Maiji Shan

Tianshui and Maiji Shan

Maiji Shan; Cold, wet and rainy
Maiji Shan; Cold, wet and rainy


               The last segments of the trip require longer train rides.  Tianshui which is a must see stop for the grottoes at Maiji Shan is not on a high speed rail line.  Lanzhou to Tianshui is a six hour ride.   Although we had “soft seat” this train is still not as comfortable a higher quality first class seating.   Less leg room.  Otherwise, it does give me lots of opportunity to work.  Bless the portable computer with long life battery.

               Without the blessing of a high speed line, Tianshui station is undeveloped and rural.  Not having an escalator is, for me, a major issue.  Carrying a suitcase and a back pack up and down steps is difficult.  JoAnn, with her excellent communication skills is able to get assistance at will.  Even young women will carry her suitcase up and down the steps.   

               The next morning we awoke to a rainy day.  So far weather had been good, but today we faced a cold and wet day in the mountains.

               Maiji Shan is about 1 hour drive from our hotel and as we drove there was no break in the rain.  Arrived at the entrance and received a discount for old age.  Avoiding the 1 mile uphill walk, I bought the 15 RMB ($2 USD) tickets to ride the bus.  At the entrance were the hawkers with $3 plastic ponchos.  Cheap goods.  Mine began ripping as soon as I opened the bag.     

               Maiji Shan rises over 400 feet and the carvings are on the face of the mountain.  I estimate that the caves and niches rise two thirds of the way to the top.  The path is organized in a cycle so walking up the west face stairs, crossing over on the top walkway and then down the east covers the entire set of niches.  I have a problem with heights.  Going up was not a problem, but coming down the steps I never looked down but faced towards the rock face.     

               For this site I must apologize for the lack of organization.  Too cold and damp and unable to focus on photos and writing.  The niches had many fantastic elements that were worthy of photos, to the point that I was intent on taking pictures to capture key elements.

               The range of periods of carvings and statues is quite wide and allows us to see the evolution of Chinese Buddhist art.  The earliest caves at the Maiji Shan are from the Qin Dynasty (384 to 417 AD).  The Northern Wei period from 385 to 534 AD show a fusion of styles, Indian, Central Asian and Chinese styles.  The figures are slim, a bit less earthly and ethereal.  The Western Wei style (535 to 556 AD) continues the Northern Wei fashion with similar clothing and sender bodies.  The examples at Maiji Shan are more elegant and refined that Northern more touches which create a greater aesthetic sense. 

               The Northern Zhou period the figures became plumper and more round.

               Tang and Sui dynasties are the epitome of the sculpture styles.  There is also a mix of Hindu imagery during this period.  The seven Buddha Pavilion demonstrate the mixing of styles and traditions of many eras.  Most of the images are form the Northern Zhou but there are traces of Song, Ming and Qing periods.  In this pavilion Kapsaya and Ananda, two of Buddha’s disciples are pictured with facial features clearly Indian and not Chinese.  Warriors at each end of the pavilion are of Song dynasty. 

               I hope some photos can show these differences.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.

Bingling Si Grotto

Bingling Si

Cliffs Along Yellow River
Cliffs Along Yellow River


Leaving Xiahe, we drive to take a boat to Bingling Si.  The caves which are on the Yellow River have been partially flooded due to a dam built across the Yellow river creating a large lake.  Our guide Lydia knew of a dock closer to the temple that would require shorter boat ride and lower cost.  To find it, we had to navigate an unpaved, rutted dirt road off the main road.

Off season rates, or maybe special consideration for our guide, the cost was only 500 RMB for the round trip, 20 minutes each way.  The day was calm and the ride was very smooth and we cruised at about 30 kts.

Arrival at the Bingling Si dock we decided to have lunch on the permanently docked boat.  The food wasn’t too bad, Joann had an eggplant dish and I had the beef noodles.

At the ticket gate we tried the “We work at a museum in America, let us in for free,” approach, which did not work.  We then went for the “Old person” discount, which gives us discounts and at BingLing Si was half price.   Thing have changed over the past years, or maybe my Chinese has improved.  Previously they demanded the Chinese card for old age, but now they look at my passport and give the discount.

BingLing Si is a very peaceful and serene environment.  Cliffs and obelisks of sandstone surround the canyons below.  This Buddhist site is clearly prepared for tourists with marble fences and tiled pathway.  Beneath the walkway, which is probably filled with water at high water season, is marshy grass and reeds.  So cool and serene.  Very calming.  I can see how monks would choose this space for meditation.

After a few minute’s walk you glimpse a silhouette of the giant Maitreya statue and then you come upon the carved niches in the mountainside.  They have good descriptive labels, and they are numbered in sequence from our start, starting with number 3.  Earlier niches were carved lower in the cliff and have been damaged by the waters of the reservoir.

We have arbitrarily agreed that niches do not qualify as caves in our goal of “30 caves in 30 days.”  The art and architecture are from the same periods as earlier caves and they are great examples seen up close.  There is a greater degree of carving and statue at Bingling Si. The style shows a great influence of Indian art in the clothing and body positions.

Cave 3 – Tang Dynasty.  Central stupa, typical Tang architectural item.  Niche in left hand wall had statues, barely seen, but quite Indian in style.  Wall painting well preserved.  Stories in blocks as in Kuqa, not free form as in Dunhuang.

Cave 4 –   Tang dynasty.  Buddha seated not in Lotus position. Nicely draped robes over legs.  Ananda quite slim and fit figure.

Cave 5 – A nice niche with a seated Buddha.

Cave 10 – Tang dynasty.  Buddha with disciples.  Not only are there disciples painted on the wall, looking over at Buddha but we found images of disciples in Buddha’s aureole.

Niches 17 – 47 are a series of sculptures and reliefs along the wall of the cliff.  They are wonderfully stylized.  Much Indian influence in the postures and clothing of the women.

Cave ? – A sculpture of Avalokitsvara with five heads and eight arms.  She was repainted later.

Niche 134 – A wonderful small composition of Buddha, disciples and attendants.

Maitreya – Best seen from across the canyon to appreciate her size and artistry.  She is not completely Chinese, with a nose, eyes and lips more central Asian than Chinese, but with an oval face. Her not too complex drapery of the clothes indicates an early stage effort.

Unfortunately being off season, the upper floor caves and niches were closed to the public.

The pathways back crossed Grotto 16, from the Wei Dynasty which had a clay sculpture of Buddha in Paranirvana.  In this case, Buddha had feminine lips and face.

We returned to the car and drove to Lanzhou.  Rush hour in Lanzhou was a third world experience.  One of three major North-South routes was under construction and was reduced to a one lane unimproved road.  Lydia, our guide said that all roads in Lanzhou were under construction.  This seemed more third world than economically developed nation.  China still has a way to go.  One mile took one hour.

Hotel in Lanzhou, a Crowne Plaza was certainly five star.  Unfortunately we were there for one night with little time to appreciate. The accommodations.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.

To Lanzhou and Beyond, Xiahe

To Lanzhou and Xiahe

Prayer wheels at Labrang
Prayer wheels at Labrang

Bullet train from Zhangye to Lanzhou.  Lanzhou is a large city, a hub for transport to western China or Tibet.  Train station was new and fortunately had escalators.  No lugging baggage up and down stairs.  My back appreciated the rest.  Concern is that the station is so large that we will not find driver.

Followed the crowd to the North gate exit and there was Lydia with a sign.  Sign really not needed since we are the only westerners on the train, or probably in the entire train station, or probably in the entire train station.  In China, JoAnn and I are not a difficult couple to pick out in a crowd.

We are going immediately to Xiahe which is more than a three hour drive.  Firstly we stopped for lunch at a traditional “fan dian”, restaurant in Chinese, serving the local specialty, beef noodles, beef broth with handmade noodles.  Much starch and not much protein.  Not very healthy for JoAnn.

The drive was quite nice.  The population of the area is mixed with Hui nationality, Moslems, Han and others.  Quite an ethnically mixed region.  There were very many mosques along the drive and architecture was very varied.  You could see the traditional mosque, Arabic type architecture, deeply colored roofs, and then a mosque in a very traditional Chinese architecture.  About every five miles there was another mosque viewed from the highway.

Western China is an ethnically diverse stew.  To an outsider, me, the groups maintain their individual identity and culture through language and clothes.  In Xinjiang, the western most province of China, the Uighurs maintained their language, customs and clothing.  The women, although in western dress, still wore headscarves and even had leggings under stockings.  The men, as you know, had their distinctive hats.  Physically they are quite distinct from the Han.  There is significant friction between the government drive to enforce a common, national language and the minorities, however, it seems that on the current adult population, the ethnic groups are holding their own.

Xiahe, is very high in the mountains, about 9600 feet.  It is on the Tibetan Plateau of China.  The region was conquered by the Tibetans and their influence as we moved up the mountain was evident.  Xiahe is dominated by Labrang Monastery which is a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery.  While I have not been in Tibet, from pictures, Xiahe is quite Tibetan in character.  A city high in the mountains, surrounded by higher peaks.  The population of Xiahe is mixed, Hui, Tibetan, and I saw some Mongol’s as well as Han.

We did not find any large restaurants in Xiahe, only small, two or three table, family run restaurants along the main street.  It appeared that all the restaurants were run by Moslem families, as the front person was a woman in head scarf.  Across the street from the hotel was a crowded restaurant, meeting one criteria for restaurant selection.  We also saw meat on some people’s table and we thought that we could get away from the noodle diet.  It turned out the meat was lamb, cold and quite fatty.  The noodles were served in some gloppy sauce.  Still, with two beers dinner was about 120 RMB, less than $20 USD.

Xiahe city is dominated by the Monastery, which is at the end of the main street, uphill, above the town.  Main Street is maybe 1 mile long.  The Monastery houses about 1500 monks who we realized are not spending all day meditating.  Like any small college town, the local students dominate Main Street.  Or maybe this is more like the Vatican where priests are a common sight.  Monks are wandering about town, red robes and cell phones in hand.  Vows of poverty, and Buddha’s precept that a monk should only own a begging bowl have changed.

Many more young, pre-teen to teen age monks than expected.  From what I read, years ago, parents sent their young boys to a Monastery when they cannot afford to feed them.  Sad, but at least they are fed.

The English speaking guide for the Monastery was ill and we had to follow a Chinese tour.  Even with our guide, Lydia translating we could not follow the guide well.  We walked with the group, JoAnn saying “Hello” to everyone and getting wonderful responses.  The more complete English responses were from the under 10 year old group.  Their English was quite a bit better than the Hotel staff.  The kids are on their way to being bilingual by their teens.

Tibetan Buddhist temples are certainly more colorful, festooned with banners, Tanka’s, flags and drapery than Chinese Buddhist temples.  The chapels, and there is probably a more appropriate term, is filled with flags and other drapery.  The statues are very colorful.  There are many alcoves with individual altars.  They had one altar for all prior Abbotts of the Monastery.

JoAnn had found that there was a wood block printing press, Barkhang, at the Monastery.  They said it was closed, but with some cajoling, claiming we worked at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, they opened their shop for us to view.  The printing press had been moved for the winter, but the storeroom of wood blocks was opened.  They claimed there was a wood block, in Tibetan, for each page of the sutras.  Over 22,000 blocks.  Each block was one page of a sutra and the store room had them in order.   Each block was about 4 inches by about 10 inches.  It would be interesting to see how they would print multiple copies of the sutra and assemble them.

We then began the circumambulation of the Monastery.  The periphery of the Monastery, which is the path for circumambulation is lined with prayer wheels.  As you walk the path, you turn the prayer wheel.  The religious walking the path, mostly women, mainly old and all quite willing to help us offering direction, in sign language, on the methods and the pathway.   Most are chanting.  These old women are keeping a wicked pace.  I cannot keep up and I am being elbowed and passed by older folk.  They are on their mission.  Many are chanting.  Being quite sacrilegious, but in the moment, JoAnn and I begin chanting Hebrew prayers, out loud.  I am now sure how Hebrew Barucha’s sounded to the Tibetans, but we were in the moment.

At the end of each block of prayer wheels, was a hut with a larger prayer wheel, and a woman indicated that we should take three turns.  The hut was small and the wheel was moving quite fast.  We really could not keep up.  We were continually elbowed aside as the religious were on their mission to complete this two mile walk of devotion.

We stopped about half way around the Monastery.  Complete devotion takes practice and fortitude, which we lacked.    It was about noon and lunch time.  JoAnn recognized the Nomad Restaurant from the Lonely Planet.  Their menu had Tibetan food; MoMo’s, buns filled with yak meat, sweetened Tibetan tea, yak milk and Joann had a dish, of yak meat in a broth and the dish was covered with dough and steamed.  The yak meat in the bun tasted like boiled beef, quite bland.  The tea was delicious.  The yak milk was good.  Less fatty and thinner, more watery than cow’s milk.

The rest of the day we wandered the street and walked in and out of shops.  A lot of shops selling beads and bracelets.  JoAnn bought a carved, yak bone necklace.  By the time I had decided I would buy a piece of jade I had seen previously, the shop was closed for the night.  Dinner was at a restaurant next to the hotel.  It filled our criteria of being crowded.  Food was average, but we could get something more than noodles.  Along our entire route we had seen fields of corn stalks, since harvest was through.  They were drying their stalks, not sure why.  Fuel for the hearth, insulation for the house?  We did try corn at this restaurant, probably dried and quite a delicious meal.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.

The Power of Hello – A brief story about a special person

Universal Language
Universal Language

The Power of “Hello”

               Joann is quite a unique person, having agreed to this journey along the silk Road, sharing my vision and accepting my assurances as sufficient to embark.   Still, as a reasonable person she began with some concern.  It had not passed in Urumqi, and by Kuqa she had gained some confidence that the plans were working.  Hotels, while not perfect were more than adequate, we were finding restaurants, and the sights were more than we had imagined. 

               JoAnn began to say “Hello” to everyone she saw.  The joy in her bright and cherry voice was unmistakable to everyone.   Whether “Hello” was a word was less material than the tone.  Nearly everyone, responded in kind.  “Hello,” “Ni Hao,” “Hi,” or just a wave were responses from startled Chinese.  This is not the Chinese custom, accosting people on the street, but JoAnn was able to make friends, with a voice and a gesture that is universal.

               Richard the academic, has studied Chinese for four years while JoAnn has a vocabulary of four words, mostly where is the bathroom, and can you bring me a napkin.  Yet, her happiness and warmth projects to all humans and she communicates to the Chinese far better than I, with all my knowledge.  We are now on a train from Lanzhou to Tianshui and have been travelling in China for twenty days and Joann has spread her joy and friendship, her warmth for everyone, through western China.      :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.