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15:48 Dec 20 2009

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Exploring lesser-known Buddhist grottoes in Gansu Tibetan area
15:46, December 20, 2009  

The Horse's Hoof Temple in Sunan Yugu Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Gansu Province, northwestern China, is known for marvellous temple complexes carved into sandstone hills. (Photo: Shanghai Daily)

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, Gansu Province, northewestern China.

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 marvelous 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.

Source: Shanghai Daily

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