Suitcase and World: Maijishan Grottoes.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Maijishan Grottoes.

From the train station in Tianshui, we immediately drove to Maijishan Grottoes.  Warning in advance, this is a long posting because there are so many photos.  I really should create a slideshow of them but I'm too lazy at the moment. :-(

As the rain continued to fall, David grew in excitement. In fact, he was happy for the rain because he said it would give us a view of the landscape that we would not appreciate otherwise. I had a hard time swallowing what he was saying as typically you don't want to be sightseeing, especially something that is outdoors, in the rain. He then also mentioned that we would have to be walking uphill. Groan. I hate anything uphill. As he talked, I realized it would probably be best if I changed out of the walking sandals I was wearing into my hiking sandals.

We soon arrived into a parking lot. There, I retrieved my hiking sandals from my suitcase and changed into them. It was also a bit chilly so on went my denim shirt and since the rain was falling, I draped my poncho over me. I am certain I looked like an oversized blueberry. Never mind. I am here to see the cave temples, not to worry about how I look. While we were all getting ourselves prepared, David bought our entry tickets.

From the parking lot, we made our way to the entrance where we met back up with David. We all boarded a shuttle van for a short ride where we would begin our walk up to Maijishan Hill

It was an uphill the rain. #groan.

Maijishan Grottoes is named after the free standing boulder that is home to over 7,000 Buddhist images and almost 1,000 square meters of murals. It is believed that the first grottoes, at Maijishan, date back to around 400 AD when Buddhism reached China from India via the Silk Road. Buddhist pilgrims brought with them the traditions of cave shrines.

Sometime between 420 and 422 AD, a monk by the name of Tanhung arrived at Maijishan and proceeded to build a small monastic community. One of the legends is that he had previously been living in Chang'an but had fled to Maijishan when the city was invaded by the Sung army. Within a few years he was joined by another senior monk, Xuangao, who brought 100 followers to the mountain. Eventually their community grew to 300 members and as the community grew, so did the number of Buddha images and murals. But the greatest period of building was over a century later during the Western Wei and Northern Zhou dynasties. Yet even after the peak of construction in the late 6th century, the grottoes were continually added to, right up to the beginning of the 20th century.  All together, the Buddhist art at Maijishan spans an incredible 12 Chinese dynasties!  This is a true cultural and heritage treasure!

Our first stop was to admire the huge carved Buddha and the remaining relief of one Bodhisattva. This is the kind of view that is so amazing it just makes you linger a few minutes longer just so you can fully take in the view. This is a view of the west side of the hill.

Zooming in, you can see just how immense the images are compared to the humans that stand before it.  Tthe tallest Buddha image at Maijishan stands well over 16 meters in height. The stairs which lead up and around the grottoes were originally made of wood but these have been slowly but steadily replaced by metal supports – for obvious safety reasons.

We would enter from the east side so we had to walk a bit further before we could actually approach the hill.  On the way, we passed a small temple.

I love temple roof toppers and this small set was particularly colorful.  But separate from the topper, if you look at the dark green part where the trees are, you can see the rain falling :-(

The eastern group of grottoes is also marked by a large carving of Buddha and two Bodhisattvas.

A set of steps led up to the base of the boulder.   Poor Mal.  She wasn't sure she would be able to go up the steps.  They weren't steep but I think the walk up the hill took a bit of breath out of her.  I told her to just go slowly and she would make it.  She didn't want me to walk alongside her so I went ahead but kept an eye on her.  In the end, I was right.....she made it!!

Before we saw any of the grottoes, we paused to take in the view. David was ecstatic over the clouds.  These overcast days don't happen often and we're so lucky to be here when it's gloomy.  Huh??  Gazing out into the distance, I saw fog kissing the mountain tops.  The view looked just like what you see in a Chinese painting. Only the Chinese can appreciate a vista like this as most people would much prefer sunny skies.

Looking to my right and to my left, all I saw were walkways and steps.  Where were the grottoes?

The face of the boulder was a riddled with literally dozens of hand niches of different sizes,  These are the grottoes and each home is to Buddhist images and murals of different sizes and creation dates.

David then took us around to see the various grottoes and in no time, we saw so many sculptures and murals, it all began to blur together.  David patiently explained everything to us but I have to admit, it was in one ear and out the other.  I don't remember a single word of what he told me so I have nothing to write about what I saw at Maiji.  Here are some of the images I captured on my walk around the grottoes.

 Since Maijishan is not a functioning temple, there are no altars set up for prayer but that has not stopped pilgrims from leaving least some yuan.

Luckily, as I walked around, my head was spinning in all directions otherwise I would have missed these rows of small Buddha heads.

In one area of grottoes, we came across a class of art students and I can understand why the budding artists are here. 

While some of the original paint has flaked off or the colors faded you can still imagine how colorful the original sculptures must have been.

David insisted on wearing the microphone though he never had to use it!

Because the grottoes were built over several centuries, the sculptures have different facial features.  Ones carved in earlier centuries look very much like they were influenced by Indian artistic aesthetic.

We soon left the students behind and continued our walk around the site.  Though there are no signs to guide your walk, it's easy to get around - all you do is follow the stairs.  They were not always easy to ascend.  Mal was so concerned she asked Yim the Chinese word for *slow* so she could say that to anyone whom she thought should go ahead of her.  I'm realizing that she's very self conscious about things and I think all she needs is some reassurance that all is okay and she worries less.

The cousins paused for a photo. :-)

Thanks to Myanmar where I saw countless small images of Buddha, I have come to the wee little sculptures.  Despite their small size, these ones were well detailed and if you look closely, you can still see the remains of streaks of red and blue paint.

The faces are all just a wee bit different.

Some of the grottoes were open to clear view but there were quite a few that were protected behind a metal mesh window.  These were mainly ones where the images could be touched if not for the protective mesh.  Even though the mesh made it hard to take photos, it's the right thing to do to preserve these treasures.

The colors are still incredibly vivid!

Periodically, I took in a view of the surrounding landscape.  Unlike David, I was hoping the fog would lift but there was no chance of that happening.

I passed a section of wall where the painted plaster had peeled off to reveal the rammed earth and straw wall underneath.  Amazing that this has held up all these centuries.

From the east side, the walkways and steps took us around to the west side where we came upon a pair of artists.

For me, this was by the far the most interesting set of grottoes. 

In addition to colorful Buddhist images, it was here that we could see some really splendid murals.

The faces of the sculptures here are decidedly more Chinese inspired at least to my untrained eye.

There were two large statues here.  From their facial expressions and body language, one would think they're demons.  

Some of the murals were really quite stunning.  I don't know how far back in time this grotto dates but I can't believe how vibrant the colors are.

I loved the detail of these statues - not just the way they were sculpted to show the gentle fold of their sleeves but the incredible detail of the pattern on the robes and dresses.  Just beautiful.

Our walk from one grotto to the next took us up and down the boulder. Eventually, we ended up at the west side which is where we exited.

As we made our way back down the hill to where we would pick up the shuttle van, Mal, who has attracted quite a bit of attention here - I think she was THE ONLY non-Chinese tourist here, was asked to pose in several photos. She graciously obliged each and every request - even the one for a selfie :-)

Rain or no rain, the souvenir vendors were out in force!

We eventually made it back to our van where our driver was waiting for us. We embarked on our hour long drive back to Tianshui where the next order of the day was to get our train tickets to Lanzhou. I don't know why we didn't do this when we initially arrived into Tianshui but I have learned to just go with the flow. I am sure there was good reason. In any case, Yim and I handed our passports to Mal and she accompanied David into the station to get the tickets. Mal did report back that there were some minor issues with getting the tickets but thankfully, David was able to sort things out. That's the one nice thing about a country where some rules are just guidelines - you can often work your way around them.

We then had another hour long ride to the hotel. Oddly, though we had driven through what I would have described as the heart of Tianshui, on the way to the train station, the station was actually located 20 km from our hotel. Yet, when David described our hotel, he made it sound like it was centrally located - that we were 10 minutes walk from Dragon Square and a pedestrian only street filled with shops and restaurants, the river was also a short walk a way, etc, etc.

By the time we finally arrived at the hotel, it was dark. I was tired and although I wasn't all that hungry, I knew I had to eat. I suggested to Yim and Mal that we go for a quick dinner and call it an early night. They both agreed.  Forget Dragon Square.

David got us checked in and we took a few minutes to get settled into our rooms before meeting back up in the lobby to head out for dinner. David had mentioned that Tianshui is known for its beef lamien so I had decided that's what I was going to have for dinner.

We barely walked 5 minutes when we came upon two restaurants. Yim described the first as a tea house. The second restaurant displayed the characters for the beef lamien. From the street, we didn't see any patrons inside but given that it was already 8:30p and restaurants might close up shortly after that, we decided to go for it.

We walked inside and were immediately greeted by a woman who spoke to us in Mandarin. Remember looks like a duck so must quack like a duck. We asked for a menu but no surprise, it's only in Chinese and it's posted on the wall behind the cash register.

We all ordered the exact same dish - bowls of beef lamien which cost 6 yuan each. Yes, 6 yuan each. The woman handed a paper ticket to Yim which she took back to the kitchen area and handed to the cook. There were three men working in the kitchen but only one who was making the noodles. I wanted to stay back and watch the noodles being made but the man that I would describe as the main cook shooed us away.

So we went and got ourselves seated at a table. On the table, there were plastic containers filled with liquid condiments, a bowl of fried chilies in oil and the ubiquitous bowl of raw garlic cloves. I have yet to figure out how they eat the raw garlic.

What is she thinking?? :-)

The cook shouted out that our order was ready so we made our way back to the kitchen area to pick up our bowls. While Yim and Mal opted to have spoonfuls of chili oil poured over their noodles, I opted for a plain bowl. I figured I would spice it up with the fried chili oil instead.

One look at the noodles and I could tell they were handmade - the strands were all uneven in width and shape. One bite and I was in heaven - they were chewy with a nice bite. The soup was so so and where's the beef? I only that two teeny, weeny, itsy bitsy pieces of beef. Mind you the beef was delicious tasting - very flavorful meat. I think in the US, they've hybridized the beef to be tender losing flavor in the process. Such a shame.

My bowl.

Yim's bowl.  Spicy!!

Mal has been sticking with using chopsticks so far but I can understand her frustrations with trying to eat noodles with them. So, she whipped out her plastic cutlery set and got out the fork and spoon. She felt embarrassed about having to do that but I assured here I've done the same on numerous occasions - especially in countries where the etiquette is to eat with your fingers. I am not adept enough to eat with my fingers plus I find it a messy thing to do. I keep wanting to wipe my fingers after each bite.

As we were eating, the restaurant was starting the close for the day. We quickly gulped down the rest of our noodles and made our way out.

On the way back to the hotel, we decide to find a convenience shop so we could pick up food for our lunch tomorrow - we're on another train to Lanzhou. I much prefer instant ramen to that unappetizing meal I had on the train today. I think every train in China is equipped with a hot water dispenser.

Oddly, we passed by many an open shop but they were all, as Yim labeled them, bottle shops i.e., places to buy liquor.

We eventually did find a small convenience shop. For 10 won, I bought a bowl of instant ramen, a bottle of the herbal drink (Wong Lo Kat ?) that I like and a small bag of fried fava beans. The gals also picked up a few supplies.

Back at the hotel, I took a quick shower and now it's time for sleep. Though I haven't done a whole lot of active things today, I am for some reason very tired. I need to get a good night's rest as we have another long day ahead of us tomorrow. We'll be on the train to Lanzhou!

Goodnight from Tianshui!