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65 kilometers outside of Zhangye in China’s Gansu Province, not too far from the impressive Rainbow Mountains, lies one of the country’s most underrated attractions: a system of Buddhist cave temples carved and built right into the sheer cliffs of a stunning, mountainous landscape. Decorated with beautiful murals, Buddha statues made of clay, wood and stone as well as carvings, the temples of Mati Si were once an important landmark along the Silk Road and filled with monks and pilgrims, but nowadays, only few western tourists visit.
Freakin’ awesome, right?
The area looks heavily set up for tourism though, with an extremely colourful, over-the-top entrance gate and a manicured little town where souvenirs and food can be purchased. But the entrance tickets (two tickets at 35 Yuan each) are pretty cheap and in the end, the temples outside the fake little town turned out to be amazing and, despite the beginning of the touristy high season, I only saw a few straggling visitors wandering around.
The temples buried in the rock are remnants of a time when the Buddhist Yugur people, a nomadic tribe who originated in Mongolia and eventually settled in this region, were still numerous. Now only a small number of Yugurs remain living in the Shunan Yugu Autonomous Prefecture, but over the centuries, they built over 70 caves and more than 500 statues can be found scattered over several kilometers, some of them dating back as far as 300 AD.
Winding passageways and steep, narrow stairwells zigzag their way through the rock like a squiggly path in an anthill. With a bit of physical exercise, visitors can make it through the tunnels to the very top of the cliffs and enjoy a spectacular view over the landscape of the Hexi Corridor. Beyond the brightly painted wooden balconies and the fluttering, colourful prayer flags, the pine trees, green foothills and the snow capped peaks of the Quilian Mountains can be seen rising into the sky. In the green fields below, wildflowers bloom and the occasional Yak is seen grazing on the lush grass.
Inside Puguang Temple lies the areas most sacred, but very inconspicuous relic. Easily overlooked if one doesn’t know it is there, a horses hoof has made an imprint in the stone. Simply called the “Horse Hoof Print”, this big horseshoe mark was supposedly left behind when the Tibetan hero King Gesar landed his flying horse here.
While still extremely beautiful, Mati Si suffered extensive damage during a muslim uprising in the region that began in the 16th century and lasted throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. After the loss of control by the central government in Beijing over the western region, the once united, mostly Buddhist and Muslim tribes were left to their own devices and old animosities flared up. The newly created power vacuum left room for a Central Asian muslim empire named Dzungar Khanate to move in and try to rule. During this darker time of the Muslim community, monasteries were burned, shrines looted, Buddhas were smashed on the rocks and colourful murals destroyed all throughout the region.
The same thing happened again during the Cultural Revolution after Mao Zedong had seized power and ordered the Red Guards to destroy any old customs, culture, habits and ideas across the country. Today only traces hint at the years of turmoil and destruction. Inside the gloomy temples, graffiti covers the walls and more often than not rubble can be found among the candles, statues and other paraphernalia cluttering the ground and the alcoves. But the remaining Yugurs take good care of their cave temples, the wood is painted as brightly as ever and restorations are ongoing.
How to get there: The easiest way to get to Mati Si is by taxi. Taxis can be hired in Zhangye and rented for an entire day for about 280-300 Yuan. This more hassle free transportation – each way takes about an hour of honking, swerving and driving – is especially worth it if you can find a couple people to share the cost with. A shared taxi can also be be organized by the Youth Hostel in town for 45 Yuan per person and per half day. There are also direct public busses on weekends during the high season, which should cost about 11 Yuan each way. Regular busses leave from Zhangye Nanguan Coach Station, but only go as far as Mati He Village several kilometers outside the park, from where you’d have to take a minibus or a taxi.