The Giant Buddha Temple

The city of Zhangye once served as a bustling trading hub along the ancient Silk Road and, as such, it was one of the first Chinese cities to be exposed to Buddhist influence. The Giant Buddha Temple stands as a testament to the profound impact that Buddhism had on this city. With a name like the Giant Buddha Temple, it shouldn’t be too hard to guess what this place is famous for! Originally built during the Western Xia Dynasty (1038-1227), the temple is home to the largest statue of the Reclining Buddha in China. The eponymous Giant Buddha statue is 33 metres (108 ft.) high, 49 metres (161 ft.) wide, and 24 metres (79 ft.) long. To put that into perspective, it is over five times the height of a giraffe and about as long as the average blue whale! The temple itself is also one of the largest remaining relics of the Western Xia Dynasty, a mysterious empire that was led by a Turkic people known as the Tanguts.

According to legend, a member of the imperial Tangut clan named Sineng decided to become a Buddhist monk and was traveling in the area surrounding Zhangye when he heard heavenly sounding music. Following the sound, he came to the foot of a mountain where a numinous light was shining. After digging at this luminous location, he unearthed a collection of Buddhist artefacts and among them was a statue of the reclining Buddha. Sineng interpreted this as a sign of divine approval and vowed to build a magnificent temple in honour of this sacred statue.  Five years later, his wish came true when in 1103 the Western Xia Emperor Chongzong provided the funds necessary to begin building the temple on the grounds of a pre-existing temple, which had been known as the Jiaye Rulai Temple. This original statue is reputedly hidden deep within the belly of the much larger Reclining Buddha statue that takes pride of place within the temple today.

Nowadays, the temple complex is separated into three main areas: the Buddha Hall, where the giant Reclining Buddha is located; the Buddhist Art Exhibition Hall, where various Buddhist paintings and sculptures are exhibited; and the Sutras Exhibition Hall, where the original sutras collected within the temple are displayed. The giant statue of the Reclining Buddha was carved from clay that was plastered over a wooden frame before being painted and gold-plated, which gives it an uncannily lifelike appearance. Directly behind the main statue, there are statues of the 10 principal disciples of Shakyamuni Buddha. The sides of the hall are similarly home to statues of the 18 arhats, who are regarded as legendary guardians of Buddhism that supposedly possess supernatural powers. Alongside these vivid statues, the walls of the Buddha Hall are no less magnificent, as they have been covered with colourful murals that depict scenes from both the Mountains and Waters Sutra and the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West.

The Sutras Exhibition Hall, also known as the Hall of Scriptures, is currently home to over 6,000 volumes of ancient Buddhist sutras that have miraculously managed to survive within the temple. Some of these dusty tomes have actually been written in powdered silver or gold, making them exceedingly valuable and rare. After all, diamonds may be a girl’s best friend, but only the Diamond Sutra will help you achieve enlightenment!

Alongside the main temple halls, the temple complex itself is also home to two unique buildings: the Clay Pagoda and the Shanxi Guild. Originally, there were five pagodas in Zhangye known as the Five Element Pagodas, which were built in accordance with the traditional Chinese concept of the Five Elements. Now the 13-storey-high Clay Pagoda in the Giant Buddha Temple and the Wooden Pagoda in the Wooden Pagoda Temple are the only two that remain, making them important historical relics of the city’s ancient past.

The Shanxi Guild
The Shanxi Guild

Unlike the Clay Pagoda, the Shanxi Guild was technically never part of the original temple but has since been incorporated into the complex. The Shanxi Guild was founded in 1724 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) as a place for traveling merchants from Shanxi province to network with one another and to feel more at home in this far flung city. These Shanxi merchants, more commonly known as the Jin Merchants, were astute businessmen who began by trading salt, which the imperial government permitted them to do so long as they provided food to imperial troops stationed within the frontier regions. This is why so many Shanxi merchants ended up in the remote western regions of China, such as Gansu province. Today, the Shanxi Guild still contains a well-preserved gate, theatre stage, audience tower, bell and drum tower, memorial archway, wing rooms, and hall. Wandering through these ancient buildings, you’ll effortlessly be transported back to what life was like for traveling merchants in this isolated oasis town.

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The Hu Family Mansion

Nestled within the bustling city of Tianshui, the Hu Family Mansion looks somewhat out of place among the modern shops and skyscrapers that surround it. It once served as the private home of the wealthy Hu clan and was originally constructed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) by an official named Hu Laijin, with the help of his son Hu Xi. What makes the Hu Family Mansion so unique is that it conforms to a traditional style of Chinese architecture known as a “siheyuan” or “quadrangle courtyard”, which is extremely unusual in northwestern China.

Nowadays, it has been opened to the public and decorated with gorgeous period furnishings, with detailed descriptions of every room’s function clearly signposted. From the rich jade-green bamboo that grows within its courtyards to the intricate woodcuttings that bedeck its interior, the Hu Family Mansion was designed to be as aesthetically pleasing as possible and is a real feast for the eyes. Wandering through this tranquil mansion is sure to give you a clear idea of the simple yet scholarly lifestyle enjoyed by many Ming Dynasty officials.  

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The Yuquan Taoist Temple

Located at the base of the Tianjing Mountain in the city of Tianshui, the Yuquan Taoist Temple is a colossal complex that sprawls up the mountainside, covering an area of nearly 170,000 square metres (203,318 sq. yd.). The temple was originally built during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) under the rather uninspired name of Beishan or “North Mountain” Temple, but its name was eventually changed to the Yuquan or “Jade Spring” Temple during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The name was derived from a local spring, which supposedly sprouted water that was so clear and beautiful that it resembled lustrous jade. In-keeping with its aquatic name, you’re sure to be blown out of the water when you see how beautiful this temple complex is!

Tragically the original temple was almost completely destroyed during the collapse of the Song Dynasty, but it was restored to its former glory during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and underwent over 30 extensions from then until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The final renovation project took place during the 1980s and left the temple with more than 90 separate buildings. The temple complex itself is peppered with lush cypress trees, some of which are over 1000 years old, and contains two very famous stone tablets: one of which was inscribed by Kublai Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan and founder of the Yuan Dynasty; and the other by an illustrious Yuan Dynasty calligrapher named Zhao Mengfu. The most notable features within the temple are arguably: the Spirit Official Hall, the Jade Emperor Hall, the Doumu Hall, the Three Qing Hall, the Jade Spring, the Immortal Cave, the Three-Immortal Cave, and the Dai Temple.

The Spirit Official Hall is the first part of the temple that you come to after entering and is dedicated to Spirit Officer Wang, the Supreme Patron God of Taoism. According to Taoist tradition, Wang is ranked among the top five hundred spirit officers and supposedly possesses the ability to suppress demons. That’s a pretty impressive skill to have on your CV, even for a deity! Unfortunately he pales in comparison to the inhabitant of the nearby Jade Emperor Hall, where one of the most holy deities in the Taoist canon is consecrated. The Jade Emperor ranks among the highest deities in the Taoist pantheon and his hall is more like a miniature temple in its own right, which is a testament to his importance. It consists of a main temple hall, two side temples, a pavilion, a bell tower, a drum tower, and an archway. Every year, on the 9th day of the first month according to the Chinese lunar calendar, a magnificent temple fair is held in this hall in honour of the Jade Emperor’s birthday. Talk about extravagant!

It seems, however, that even the Jade Emperor has competition! The Three Qing Hall is dedicated to the “Three Qing” or the Three Pure Ones, which are unequivocally acknowledged as the highest ranking deities in Taoism and are sometimes referred to as the “Taoist Holy Trinity”. According to traditional Taoist theory, the way of the Tao produces One, One leads to Two, and finally Two creates Three. The first of the Pure Ones, Yuanshi Tianzun, represents One, since he oversaw the creation of the universe out of nothingness. Once their job was completed, Yuanshi Tianzun manifested into the second of the trinity, Lingbao Tianzun, who classified the elements into their rightful groups and separated the Yang from the Yin. During the final stage of creation, known as Two creating Three, Lingbao Tianzun manifested into Daode Tianzun, who preached the Law to all living beings and thus brought about civilisation. The Three Pure Ones are a distinctly abstract concept, as they each represent both a deity and a heaven. That being said, to avoid confusion, they are often depicted as elderly sages sat upon thrones.

While she may not have achieved the illustrious status of the Three Pure Ones, the Doumu Hall is dedicated to the goddess Doumu, who nonetheless ranks quite highly within the Taoist pantheon and is considered to be the mother of all stars. In fact, she is thus believed to have absolute power over the future of all things in the universe, so don’t underestimate her importance or you’ll sorely regret it! During the early Yuan Dynasty, the hall was often referred to as the “Big Dipper Platform” because it was used by a Taoist priest named Liang Zhitong to worship the stars and the Big Dipper. In other words, a trip to this hall at night may just leave you feeling starry-eyed! Near to the Doumu Hall lies the titular Jade Spring, where crystal clear spring water has supposedly flowed for hundreds of years. It is rumoured that this spring water is not only extremely refreshing, but can also treat a variety of eye-related diseases, meaning it is sometimes nicknamed the Mingyan or “Brightening Eyes” Spring.

At the back of the temple complex lie the Immortal Cave and the Three-Immortal Cave which, though they may sound similar, serve slightly different purposes. The Immortal Cave was originally used by the Taoist priest Liang Zhitong to practice special Taoist rituals and he was supposedly buried in this cave after achieving immortality. We’re not quite sure why an immortal person would need to be buried, but we’re happy to leave it a mystery! The Three-Immortal Cave, on the other hand, is a hand-carved cave that commemorates the three legendary founders of the temple: Lü Dongbin, one of the Eight Immortals of Taoism; the aforementioned Liang Zhitong, who achieved immortality during the Yuan Dynasty; and Ma the Immortal, who was another Taoist priest that supposedly achieved immortality during the Qing Dynasty.

The Dai Temple is located in a completely separate part of the temple complex and was constructed during the Qing Dynasty, making it the youngest part of the temple. It originally consisted of two ancestral halls: one for Lord Zhou, and one for Lord Tuo. It was eventually rebuilt as the Dai Temple and is primarily dedicated to one of the Four Heavenly Emperors of Taoism: Dongji Qinghua or the “East Pole Emperor of Blue Essence”. More importantly, however, this section of the temple is home to a gruesome display of statues that are designed to represent the many tortures that immoral people will face in the underworld. It’s the ideal place to visit if your friends and family have been behaving badly!

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Yumen Pass

Towering over the western end of the Hexi Corridor, Yumen Pass was once a major gateway along the Great Wall and an integral part of the ancient Silk Road. Alongside Yang Pass, Yumen Pass served as the main pathway to the mysterious Western Regions. The pass’ long and colourful history began during the early Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), when the western border of the country was ceaselessly invaded by the nomadic Xiongnu people, the arch nemeses of the ruling Han Chinese. Rather than meet the formidable Xiongnu warriors in battle, the early Han rulers resorted to marrying off their daughters to Xiongnu leaders in a feeble attempt to broker peace. As they say, all is fair in love and war!

When Emperor Wu rose to power in 141 BC, he was appalled by this cowardly policy and replaced it with his own strategic military agenda. In 121 BC, fierce counterattacks led by the celebrated military general Huo Qubing eventually drove the Xiongnu troops out of the west and allowed Emperor Wu to secure the western frontier. By 111 BC, the Emperor had established Yumen Pass and Yang Pass, which strengthened the border and thus helped to prevent further invasions from the Xiongnu. As time went on, it became a major trading post along the northern branch of the Silk Road. Silk, porcelain, tea, and a variety of luxury wares all passed through its humble gates. “Yumen” literally translates to mean “Jade Gate”, and it is believed that the pass is so-named because of the many jade caravans that passed through it.

According to an alternative legend, there was once a region in the west of Gansu province known as “Mamitu” or “Horse Loses Its Way”. Numerous caravans carrying jade from Hotan to Dunhuang were forced to travel through this region before arriving at Yumen Pass. The region was a mess of marshes, ravines, gullies, and weeds, making it desperately difficult to navigate. As if that wasn’t complex enough, the extremely hot weather meant that it was virtually impossible to cross during the day so many caravans chose to travel at night. The darkness, coupled with the region’s unusual topography, meant that even the most experienced merchants would frequently lose their way.

There was once a caravan that often traversed this route carrying jade and silk. One day, as soon as it entered Mamitu, the merchant became hopelessly lost. As if by magic, a wild goose suddenly dropped down in front of them. A kind-hearted boy scooped the goose up in his arms and decided he would carry it until they had escaped the treacherous Mamitu region. After some time, the wild goose turned to the boy and said: “Please give me some food, and I will help you find your way”. The boy realised that the goose had dropped not because it couldn’t fly, but because it didn’t have the energy to fly. He immediately gave the goose some food and water. Once it had eaten its fill, the goose flew into the sky and guided the caravan to the small city of Fangcheng. 

It was not long before the caravan once again became lost in Mamitu. As the wild goose flew over them, he promptly stopped near the young boy and said: “Once I have guided you to Fangcheng, please promise to give me the finest piece of jade you have. I will place it in the highest tower, and it will shine so brightly that you will never lose your way again.” The boy told the merchant, but the merchant was reluctant to part with his precious cargo. After the goose had helped them, he refused to give up the jade and thought the matter was over. Who would have thought that, not long thereafter, he and his caravan would become lost in Mamitu yet again!

This time, however, it was much more serious. They were unable to find water for several days and, as they slowly weakened from thirst, they realised that they would surely die if they could not find their way soon. At that moment, the goose appeared and shouted down to the merchant: “Your caravan is hopelessly lost! Give me the jade you promised, and I will lead the way to safety.“ The merchant turned to the young boy, who advised him to kneel down and swear to the wild goose that he would keep his promise. The merchant promptly followed the boy’s advice and the goose kindly guided the caravan out of Mamitu.

Once they had arrived in Fangcheng, the merchant picked the largest piece of luminous green jade he could find and gave it to the goose. The goose flew to the top of the highest tower in Fangcheng and embedded the jade there. When night fell, the jade would shine in the moonlight and guide caravans through Mamitu. From that day forward, not a single caravan became lost, and Fangcheng became known as the Jade Gate Pass.

The Han Great Wall near the Yumen Pass

Unfortunately, towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the trade route through Yumen Pass was gradually supplanted by the northern route via Hami and the pass fell into disuse. Nowadays, all that is left of this venerable military gate and trading post are a smattering of ruins, which are located approximately 90 kilometres (56 mi) from the city of Dunhuang. At the grand old age of over 2,000 years, it was considered so integral to the country’s history that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. The complex is entirely built of rammed earth and, due to years of neglect, all that remains today are the gatehouse, a beacon tower, and a small portion of the Han Dynasty Great Wall. In many ways, its desolation is part of its charm. After all, as the poem “Song of Liangzhou” by Wang Zhihuan goes: “Don’t complain that the willows do not thrive there, you should know that Spring never comes to Yumen Pass”.  

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The Hecang Ruins

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Hidden deep within the Gobi Desert, approximately 20 kilometres (12 mi) from Yumen Pass and 60 kilometres (37 mi) from Dunhuang, the 2,000-year-old remains of Hecang Fortress were designed never to be found. Its north and south are shielded by tall sand dunes, while the nearby Shule River once supplied it with water in this otherwise barren territory. Only when you are close enough does the fortress suddenly appear from behind the mounds of sand. In ancient times, this secrecy was necessary, as Hecang Fortress served as a military warehouse from the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) onwards. It was a vital lifeline for soldiers working tirelessly along the Great Wall to keep China safe from invasion, and thus it was a major target for the country’s military opponents.

Hecang relics02From 104 BC right through until 420 AD, the former military warehouse was used to store grains, clothes, hay, military equipment, and a myriad of other supplies that were transported from nearby oasis towns. The fortress originally consisted of three depots that were divided by two earthen walls, which towered in at 43 metres (141 ft.) in height and stretched for over 130 metres (427 ft.) in length. At equal intervals, a myriad of triangular holes punctuate the walls and were originally designed to aerate the building in the arid desert heat. Nowadays the fortress is a popular tourist attraction in the area, although be forewarned: you should pack your own lunch, because you won’t find any delicious treats stored inside of its walls!

 

 

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The Kumtag Desert (Taklamakan)

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Covering a colossal area of 22,900 square kilometres (8,842 sq. mi), the Kumtag Desert spans from Ruoqiang County in Xinjiang to the city of Dunhuang in Gansu province, and forms the eastern section of the much larger Taklamakan Desert. In the language of the Uyghur people, the word “kum-tag” means “sand-mountain” and refers to the looming dunes that populate this barren expanse. The desert itself was formed over a period of centuries, as a result of strong winds colliding and depositing the masses of sand they were carrying in unusual formations.

Sand dunes within the desert can rise to heights of up to 76 metres (250 ft.), making them taller than the Leaning Tower of Pisa! While the region is resplendent with these natural monoliths, it’s also home to a number of magnificent sand statues that have been crafted by local artisans. Lifelike figures, towering fortresses, and miniature sand cities rise up in its barren expanse, creating a dazzling fairy-tale world. Riding camels through the baking hot desert, you’ll be transported back to life as a traveling merchant on the ancient Silk Road.

 

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Jiayu Pass

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Heralded as the “First and Greatest Pass under Heaven”, Jiayu Pass was once one of the most important military fortresses along the Great Wall, alongside Juyong Pass near Beijing and Shanhai Pass in Hebei province. Its grand nickname derives from the fact that it is the first pass at the western end of the Great Wall and, for hundreds of years, it was widely regarded as impregnable. Resting 6 kilometres (4 mi) from the city of Jiayuguan, it spans the narrowest point within the western section of the Hexi Corridor and sits at the base of Jiayu Mountain, from which its name originates. Its focal location near China’s westernmost edge means it was once a key waypoint along the ancient Silk Road.

According to a delightful legend, when the pass was being planned, the official charged with its construction approached the designer and asked him to estimate the number of bricks they would need. The designer emphatically replied that they needed exactly 99,999 bricks but the official flew into a rage, believing the designer to be overconfident in his abilities. He demanded that the designer compensate for any potential oversights by ordering more bricks and, as an act of defiance, the designer ordered just one extra brick. In the end, he was right and the one lone brick, left over after the pass’ completion, reputedly still rests on top of one of the gates.

jiayuguanUnfortunately, the truth is rarely as exciting as the rumour! Jiayu Pass was originally built in 1372, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), under the supervision of an official named Feng Sheng. Unlike other sections of the Great Wall, which were constructed from grey bricks, this section of the wall was made from loess soil that was tamped together in layers, giving it a markedly yellowish hue. However, this section continued to be enhanced and renovated right up until 1540, meaning its construction technically lasted for over 160 years! Altogether the pass is made up of two gates and three defensive sections: the inner city, the outer city, and a moat.

The inner city is enclosed within an 11-metre (36 ft.) high wall and is accessible via two gates, one in the east and one in the west. In keeping with the fortified nature of the complex, each of these gates is protected by a small guard tower and a barbican. Outside the inner city, the outer city forms a secondary barrier and served as the major defensive point of the pass. Its western wall was built from bricks, making it particularly solid, and it incorporates a three-storey tower with a plaque that reads: “Tian Xia Di Yi Xiong Guan” (天下第一雄关) or “the First and Greatest Pass under Heaven”. In short, its towering achievements are undeniable!

Within the inner city, a number of historic structures have been well-preserved, including the Youji General’s Office and Wenchang Hall. In ancient times, the Youji General’s Office was where generals stationed at the pass would gather to discuss military affairs and plan out strategies. The meeting hall reproduces the scene of various generals pouring over military matters, and the back yard offers an insight into how the generals’ families may have lived. While the Youji General’s Office was a place of tactical violence, Wenchang Hall served as the birthplace of beauty and tranquillity. This scenic two-storey pavilion, with its intricately latticed doors and windows, was once used by literati to meet, paint, read, and compose poetry during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Over time, it became the workplace of government officials.

day11-5 02Outside the inner city, the Temple of Guan Yu was the place where generals and soldiers stationed at the pass would pay homage to the legendary Guan Yu, a supposedly invincible military figure from the Shu-Han Dynasty (221-263 AD). The nearby Opera Tower offered soldiers, residents, and passing merchants with a much needed dose of relaxation in the form of magnificent operas. Its red pillars, elaborately carved beams, and exquisite murals of the Eight Immortals continue to delight visitors to this day. At the eastern gate, a giant white beacon tower marks the Jiayuguan Great Wall Museum, where visitors can marvel at ancient weapons, view paintings of the Great Wall, and learn all about the architectural history of Jiayu Pass.

Approximately 8 kilometres (5 mi) south of the pass lies what is known as the “First Strategic Post under Heaven”. Its proximity to the Taolai River earned it the nickname the Taolai River Pier or the First Pier, although strictly speaking it is actually a beacon tower. It was originally built by an official named Li Han in 1539 and represented the western starting point of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall. Beacons towers such as this one were used as a sort of alarm system along the Great Wall and, as the first beacon tower to the west, its significance as a defensive structure was immeasurable. Tragically all that remains of this once magnificent structure is a lonely earthen mound resting at the edge of a cliff.

Historically Jiayu Pass was renowned for its defensive capabilities and its importance to the Silk Road, but it also garnered a rather fearsome reputation as the place where those who were exiled or disgraced were ordered to leave. Known by many as the Gate of Demons, it was believed that any man or woman banished from this gate and left to wander the unforgiving Gobi Desert would certainly never return. The long archway leading out of Jiayu Pass, nicknamed the Traveller’s Gate, was also known as the Gate of Sighs, as it represented the last point before one entered the desert wastes. Etched into its walls are countless writings, penned by exiles, dishonoured officials, and criminals who contemplated their impending demise as they woefully marched out of their beloved country and into the unknown.

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Tianshui

Long before recorded time, it was believed that the universe consisted solely of formless chaos. Over 18,000 years, this chaos formed into a cosmic egg, which housed a sleeping giant named Pangu. When he awoke, Pangu set about creating the world. First, he separated Yin from Yang with a swing of his giant axe, creating the Earth and the Sky. In order to keep them apart, he stood upon the Earth and held up the Sky for over 18,000 years, until he tragically died. On his death, his breath became the wind, mist, and clouds; his voice became the thunder; his left eye, the sun; his right eye, the moon; his head formed the mountains; his blood flowed into rivers; and his muscles became fertile land. In short, every part of Pangu’s body formed an integral part of the world we live in, including several of the deities that are still worshipped in Chinese folklore today.

He is the focal figure of the Chinese creation myth and, from his death, a powerful being named Huaxu was born. Huaxu gave birth to two central figures in Chinese mythology: Fuxi and Nüwa. They supposedly had the faces of humans and the bodies of snakes, although they are often regarded as the first human beings. So, next time someone accuses you of being as sneaky as a snake, just say it’s in your DNA! According to legend, Fuxi was born sometime during the 29th century BC in the town of Chengji, which is usually identified as modern-day Tianshui. He ended up marrying his sister Nüwa and together they used clay to create the first human beings on earth. He then taught mankind how to hunt, fish, domesticate animals, and cook, and is even credited with developing the first Chinese writing system and establishing the institution of marriage. Not too shabby for a guy who had to slither around on his belly all day!

He is heralded as one of the Three Sovereigns, which were god-kings or demi-gods who used their powers to improve the progress of mankind. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Fuxi Temple was erected in Tianshui to honour this mythical ancestor and nowadays throngs of visitors still flock to the temple every year, particularly during the annual Tianshui Fuxi Culture and Tourism Festival in June. So, while many cities in China boast beautiful natural surroundings or stunning architecture, very few of them can claim to be the birthplace of a god!

Yet the city’s illustrious history doesn’t end there. Archaeological evidence suggests that the area was settled by humans as early as the Neolithic Period (c. 8500-2100 BC), making it one of the cradles of ancient Chinese civilisation. The famous Dadiwan Site in Zhangshaodian Village can be found just northeast of the city and consists of over 200 primitive houses that date back approximately 4,800 to 7,800 years ago. It is one of the most well-preserved Neolithic sites in the country and some of the houses’ even contain prehistoric paintings of humans and animals!

The name “Tianshui” literally means “Water from the Heavens” and it was a fantastical local legend that lent the area its unusual epithet. According to this legend, sometime during the Han Dynasty (206 BC– 220 AD) the region suffered from a long drought and was racked by warfare. Suddenly a colossal storm struck, with gale force winds, heavy rain, lightning and thunder only adding to the locals’ troubles. This storm was so powerful that it split the sky itself and water poured down from the heavenly realm, creating the Tianshui Lake. So, out of great tragedy and suffering, came great beauty. That being said, the city wouldn’t formally be given the name until 1950, so don’t go there with the intention of drinking some holy tap water!

Its auspicious position meant that, during the Han Dynasty, it swiftly became one of the major trading hubs along the ancient Silk Road. Like many of the oases towns along the Silk Road, Buddhism made its way to Tianshui around about the 5th century and wonderful works of Buddhist art and architecture soon followed, including the nearby Maijishan Grottoes. Resting just 40 kilometres (25 miles) southeast of the city proper, this cave complex is renowned as one of the Four Grand Groups of Grottoes and represents 194 caves filled with over 7,200 Buddhist sculptures and 1,000 square metres (10,700 sq. ft.) of intricate murals. This colossal endeavour was begun sometime during the Northern Liang Dynasty (397–460) and continued for over 1,000 years. Even at the grand old age of over 1,500, the Maijishan Grottoes have yet to retire and still welcome visitors on a daily basis!

Another equally magnificent yet less well-known grotto complex can be found in the valleys of the Zhonglou Mountains just northeast of Tianshui. Amongst verdant hills, flowery meadows, and bubbling brooks you’ll find the secluded Water Curtain Cave Complex, which hides a sequence of five grottoes known as the Water Curtain Cave, Thousand Buddha Cave, Lashao Temple, Xiansheng Pond, and Sanqing Cave. These were once an important pilgrimage site along the Silk Road and date all the way back to the Jin Dynasty (265-420). During the rainy season, water cascades from the top of the mountain and covers the mouth of the cave like a curtain, earning the grotto complex its unusual name. Filled with gorgeous murals and resplendent with natural beauty, a trip to these caves is sure not to dampen your spirits!

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Lanzhou

Lanzhou City

Flanked by the Qilian Mountains to the north and split by the Yellow River at its centre, Lanzhou is a city immersed in its natural surroundings. It is the provincial capital of Gansu province and historically was one of the major trading cities along the ancient Silk Road. With the Maijishan Grottoes to its east, Bingling Temple Grottoes to its west, Labrang Monastery to its south, and Mogao Caves to its north, Lanzhou delivers magnificent historical attractions at every point of the compass!

The city rests deep with the Hexi Corridor, which was a natural passageway that connected China with Central Asia and was thus an integral part of the Silk Road. This corridor was flanked by the misty Qilian Mountains and Tibetan Plateau in the south and the Beishan Mountains and inhospitable Gobi Desert in the north, meaning trading caravans really only had one choice when it came to traveling into China. This made control of the Hexi Corridor invaluable, as whoever controlled this territory would also have power over one of the most important trade routes in world history. This meant that, like a prime piece of real estate, oases towns along the Hexi Corridor were hotly contested!

The Lanzhou region originally belonged to the Western Qiang people, but became part of the State of Qin during the 6th century BC. Under the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), it became one of the major links along the Silk Road and was also an important crossing point on the Yellow River. It was considered so valuable that it eventually earned the nickname the Golden City! The stunning Yumen Pass and Yang Pass, two of the last surviving earthen portions of the Great Wall, were erected during this time as part of a huge section of wall stretching along the northern frontier. This was designed by the Han court to help defend the Silk Road from northern invaders such as the Xiongnu people, and achieved relative success until the collapse of the Han Dynasty. Thereafter the region was passed around between several tribal states faster than a hot potato!

During the 4th century, Lanzhou briefly became the capital of the Former Liang Dynasty (320–376), until it was conquered by the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535). Under the guidance of the Northern Wei rulers, the city flourished as a centre for Buddhist study from the 5th right through until the 11th century. It was recaptured by Chinese forces during the Sui Dynasty (581-618), where it became the seat of Lanzhou prefecture, but during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) it was lost to the Tibetans in 763 and wasn’t recovered until 843. However this imperial control turned out to be just another brief flirtation, as it soon fell into the hands of the Tangut people, who established the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227).

The Song Dynasty (960-1279) were able to take back the region and rename it Lanzhou in 1041, but it was once again lost in 1127 to the Jurchen people of the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234). It seemed that, when it came to being held, Lanzhou was as slippery as an eel! It was finally incorporated into the Mongol Empire (1206–1368) in 1235 and remained part of China proper from the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) onwards.

Evidence of the city’s illustrious history as a centre for Buddhism can be found just 80 kilometres (50 mi) to its southwest in the form of the Bingling Temple Grottoes or Thousand Buddha Caves. This sequence of caves was begun sometime during the 4th century and construction continued for approximately 1,000 years, yielding over 200 caves, 690 stone statues, 82 clay sculptures, and some 900 square metres (9,700 sq. ft.) of stunning murals. It’s a veritable treasure trove of ancient Buddhist art but its isolated location means that, unlike the Mogao Caves and the Maijishan Grottoes, it receives very little tourist traffic and makes for a peaceful day out. You may even come back from your trip a little more enlightened!

Other Buddhist relics to be found in the city include the temples at the Five Spring Mountain Park on the northern side of Gaolan Mountain. According to legend, a famous Han general named Huo Qubing once led his forces here, where they nearly collapsed from exhaustion and thirst. Without further ado, Huo whipped the ground five times with his trusty horsewhip and five springs appeared. These springs can still be seen today and are dotted about amongst the numerous architectural sites, including the Butterfly Pavilion, Dizang Temple, and Wenchang Palace.

And, if it’s historical architecture you’re after, then no trip to Lanzhou would be complete without a visit to Zhongshan Bridge. This was once the site of Zhen Yuan Floating Bridge, one of the many floating bridges that spanned the Yellow River. These bridges were formed by strapping over 20 ships together using ropes and chains. Now this may sound rather magical, but these bridges were notoriously unstable and were frequently destroyed by floods, resulting in the death of many people. That being said, like Rocky Balboa, it seems Zhen Yuan Bridge wasn’t going to retire without a fight! In spite of adversity, it managed to survive for a staggering 500 years before it was finally replaced in 1909 by the iron Zhongshan Bridge you see today.

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