the balconies of the temple stuck out like incongruous scaffolding; floating pagodas perched on invisible ledges.

It was brightly colored in red and blue, and it was easy to imagine the glory days when it was decked out with colored Buddhist prayer flags, with chanting red-robed monks drifting through its halls.

If the exterior was awe-inspiring, the interior was equally astounding as a work of art and a feat of engineering. The soft sandstone had been picked at, carved, chiseled and molded to create intricate systems of staircases and altars.

Many smaller structures within and statues, unfortunately, had been destroyed. The faces of some older Buddhas had been worn away. Wood was smooth with wear, and the stairs, too, were misshapen and slippery. Some areas have been closed off for renovation. Still, though, the history etched into the walls gave the temples a timeless dignity.

I was largely, and blessedly, alone.

I climbed up through the labyrinth of stairs, up through narrow hallways and even narrower doorways to reach a dusty balcony. It was quiet, save for the never-ending wind that blew against the stone wall. The prayer flags, red, blue, yellow, white, flapped in the incense-scented wind.

This is what Mati Si is supposed to embody, I guess. The quiet in the wind. And the majesty of the mountains.

Next, I moved on to the mountains themselves. Flush against temple complex, behind the white stupa (named Sanshisantian), stone steps arched into the heights where there were jaw-dropping views of grasslands, snow-capped mountains and skies of the surrounding Wolong Nature Reserve.

The rain clouds, so ominous the night before, merely simmered overhead, streaking the skies with swirling streams. The snowy summits brushed against them. Below them were rain-splattered forests and sweeping grasslands speckled with bright red flowers in a Technicolor scene.

It was time to return to meet my friend Cate, who had spent the day hiking in the mountains. By the time I got back to the hotel, our makeshift "room" for the previous night had converted back to a restaurant. It was filled with corporate workers tucking into a meal of mutton, mountain vegetables, bread and yak butter tea.

Cate was already settled and was wearing hada, a white Tibetan scarf of welcome, accepting photo requests from amused workers - who insisted that we join them for lunch. We were not going to argue - the simple, hearty meal was just what we needed. I will, however, never get used to the savory-creamy appeal of yak butter tea.

The minutes stretched into hours, and then it was time to go. We headed back to Zhangye with some regret as the mountains of Mati Si disappeared behind us.

We only spent one day (and one night) there, but we could easily have spent a week exploring the countryside. There are a myriad of temples, several hikes to waterfalls, and horseback riding that I was sad I missed.

On our way back, we passed faded and worn carvings on cliff faces, a herd of cattle and whispering grass.

It was a melancholy farewell to Mati Si.

Travel Tips

A little bit of planning to get to Mati Si goes a long way.

There is no direct flight from Shanghai to Zhangye City. A recommended route is first flying from Shanghai to Xining, capital of Qinghai Province, from where you can take buses or hire a taxi to Mati Si, about 300 kilometers away.

If you first fly to Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, it will take longer, probably a whole day, to get to Mati Si, because Zhangye City is nearly 550 kilometers from Lanzhou.

There is a direct overnight train from Lanzhou to Zhangye, taking around 12 hours. A direct bus heading to Sunan (south of Gansu) to Mati Si leaves daily at 3:40pm from Zhangye South Bus Station and there may be a morning tourist bus on the weekends.

Wolong Shanzhuang is a good place to stay. Make reservations (Tel: (0837) 624-6888).

Tibetan minority tents may be available; camping on your own may be an option. Foreigners may need a special permit to enter the Tibetan minority prefecture. Check the Public Security Bureau in Zhangye on Qingnan Street W. (4/F). How Not To Do It

Your trip does not have to be as difficult as ours.

We missed the direct bus, but alternate directions seemed simple. Take a bus from the South Bus Station in Zhangye for the "crossroads village" of Mati He, from where we could hitch a ride for the last 7 kilometers to Mati Si.

Our lack of planning was our downfall. Three hours later, we discovered that the term "crossroads village" was remarkably accurate. The town consisted of one crossroad and the four directions stretched away into rolling green hills, beautiful but misted with a worrying amount of fog.

We looked for transport, any transport. There was a lone motorcycle and no rider to be seen. The minibus had long disappeared into the mountains.

And then, on cue, it started to rain as evening closed in.

We scuttled into a low concrete building, hoping it wasn't someone's home. It wasn't - herbs and jars of traditional Chinese and Tibetan medicine along one wall identified it as a pharmacy.

Two attendants looked up from their knitting.

"Taxi?" I suggested, knowing the answer.

They looked at each other, shrugged and returned to their knitting.

We heard distant thunder.

Our options were few. Either we stayed, staring at the attendants, or walked the 7 kilometers to Mati Si. We didn't look forward to getting soaked in our light summer pants and long-sleeved shirts.

An older man walked into the shop.

"Mati Si?" my friend Cate asked.


"Car?" I asked in Chinese.

He scrutinized us, no doubt wondering what two crazy young women were doing out in the middle of nowhere. Then he motioned for us to follow him outside to his four-door sedan. He asked 30 yuan (US$4.40), a bargain - direct to Mati Si. We piled in.

As we accepted our situation, we turned our attention to the world outside the windows. There were a few pines, grasslands and finally a few buildings and stores.

Our driver pointed to a building surrounded by circular tents - the only hotel. We said goodbye and ran through the rain toward it. An attended herded us into a tent. We asked for a room.

"No rooms," he said. "Conference," he said pointing to a large corporate bus.

Another fix. If it was tough to find transport from Mati He, it was going to be even tougher to stay warm, dry and safe for the night. The attendant sensed our desperation because even as I stumbled for words, he backed out, indicating he would be right back.

Five minutes later, he returned.

"You can stay in the restaurant. 50 yuan. We'll give you a blanket."

It suddenly hit me. We were in the restaurant, made to look like a Tibetan dwelling. Tables and chairs were stacked against a wall. There was a TV and shelf of KTV discs and song books.

It was dark and drafty and smelled of yak butter tea.

Outside the storm increased. We agreed, paid for the night and pulled down wooden chairs to create a makeshift bed. We pulled towels, scarves and wraps from our bags, pulled on extra shirts and pants and bundled up. We looked like portly vagabonds.

The blanket came. We tried not to notice the stains that looked disturbingly red-brown in the dark. Wrapping ourselves in it, we hunkered down, curled against the draft, surrounded by menus and tablecloths and the gentle patter of rain.

The next day was bright, clear and crisp. We bounced outside to see what Mati Si had to offer besides a surreal night under a makeshift fortress. An impossibly green landscape stretched into the distance toward gray mountains.

We wished, though, that we had taken that direct bus.


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