Being interested in Chinese archaeology and history, I always wanted to see the various colossal Buddha statues in the Hexi corridor, which now corresponds more or less to Gansu province. Thus in October 2012 I flew into Xi’an from London and took the train to Tianshui, which is the first major city after crossing the border from Shaanxi province. As it turns out it is also close to three large Buddha statues namely: the statues at Maiji Shan, the Buddha relief at Shuiliandong and the large statue of Sakyamuni in Gangu.
Tianshui actually kind of consists of two different towns – the old downtown of Tianshui, called Qincheng with its rickety old temples and the commercial and industrial sprawl around Tianshui train station, known as Beidao. Both are connected by a freeway. Of the two Qincheng is by far the nicer to stay.
Having taken an early train from Xi’an I got to Tianshui just before lunchtime which gave me an whole afternoon to explore the Fuxi and Yuquan temples. The shrines of the latter one are dotted about between cypress trees and bamboo groves which makes it more appealing to wander about but you can spend an hour or two in both temples.
One of the best places to eat in Qingcheng is probably the aptly named Snack Street (Xiaochijie) and Guangming Xian where there a plenty of small restaurants and food stalls to choose from. The day after arriving in Tianshui I went to visit the Water Curtain Caves which turned out to be slightly easier said than done.
Water Curtain Caves (Shuiliandong)
Getting to Shuiliandong from Tianshui is in theory not too difficult. My plan was to take a bus from Tianshui to Gangu, change buses in Gangu to go to Luomen and then catch a minibus for the last 15km to the Water Curtain Caves. I managed to do the first part without any problems and then my plan fell apart since the minibus, I had caught in Tianshui, dropped me off in some small courtyard in an unspecified location in Gangu. In broken Mandarin I told the people where I wanted to go, who then bundelled me into another minibus which dropped me off at some huge cross-roads close to the motorway. There, I stood for a while not sure what I was supposed to do, I guessed waiting for a bus. However, no bus arrived so having stood there for three quarters of an hour, I hailed the first taxi that came along. The driver seemed pretty friendly and the price, after a little bit of haggling did not seem to be too exorbitant. I paid ¥70, which might have been slightly over the odds, for the return trip Gangu – Water Curtain Caves. However, I believe it was money well spend as the water Curtain caves a quite pretty and the scenery is also quite stunning.
On the return trip he also took me to see the statue of Sakyamuni which is located in Gangu itself, and, since he had to go home to his wife and children, he arranged with another driver to take me to the Gangu bus station so I could get back to Tianshui. Apart from the statue of Sakyamuni there is not much to see in Gangu, which is a pretty dreary Chinese town.
Getting to Maiji Shan is much simpler than visiting the Water Curtain Caves. Simply hop onto mininbus 34, which leaves frequently from in front of the Tianshui train station and takes about 40 minutes. The last 2 or so km from the ticket office to the temple itself you can either walk or take the tour buggy.
After arriving in Lanzhou I spend a few hours arranging for a driver to take me to Bingling Si the next day. Afterwards I went to have a look at Lanzhou itself, which proved to be not too exciting.
The next day the taxi picked me up very early morning. The journey to Bingling Si from Lanzhou took about 4 hours, including an hour boat ride. After a nearly three hour taxi ride the driver dropped me of at the boat ticket office, where I hired a speed boat to take me to the temple itself. The boat trip already was quite exciting since the landscape gets more and more beautiful the closer get to monastery itself. Finally, after another hour I arrived at the Bingling Si, which is located in an absolutely stunning valley narrow valley. Unfortunately for me the monastery was being renovated when I visited so I only got to see the colossal Buddha statue covered in a green netting – a slight disappointment!!. However, the journel was still well worth all the effort.
When I visitited Bingling Si you had to take a boat to get to the temple itself. However, more recently, I believe it is actually possible to drive to the temple from Liujiaxia. If you do not want to hire a taxi, can also make the trip by bus which leaves from the Lanzhou’s West Station and will drop you off not too far away from the boat ticket office.
From Lanzhou I continued to Zhangye via Wuwei where I visited the Confucious Temple, the Haizang Temple and Leitai Si, where they found the ‘Flying Horse of Wuwei’. At Leitai Si, there is not too much, apart from the 2000-year old, empty tomb were they found the ‘Flying Horse’. The Confucius Temple and the Leitai Si can be reached easily by foot from the Cultural Square while for the Haizang Temple it is best to take a taxi or a bus (No 3).
In Zhangye another large Buddha statue was waiting for me, namely the 35m long sleeping Buddha at the Great Buddha Temple (Dafo Si). Both the Buddha and the main hall are pretty impressive. The original temple was constructed during the Western Xia Dynasty (~1100CE) and the main hall is one of the few wooden structures from this era still standing in China.
After visiting the temple I hired a taxi for the next day to take me to Zhangye Danxia National Park and to Mati Si, which cost me about 300¥ for the whole day. Using buses I am not sure that both the Geopark and Mati Is can be visited in a day. I was also very lucky with my taxi driver who gave me plenty of time to visit both places and went with me for a short hike at Mati Si.
However, if you only want to visit the Geopark, I believe that you can take the bus from the Zhangye West Station to Sunan, but you have to get off at Nantaicun, and then walk to the National Geological Park. On the other hand if you you only plan to visit Mati Si, you have two options. Firstly, from May to September, there is a direct bus that leaves Zhangye’s South Bus Station ay 7.35am, 8.25 am and 9.15.am for Mati Si. Alternatively, buses leave the South Bust Station every 30 minutes for the village of Mati He from where you have to get a minibus or a taxi in order to get to the temple.
Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park
Jiayuguan itself is not a very attractive city as the skyline is dominated by belching smokestacks and cooling towers. My hotel was probably located 500 meters away from the entrance to power station which was not the best view I ever had from an hotel window, although it definitely beat the view from my hotel in Zhangye. However, it is definitely worth a stopover because of the Jiayuguan Fort, which was built at the beginning of the Ming dynasty and marks the start of the Ming Dynasty Great wall.
The best place to eat I thought was the Fuqiang Market, which is located just north of the Xiongguan Lu and the Xinhua Beilu roundabout. It had a good selection of street stalls and served one of my favourites, namely Roujiamo.
In addition to visiting the Jiayuguan Fort, I booked at taxi to take me to the Overhanging Great and to the Wei Jin Tombs. The Overhanging Great Wall (admission fee 21¥) originally dates from the Ming Dynasty, however, what you are seeing today is basically a 20th century reconstruction dating to 1987 and thus a bit of a disappointment. However, the hike up the wall is quite fun and at the end you can go and hike around the mountains for a little while, the views from which are quite good.
Personally, I found the Wei Jin Tombs, which date from the Wei and the Western Jin dynasties (220AD-240AD) much more interesting, although at the time of my visit only one tomb was open for visiting and you were not allowed to take photographs inside the tomb. Inside the tomb the walls are constructed with painted bricks depicting scenes of daily life in Western Regions during the Wei and Jin Dynasties, such as farming, cooking, dancing, traveling, hunting, etc, giving an insight into the feudal society of ancient China.
The entrance fee also gives you access to a small museum which contains many more bricks and an ancient sarcophagus. The museum is the only place where taking pictures is allowed. The entrance fee to the tombs is 31¥.
This was the last destination of my trip though Gansu Province an the first thing I did was to visit the Mogao Caves. You are not allowed to take pictures inside the caves itself which is very unfortunate since they are absolutely stunning. In fact when I visited in 2012 I had to hand my camera in. In addition, you can not visit the caves on your own but you have to join a two-hour tour. Of the 500 or so caves only 20 are open and the tour only takes you to 10 of these. However, and I was not aware of this at the time, you can apparently visit more caves if you are prepared to pay extra, about ¥100 to ¥500 per cave, depending on which cave you want to see. In addition to the caves you also get to see two large Buddhas, both being 34m and 26m tall respectively.
However, the Mogao Caves are absolutely worth a visit as they contain some of the most beautiful paintings I have ever seen. In the museum there are three replicas of caves whuch will give you some idea of what the inside looks like. The museum itself is also pretty interesting and shows you some of the documents they have found at Mogao Ku.
Getting to the Mogao Caves from Dunhuang is straightforward as you can either take a mininus or taxi. The first minibus leaves Dunhuang at 8am and the last minibus returns to Dunhuang at 6pm. A return trip by bus will cost about ¥20 while a return trip by taxi will be closer to ¥150 depending on your haggling skills.
The next day I hired a driver for the day to take me to Yadan National Park, the Jade Gate Pass, bits of the Great Wall and the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, where again you are not allowed to take photoes. This is a long day trip (10-12 hours ) from Dunhuang and cannot be done by public transport. If you hire a car make sure that the air-conditionning works because it gets pretty hot out there even in October.
While in Dunhuang I ate at the Night Market (Yangguan Donglu) mainly because there is a huge choice – noodles, dumplings, claypots, barbecues and one of my favorite snacks roujiamo- and because I love watching the food being prepared in front of you. As far as I am concerned the night markets are some of the best places to eat in China.