"Matisi - The Horseshoe Temple" Matisi by mke1963

Matisi Travel Guide: 18 reviews and 36 photos

The gray outlines of the Qilianshan come slowly into focus in the cool grey morning light, as the old Silk Road city of Zhangye is left behind. Zhangye's dusty tree canopy is replaced by a gravelly plain, flat from horizon to horizon: to the east, the gravel coloured by the rising sun, to the far west still dark and cold.The thin strip of asphalt leading up and out of Zhangye towards the Sunan Autonomous Yugur Prefecture is busy even at 6am. Farm-trucks and sputtering three-wheeler farm vehicles trundle out for the day; children cycle towards unseen oasis villages across the desolate plain. The presence of undergound or piped water is indicated by small occasional fields, now removed of their wheat or barley. Nearer the villages, small pear and apple orchards provide shade as the sun rises slowly. The northern ranges of the Qilianshan are more fully revealed, and snow can be seen dusting the ranges behind them. The road turns eastwards and we pass a long forgotten adobe fortress, looming over a wide dry riverbed. Once again we swing southwards and the gradual climb becomes steeper, and greener as grass and fields replace the gravel.

The stark cliffs and slopes of the Qilianshan become clear now as we approach the village of Mati - Horseshoe Village - nowadays synonymous with Matisi, Horshoe Temple, one of Gansu's famed clusters of Buddhist grottoes that chronicle the spread of Buddhism from the Gandharan plains of Pakistan through the passes of the Hindu Kush and Wajiristan, the ancient towns of the Karakoram, the forgotten kingdoms of the Tianshan, the lost desert cities of the Taklimakan desert and the sandstone and limestone cliffs of the Hexi corridor - ever inching forwards towards the ancient terminus of the Silk Road at Chang'an (today's Xi'an) and Luoyang. Mati became one of the many places where those early Buddhist pilgrims started to hew caves from the soft rock, creating altars to Buddha, and providing welcome rest and relative safety for the merchant travellers plying the ancient route. Less famous than Dunhuang, less substantial than the grottoes at Kizil, Anxi or Maijishan, Matisi remains a unique sanctuary of a thousand years of Buddhist devotion through its loving art, architecture and simple spirituality. Today, the main grottoes face the morning sun, and smaller but archaeologically more important complex at Jintasi (not open to the public) is to the south, some 20km away in a forested valley, part of a natural reserve, totally off-limits other than to researchers.

The wide grassy valleys are home to both Tibetans and to the tiny 14,000-strong population of the Yugur, one of China's most enigmatic and mysterious minorities. While Sunan Prefecture is a Yugur-administered district, around Matisi, most of the local people are Tibetan. Curiously, it is the same around Sunan Prefecture's other major attraction, the 1st July Glacier near Jingtieshan, some 400km further west; Sunan is a big, big place!

We are met by local dignitaries, including the Party Secretary of the prefecture, who has had a long journey from Hongwansi. Sunan is so mountainous and lowly populated that he has had to travel via Jiuquan and Zhangye cities to get to Matisi. He later explains that Sunan is actually composed of four sections, and it can take days to reach some parts of it. The hospitality of our hosts is such that we are given a bedroom at the local administrative offices to freshen up (we have travelled overnight by bus and train from Tianshui in southern Gansu), and hot water and copious bowlfuls of Tibetan tea is brought to the room. Breeakfast follows, with more soul-warming milky tea, laced with fried flour and yak butter, and huge hunks of bread. Matisi is definitely 'breakfast country'! Afterwards, our hosts are eager to show us the grottoes, but a tight time schedule means we have to miss those parts open to the public - and undergoing major protective restoration - and are "forced" to see the closed grottoes. As well as a local Tibetan tourist guide, we have the luxury of the head of the local Cultural Heritage Bureau to show us around. Sadly, Matisi remains the little brother of the clusters of grottoes at Dunhuang and Maijishan, and gets but a fraction of the funding for protection and interpretation. However, there is no inferiority compex here, and the mischievous guides cheerfully point out the features that are superior to those at Dunhuang - notably the flying apsaras, which here are sculpted rather than painted as at Dunhuang. Some years ago, two researchers hacked off some of them and tried to sell them in Hong Kong. They were recovered and replaced.

The frescoes and sculptures are beautiful, and the range of time provides a great selection of varieties and art styles to enjoy. It is to be hoped that ways can be found to open up Jintasi to the public at some stage in the future.

  • Last visit to Matisi: Sep 2005
  • Intro Updated Oct 4, 2005
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Reviews (14)

Comments (2)

  • Confucius's Profile Photo
    Mar 23, 2006 at 11:25 PM

    A little Googling, a Rutgers sweatshirt; and I'm sure I'll have no problem persuading the local authorities that I am indeed Professor Angela's nephew, Howie Howard.

  • saraheg77's Profile Photo
    Oct 5, 2005 at 8:56 PM

    Nice tips - I love the opening photo! Seems like you are getting to see all of China! I hope I get to travel there soon! But it seems cheaper to come after I'm back in the US than from Australia. Travel is expensive here!

mke1963 Works Here!


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