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.

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.

From Turfan to Dunhuang

On to Dunhuang


               As usual for us we are leaving the TuHa Petroleum Hotel in Turfan early to catch the train to Dunhuang.  Even though we planned to leave at 9 AM for a 1040 train, leaving over an hour to get through security, we still had breakfast and caught a taxi at 8:50 and arrived at the station at 9:15.  As before, the line for security to gain access to the station was long and noisy.  In this case, more westerners that locals. 

               More disruptive than waiting was the demand by security to open suitcases.  It is not embarrassment, but the mess and confusion of digging in the clothes to find the items.  By this stage, the suitcase is not well packed and we struggle to zipper closed.  Double difficulty when the suitcase is on the floor of the station and everyone is rushing past.   They taped my Swiss army knife shut and told JoAnn her scissors were small enough not to worry.  The security guards were helpful and courteous in pushing my suitcase closed. 

               The bullet train was clean and comfortable.  Someone actually washes the floor after each train stop.  People around engaged us.  As if being a westerner was still unusual in China.  Well maybe in Western China, Xinjiang Province.

               Time was getting near for our stop, but no one was calling Dunhuang.  A moment of panic, but then remembered we were off at Liuyuan and that the car would take us to Dunhuang.  Lucy and the car were at the station and it was an hour or more to Dunhuang.

               Dunhuang is in the Gobi desert, which was quite different than the Taklimakan of Kuqa and Turfan.  It was flat.  Visibility was for miles.  No mountains as we had in Taklimakan.  Also, no dust.

               We saw cars parked on the side of the road, in the desert.  Amazing they were fishing in a small pond.  In the dessert.  There had been an unusual amount of rain.  The reservoir was filled and it was releasing water into the dessert streams.  I guess the fish are also up river and when the water is released so were fish.  Our guide, Lusy also mentioned that the level of vegetation in the dessert was quite unusual due to the recent heavy rains.  It was green, in the desert. 

               As we came closer to Dunhuang, vegetation increased.  Cultivation of crops and trees became prominent.  Dunhuang is a large oasis in the Gobi.  

               After settling in the hotel, JoAnn began her search for street food.  The shuttle to the Night Market and some wandering around satisfied her need.  One dish was stir fired intestines, not so good.   So much for ordering pointing at pictures.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.

Bazeklik Grottoes


               About a 45 minute drive from Turfan is Bezeklik Grottoes.  The drive passes the famous Flaming Mountains which are red in sunlight.  Flaming Mountains were on the Journey of the Monkey King, the popular version of the story of the monk Xuanzang “Journey to the West.”

               Bezeklik Grottoes have a longer history than most, starting in the 5th century to the 12th  or 14th centuries.  The caves we saw this day were mostly of later era, 11th Century and showed significant Uighur influences.  Although the caves were cut into the mountain, there was significant building of bricks at the entrances.

Cave 17 – Dated 640 AD to mid-9th century.  It was a long rectangular cave, about 20’ x 8’.  Front niche for Buddha.  Buddha images on ceiling in squares.  Three large carved mandorlas on each side of cave with statues missing.  Images of Turkish donors.  Image of Pure Land Paradise.

Cave 16 – Date 8th century.  Vaulted ceiling.  Musicians playing instrument including Pipa, tom-tom, clappers, Bili (bamboo) flute; all instruments of Gaochang.  Also image of Buddha preaching

Cave 20 and 21 – Enter an antechamber with cave 20 straight ahead and cave 21 to the left.  Dated 10th century.  Another source claims Late Tang which ended in 907 AD.  High ceiling corridor to circumambulate around Cave 20.  Cave 20 was closed but there were cave images, probably reproductions, on the wall.  Many Uighur images:  16 donors, Merchants beneath Buddha offering gold, silver and horses.   

Cave 27 – Dated 12th Century.  Long and narrow cave, about 40’ x 10’. Portrait of a female Uighur Donor.

Cave 31 – Dated 11th Century.  Long cave 50’ x 15’ with vaulted ceiling.  1000 Buddha’s on ceiling.  Important image of musicians removed by Japanese expedition.

 Cave 33 – Dated 11th century.  Rectangle 40’ x 15’ with vaulted ceiling.  Many images of Buddha’s Life Story.   Above the central niche is an image of devoted and princes grieving at Buddha’s death.  Their dress is typical of Gaochang.  There is also an image of heretics playing instruments and celebrating Buddha’s death.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.

Kizil Caves

Kizil Caves

               Kizil are the better known of the Kuqa caves.  They are about 50 miles from the city of Kuqa and quite into the mountains.  They are on the Muzat River.  They date from the 3rd to the 8th centuries.  There are 269 existing caves in the Kizil group.

               Even driving you get the feeling of isolation that the monks were seeking.  You are driving through the Tarim Basin of sandstone cliffs with jagged edges jutting upwards at steep angles.  After the last mountain you come upon the Muzat River and the valley where the monks found peace and isolation.

               Kizil is prepared for tourists, although there were no English speakers at the gate or as guides.  We were told that only six caves were open that day and no amount of cajoling, or bribing was going to work to have them open one or two more for me.  They were quite strict about photos and required all cameras to be stored at the foot of the cliff face. 

               It was a walk and then a staircase with many steps up to the caves.  

               ”32” was a small chamber with a vaulted ceiling.  It was from the 5th century.  Central stupa with niche for Buddha statue, not present, and chamber behind stupa. 

               “34” is also from the 5th century.  It was a monk’s quarters.  A Big chamber with 1000 Buddhas ceiling.  It had the telltale red/Ocher color of the earlier periods.  The stone work in the corridor around the central stupa was elaborate. In the rear chamber behind the stupa there was a platform, empty now, for a Buddha statue in Parnirvana.  Hariti ate the sons of other people.  Buddha hid her son in a bowl.  Haritia saw the error of her ways and turned into a guardian deity of children. 

               “28” had a high ceiling but not arched.  It had many niches for Buddhas on the front wall.   The back wall had images of disciples.

               “8” was 7th century.  Vaulted ceiling with many good images.  The room was ringed with Jatakas.  After nirvana Buddhas body melted into sarira.  Eight kings in India sent troops to obtain the sarira.  The dispute was settled and the kings divided the sarira.  Many images of musicians and dancers.

               “10” Monks quarters.   A long entrance with a vaulted ceiling.  About 10’x10’.

               “17” from 6th century.  Smaller vaulted ceiling room.  Well preserved.  Many Jatakas including many images on ceiling.  Jakatas in the diamond pattern, each Jakata in one diamond. 

One story is of monkeys fighting with water sprites.  Monkeys are devoured by water sprites. The monkey king is teaching the monkeys to draw water through a reed.

Another is of a monkey who saved the  life of a person who fell in a pit and the person, ungrateful, smashed the monkey to death and ate it. 

  One of three monkey’s crossing the river with Buddha (?) body as the bridge.  Wish I knew this one because the image was quite well preserved.  Buddha on a white horse. 

Lunch at the restaurant at the Kizil Caves.  A young lady came up to us and offered to help us order since she was bilingual and we were clearly helpless Americans.  She turned out to be from San Diego although she graduated from Wuhan University.    She suggested we order the spinach dish since it was growing outside and would be picked fresh.

For me it is a pity that I do not have photos to increase the value of the descriptions of the caves.     :     Expand your mind.  Stretch your body.