Zhangye Danxia Landform

Danxia Landforms, named after Mount Danxia in Guangdong province, are stunning geological formations that are unique to China. They were formed when red sandstone and other minerals were deposited by rivers over a period of about 24 million years. These deposits settled into distinct layers and, after another 15 million years, faults in the earth created by tectonic plate movement caused them to become exposed. Over another few millions of years, they were moulded into strange shapes by weathering and erosion, resulting in the unusual landforms that we find today. Yet the ones near Zhangye are arguably the most spectacular as, rather than just being made up of fiery red sandstone, the hills are a flurry of vibrant colours that resemble a living watercolour painting. For this reason, they have earned the nickname the “Rainbow Mountains”.

Nowadays the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park is the best place to get to grips with this alien terrain. It’s located at the northern foothills of the Qilian Mountains, which only serve to amplify the scenic quality of this magnificent place. The Linze Scenic Area just 30 kilometres (19 mi) west of Zhangye forms the core of the park and is the most popular area, exhibiting the famous “layer cake” hills whose perfect stripes of colour resemble a well-made trifle. Just don’t go trying to take a bite out of them! The Binggou Scenic Area is not quite as popular or as well developed for tourism, but rests on the northern bank of Liyuan River and offers unique, isolated views for those more adventurous hikers. From the shimmering lakes and bubbling brooks to the extraordinary shapes and colours of the rippling hills, the Zhangye Danxia Landform is a work of art that you can literally walk on.

Watch the video about Danxia Landform:

 

Make your dream trip to the colourful Danxia come true on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China and Explore “The Good Earth” in Northwest China

Crescent Lake

Nestled deep within the Gobi Desert, about 6 kilometres (4 mi) south of Dunhuang, lies an oasis blanketed with such lush grasses and brimming with such shimmering waters that one could easily mistake it for a mirage. It has supposedly existed for over 2,000 years and was given the name Yueyaquan or “Crescent Lake” during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) thanks to its characteristic crescent-moon shape. In its heyday, it played a focal role as one of the major rest stops along the ancient Silk Road. One can only begin to imagine the number of faces, wares, and stories this lake has born witness to in its lifetime.

Crescent Lake buildingIts auspicious location and low altitude means that sand from the dunes, which surround it on all sides, are carried over the lake by cross-winds rather than falling into it. This has saved the lake from becoming smothered and allowed it to survive for so many years. According to legend, the trees around the lake have never wilted or died, although perhaps that’s just a tall tale! It is currently 218 metres (715 ft.) long from east to west and 54 metres (177 ft.) wide from north to south, although it tragically shrank in the 1990s and had to be partially refilled by the local government in 2006. Nowadays, as in ancient times, visitors flock to the area to marvel at the surrounding sand dunes, visit the lake’s pagoda, go dune-surfing, and enjoy a spot of camel riding. Just don’t push the camels too hard, or they might give you the hump!

Crescent Lake is one of the many wonderful stops on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China

Gansu Local Snacks

Unlike the signature dishes of traditional Gansu cuisine, which tend to be fatty and rich, Gansu-style snacks are characterised by their light, spicy, and sour flavours. They are designed to cool and refresh regardless of the weather, and provide a welcome alleviation from the typically salty and oily signature dishes. From fluffy cakes to afternoon tea, these snacks provide a slice of comfort at any time of the day.

Niangpizi (酿皮子)

Niangpizi (酿皮子)

This is a popular, cheap, and widely available snack that you’ll find on almost any street corner in Gansu. It’s so widespread that there are as many varieties as there are counties, so be prepared to have your taste buds titillated with the diversity of flavours! The snack is made by first mixing flour with water until it forms a viscous paste. This paste is spread thinly over a steamer, steamed for between 3 to 4 minutes until cooked through, and then cut into thick, juicy strips. The strips are typically served with a tangy garnish made from mustard seeds, garlic, coriander, sesame paste, chilli oil, vinegar, and soy sauce, but this sauce varies from vendor to vendor.

Arguably the most famous type of niangpizi is known as Gaodan Niangpi, which originated from the Liangzhou region. According to local legend, the creator of the snack used to carry his goods in a pair of baskets that he hung high off the ground on a shoulder pole, so the snack was nicknamed Gaodan or “High Shoulder Pole”. Compared to niangpizi of other varieties, Gaodan Niangpi has less elasticity and a slightly greyish-white hue. It is often served with succulent slices of cucumber and crunchy bean sprouts.

Zanba (糌粑)

Zanba (糌粑)

Zanba or Tsampa is a traditional Tibetan snack that is particularly popular with farmers, Sherpas, and shepherds, as it is easy to carry, provides a much-needed boost of energy, and is cheap to make. You simply take a dollop of roasted highland barley flour and mix it with Tibetan butter tea until the flour starts to bind. You then mould the mixture by hand into a fat oval shape, much like a dumpling. The flour to tea ratio must be relatively exact and it requires some skill to make the perfect zanba, but the result is a fragrant, buttery, and satisfying snack that’s bursting with ethnic flavour. It can be a little dry, so it’s recommended that you wash down a tasty zanba with a cup of tea or a refreshing glass of chang (locally brewed wine made from barley).

Hui Douzi (灰豆子)

Hui Douzi (灰豆子)

This sweet dessert originated from Lanzhou and is made using locally sourced grey peas and red dates. First, the red dates are mashed until they give off a strong and plummy fragrance. Then the peas, dates, and a small amount of water are mixed together and simmered on a low heat until the peas are soft but still retain their shape. The final result is a thick, fruity dessert that is renowned for its unique flavour. Sugar is typically added to the mixture before serving to soften the fruit’s naturally sour tang. In summer, it’s served up cold and is designed to help cool you down in the sweltering heat, while in the winter it’s served hot and is the perfect comfort food to warm you from the inside out. Whether it’s too hot, too cold, or just right, be sure to keep an eye out for any bears before you tuck into this porridge-like snack!

Shaokezi (烧壳子)

Shaokezi (烧壳子)

Shaokezi is a kind of cake and one of the traditional dishes of the Yugur ethnic minority, a Turkic-speaking people who live almost exclusively in Su’nan Yugur Autonomous County of Gansu province. It is made by first moulding the dough into a flat circle and then roasting it in a stove full of burning dried sheep manure. When the cake has fluffed up and turned a crisp golden brown, it is done and can be removed from the stove to cool. It is normally served on special occasions, such as weddings and festivals, and skilful Yugur bakers have been known to create shaokezi in the shape of flowers, peaches, apples, and all manner of artistic things. After all, if it’s shaped like a fruit, it has to be healthy!

Taste some authentic Gansu Snacks on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China and Explore “The Good Earth” in Northwest China

Dunhuang

silk road Dunhuang

Situated at the point where the historic northern and southern branches of the Silk Road once met, Dunhuang is a city rich in cultural and historical significance. Flanked by the Gobi Desert to its east and the Mingsha or “Gurgling Sand” Dunes to its south, the city was a vital resting place for any pilgrims, traders, or travellers longing to escape the seemingly endless sandy plains. The “gurgling” sand dunes were so-named for the ghostly sound of the wind whipping over them, which perturbed Silk Road traders so much that they believed the desert to be haunted. No wonder they were eager to reach the next trading town! With the legendary Mogao Caves and shimmering Crescent Lake resting on its outskirts, Dunhuang has swiftly become a mecca for those intrigued by the history of the Silk Road.

It was originally established as a garrison town during the Han Dynasty (206 BC– 220 AD) and was designed to protect the Silk Road from northern invaders. Along with Jiuquan, Zhangye, and Wuwei, it was one of the four main garrison towns established by Emperor Wu in an effort to keep control of the Hexi Corridor. The power and wealth generated by the Silk Road made it an invaluable asset to the Han court, and they were so intent on guarding it that they built long sections of wall along the northern frontier. These include the historic Yumen Pass and Yang Pass, two of the last remaining earthen portions of the Great Wall. Yet it seemed these efforts were largely in vain, as frequent conflicts meant that Dunhuang would regularly be cut off from the imperial court for long periods at a time. In its long history, the city would be controlled by the Mongolian Xiongnu people, the Turkic Tuoba, the Tibetans, the Uyghurs, and the Tanguts. In short, it changed hands more times than an unwanted Christmas jumper!

When the Han Dynasty eventually collapsed, the city became semi-independent and was allowed to flourish as a cosmopolitan metropolis, making it a veritable haven for monks, traders, and travellers from all countries and religions. Thanks to the Silk Road, Buddhism reached Dunhuang relatively early in its history and it became one of the world’s great Buddhist centres in 366 AD, nearly 80 years before the imperial court would finally recognise it as a religion. In other words, people in Dunhuang followed Buddhism before it was cool!

dunhuangDuring this time, a Buddhist monk named Le Zun had a vision of one thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light and saw it as a divine sign that he must devote his life to carving one thousand Buddhist grottoes. Word of this spread fast along the Silk Road, and soon droves of monks arrived to help Le Zun pursue his noble dream. This sequence of artistic grottoes, which were begun in 366 and tragically abandoned during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), is now known as the Mogao Caves. Not only does it represent a treasure trove of spectacular Buddhist art, its contents also serve as proof that Dunhuang and other surrounding oasis towns once played host to a myriad of ethnicities and religions.

The library cave, a hidden compartment of the cave complex that was re-discovered in 1900, contained over 45,000 manuscripts in numerous languages, including Tibetan, Uyghur, Sanskrit, and even Hebrew. Many of them were Buddhist in content, but some of them pertained to Zoroastrianism, Manichaeism, Christianity, Taoism, and Judaism. Still more fascinating is that some of them weren’t even religious, but instead had belonged to merchant caravans and contained detailed descriptions of their wares. These documents indicated that silk from Persia, lapis lazuli from Afghanistan, agate from India, and amber from as far away as northeast Europe had once passed through the city.

It was during the Sui (581-618) and Tang (618-907) dynasties that Dunhuang reach its peak as a major trading hub and, by the 10th century, Buddhism had become such an integral part of its culture that there were over 15 Buddhist monasteries in the city alone. However, it fell outside Chinese borders once again during the Song Dynasty (960-1279) when it was conquered by the Tanguts of the Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) in 1036. It wasn’t reincorporated into China proper until the Yuan Dynasty and tragically went into a period of decline during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), when maritime trade largely overtook the Silk Road. Thus the glory days of Dunhuang were behind it and this once glorious ancient city fell into such ruin that it eventually had to be rebuilt in 1760.

Nowadays the city has become a popular tourist destination for those seeking to retrace the steps of traders following the Silk Road. And, if you really want to get to grips with the city’s mercantile roots (or should we say routes), then you’ll need to indulge in an evening spent at the Dunhuang Night Market. This lively bazaar is held in the city centre every night and hosts a plethora of fascinating products, including carved Tibetan yak horns, jade sculptures, hand-painted scrolls, ancient coins, and enough souvenirs to guarantee you’ll be checking in a second bag on your flight home!

Yardang National GeoparkThat being said, if you fancy something a little more unusual, you’ll want to check out the Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark or, as the locals call it, the Town of Demons! This geopark rests just 185 kilometres (115 mi) outside of the city and is resplendent with bizarre geological formations known as yardangs, which are the result of extreme weathering over a period of approximately 700,000 years. One branch of the Silk Road actually passed through this strange landscape and the monstrously shaped rocks were notoriously difficult to navigate, meaning trading caravans would often get lost there for days. This, coupled with the eerie sound of the wind whipping through the narrow passes, is what earned the place its supernatural nickname!

Make your dream trip to Dunhuang come true on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China

The Labrang Monastery

With its white-washed walls and golden roofs, the Labrang Monastery rises up along the banks of the Daxia River in Xiahe County like an imperial palace hidden amongst the trees. Its location places it at an intersection between four major ethnic groups, the Tibetans, Mongolians, Han Chinese, and the Hui people, meaning that over the years it has been influenced by numerous cultures. It boasts the largest population of resident monks outside of Tibet and is one of six major monasteries dedicated to the Gelugpa branch of Tibetan Buddhism, standing alongside other prestigious academies such as the Drepung Monastery in Tibet and the Kumbum Monastery in Qinghai.

It was founded in 1709 by a first generation Jamyang Zhépa named Ngawang Tsöndrü (1648–1721), a title which meant that he ranked third in importance after the Dalai Lama and the Panchen Lama[1]. The northern district of Xiahe City is almost completely dominated by the monastery complex, meaning it’s largely regarded as a monastic city. Let’s just hope the locals don’t develop a holier-than-thou attitude! Unlike many of the cities dotted throughout Gansu province, over 50% of Xiahe’s population is made up of Tibetan people and this is reflected in the culture, architecture, and lifestyle enjoyed by the locals.

In its heyday, Labrang was home to nearly 4,000 monks, but these numbers rapidly declined due to disruption during the Cultural Revolution. The population is now capped at 1,800 monks, who travel from across China for the coveted opportunity to study there. During their study, each monk chooses to join one of the six dratsang or colleges within the complex, which each offer different specialities ranging from theology to traditional Tibetan medicine. From then on, the monastery’s library is their best friend, as it contains over 60,000 sutras[2] dedicated to various topics. Imagine trying to get through all of those in your lifetime!

The complex is separated into 18 halls, one golden stupa[3], and a sutra debating area, which are all a stunning mixture of Han and Tibetan architectural styles. There is even a museum within the complex, which features exhibitions of statues, sutras, and murals along with an array of Tibetan language books, history books, medicines, and other artistic objects that can be purchased.

The Grand Sutra Hall is the main area used for religious activities and its interior is delicately decorated with shrines, murals of Buddha, and bookcases stacked with sutra scrolls. Located just to its northwest is the Grand Golden Tile Hall, which is a six-storey building with a roof made from bronze tiles that are plated with gold. The architecture has a certain Nepalese flair and, within the hall, there stands a bronze statue of Buddha crafted by Nepalese artisans. In front of the hall gate, there stands a stele[4] with Han, Tibetan, Manchu, and Mongolian characters inscribed upon it by the Jiaqing Emperor of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). As if being multilingual wasn’t impressive enough!

Another major highlight of the complex is the three-storey Barkhang, which is the monastery’s traditional printing press. Hidden down a small lane, this hall boasts rows and rows of over 20,000 wood blocks that are used for printing sutras and religious texts. Near to the Barkhang, the Hall of Hayagriva serves as a repository for vivid murals and contains a rare 12 metre (39 ft.) high statue of Hayagriva, the wrathful manifestation of the goddess Guanyin with six arms, three faces, and a characteristically fierce scowl. This is just one of the many thousands of statues scattered throughout the complex, some of which are made out of gold, silver, aluminium, bronze, wood, jade, and all manner of opulent materials.

Nowadays the monastery is still an important pilgrimage destination for Tibetans living across China. Vibrant and lively festivals take place here throughout the year, but none are more magnificent than the festivities that surround Losar or the Tibetan New Year. Each year during Losar, a huge Thangka or Buddhist painting is hung on the monastery’s Thangka Wall. Thousands of pilgrims travel to attend the celebration and then walk the kora path or pilgrimage circuit, which winds around the complex and is littered with colourful prayer wheels. So, if you’re taking a trip to Labrang, be prepared for lots of walking!

[1] The Panchen Lama: The highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama according to Tibetan Buddhism.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

[3] Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

[4] Stele: An upright stone slab or pillar that bears an inscription and usually marks a burial site, like a tombstone.

Gansu Cuisine

Thanks to the influence of the Hui ethnic minority, dishes in Gansu revolve around roasting, steaming, and braising beef or mutton, with very little consumption of pork or chicken. Since the Hui people are Muslim, they are prohibited from eating pork, and the cold weather in northern China has given the locals a fondness for hearty red meat over white meat. A range of seasonings are also employed in Gansu cuisine, with a preference for salty and spicy flavours. Gansu-style dishes tend to be very fatty, oily, and rich, so be prepared to put on a few pounds during your travels!

Lanzhou Beef Noodles (牛肉拉面)

Lanzhou beef noodlesThis sumptuous noodle dish is certainly the most famous in the city of Lanzhou and arguably the most renowned in the whole province. The recipe emerged during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) and was masterminded by a humble, elderly Hui man named Ma Baozi. The noodles are dexterously pulled by hand in a matter of minutes before being quickly boiled and then covered in a clear, flavourful soup. They are then garnished with tender slices of beef, fragrant coriander, green garlic, crunchy white radish slices, and some red peppers to give them a spicy kick.

According to tradition, boys, farmers, and workers are meant to have wider noodles, known as erxi, while girls, elderly people, and scholars tend to prefer slim ones, known as maoxi. These stereotypes have become so entrenched that the noodles have gone beyond being simply a signature dish and are now part of the local culture. So be sure to use your noodle and pick the right noodles for you!

Grabbing Mutton (手抓羊肉)

grabbing muttonThis dish is popular with several of China’s Muslim ethnic minorities in Xinjiang and Ningxia, but the “Grabbing Mutton” from Linxia County in Gansu is considered one of the best. Its name derives from the fact that historically it was sold on the street and, in order to eat it on the go, people would simply “grab” a piece of the mutton with their hands. That being said, be sure to pay for it first! To make the dish, a joint of mutton is first stewed for a long time, until it becomes so tender that the chops can be easily separated and the meat melts off the bone.

The mutton is then chopped into small pieces and arranged on a plate, where people are free to grab a piece and dip it into their condiment of choice. It is often served simply with a sauce made from salt, crushed garlic, parsley, soy sauce, vinegar, chilli oil, and sesame paste. Variations on the sauce depend on who’s serving it, but the juicy mutton alone is enough to sate most people’s hunger.

Stir-Fried Hump with Five Shredded Toppings (驼峰炒五丝)

Dunhuang was once a focal oasis town along the ancient Silk Road and, when it came to traversing the desert and pulling the merchant caravans, camels were the animal of choice. Camels were such valuable pack-animals that they were never killed for their meat, so this dish could only be made using the meat from a camel that had died of natural causes. Since camels can live for upwards of 40 to 50 years, you might be waiting quite some time to sample this tasty signature dish! The rarity of the meat means it’s a real luxury item and this will be reflected in its price.

The dish rose to popularity as one of the favourites of Yang Yuhuan, an imperial concubine to Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang Dynasty (618-907). It’s made using the fatty meat of the camel’s hump, which is diced and stir-fried along with shredded leek shoots, dry bamboo shoots, mushrooms, ham, and chicken breast. The soft, fatty meat of the hump is considered particularly delicious, and has been a staple part of signature dishes in Dunhuang for over 1,500 years.

Snowy Mountain Camel Hoof (雪山驼掌)

Snowy Mountain Camel HoofLike Stir-Fried Hump with Five Shredded Toppings, this dish can only be made from the meat of a camel that has died naturally and is thus considered a luxury dish. Don’t let the name fool you; the dish is made from the camel’s tendon and not its hoof, so there’ll be no need to invest in a set of dentures after you’ve eaten it! The name of the dish and its distinctive appearance derive from the camel’s historical importance to the Silk Road. The tendon is steamed along with a whole chicken for approximately 7 to 8 hours, until the meat is soft and the bones can be easily removed. The meat is then sliced and moulded into the shape of a camel’s hoof. Finally egg white is whipped, cooked, and moulded to resemble a snowy mountain. The whole effect is designed to replicate how the camel’s hoof-prints would have looked as they traversed the snowy Qilian Mountains, which made up part of the Silk Road.

Taste some authentic Gansu Cuisine on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China and Explore “The Good Earth” in Northwest China

Mati Temple


The name “Mati” literally means “Horse’s Hoof” and the temple was so-named because it houses the hoof-prints of a celestial horse. According to legend, as this horse descended from heaven to the mortal world, it landed on a rock with such force that it imprinted its hoof-prints onto it. This mythical rock has been preserved to this day and can still be found within the sacred Mati Hall. The actual name of the complex is Puguang Temple, as it was renamed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but the fabled hoof-prints are so integral to its reputation that most people still refer to it by its equine-inspired name. After all, when it comes to sacred animals, you better not horse around!

It was first built during the Northern Liang Dynasty (397-460) and was originally designed as a quiet place for study and meditation, but its illustrious reputation soon resulted in flocks of monks descending on the site. In its heyday, it’s rumoured that hundreds of monks lived at the temple. It was so popular that grottoes continued to be constructed and renovated right up until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). Some of them are up to 10 kilometres (6 mi) apart so, if you decide to make a visit, be prepared for lots of walking!

The 70 caves that make up the complex were hand-carved into the cliff-face of Linsong Mountain, about 65 kilometres (40 mi) north of Zhangye, and can be separated into 7 grotto groups: Mati Temple, Shenguo Temple, Qianfo or “Thousand Buddha” Caves, Jinta or “Golden Tower” Temple, Upper Guanyin Cave, Middle Guanyin Cave, and Lower Guanyin Cave.

The main Mati Temple, sometimes referred to as the “Thirty-Three Layers of the Heavens”, is the most striking looking, as it features 21 grottoes arranged in 7 levels that were made to resemble the shape of a pagoda. The Bodhisattva Tara is enshrined inside this temple for visitors to worship. Stairwells, hidden passageways, and balconies lead to the many grottoes that were hand-carved from the cliff-face by diligent monks, providing stunning views from both the ground and the dizzying heights of the upper caves. Of these grottoes, the Hidden Buddha Grotto is the largest one of its kind in existence in China!

The Thousand Buddha Caves are easy to navigate, since they are primarily in the form of a square. There are four main sites within these caves that together contain over 40 Buddhist statues and 300 square metres (3,230 sq. ft.) of stunning murals, which date back to the Northern Wei (386–535 AD), Western Wei (535–557), Yuan (1271-1368), and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.

Unlike the other sections of the temple, it is important to note that the Jinta Temple is separate from the main temple complex and is actually about 15 kilometres (9 mi) away from Mati Temple. While this section of the temple is quite small, it is known for its statue of an Apsara, a female spirit associated with clouds and water in Buddhist mythology. It is also embedded on the cliff-face over 60 metres (196 ft.) above ground. To put that into perspective, it is so high off the ground that you could fit the White House under it three times over! Alongside the statue of the Apsara, the temple boasts over two dozen statues of various deity figures such as Buddhas and bodhisattvas.

With the snow-capped Qilian Mountains behind and the jade-hued grasslands stretching out in front, the scenery surrounding the Mati Temple is unparalleled in its natural beauty. It rests just outside of a small village that is also conveniently named Mati. It seems those hoof-prints really made their mark after all! Since the village is populated primarily by members of the Yugur ethnic minority, visitors to the area are also welcome to indulge in a few Yugur customs. From enjoying a cup of pure chang, a locally brewed wine made from barley, to sampling sumptuous chunks of traditional stewed lamb, you won’t want to miss out on a chance to connect with these gentle, nomadic people. If you want to extend your stay, you can even spend a few days in one of their yurts and take part in a few horse rides. Just don’t walk behind the horses, or you may end up with a sacred hoof-print on your head!

 

 

[1] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[2] The Yugur People: Also known as Yellow Uyghurs, they are one of China’s 56 recognised ethnic groups and live almost exclusively in the Sunan Yugur Autonomous County of Gansu province. They are a nomadic Turkic-speaking people who primarily follow Tibetan Buddhism and are renowned for their beautiful folk songs.

 

Watch the video about Mati Temple:

 

Mati Temple is one of the many wonderful stops on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China.

 

The Maijishan Grottoes

 

The drooping cypresses, wild flowers, and verdant grasses that surround the Maiji Mountains are a nature lover’s paradise, rich with inviting sights and fragrances. Yet break through the forest or look up through the trees and you’ll be met with the most awe-inspiring sight of all, a 16-metre (52 ft.) tall statue of Buddha that is over four times the size of a fully grown African elephant! This is just a small portion of the Maijishan Grottoes, a complex of 194 caves that have been cut directly into the cliff-face and filled with over 7,200 Buddhist sculptures and 1,000 square metres (10,700 sq. ft.) of intricate murals. They are considered one of the Four Grand Groups of Grottoes, standing alongside the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, the Yungang Caves in Datong, and the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang.

The mountain itself sits at an altitude of 1,700 metres (5,577 ft.) and is named “Maiji”, meaning “wheat”, “corn”, or “grain stack”, due to its unusual appearance. It is tall in the middle, narrow at the bottom, and completely flat on the top, meaning it resembles a stack of wheat. So be careful when you take photographs of this scenic spot, or they might come out a little grainy! The caves are separated by number, with numbers 1 to 50 on the western cliff-face and numbers 51-191 on the eastern cliff-face.

The sudden surge in popularity enjoyed by Buddhist grottoes started sometime during the Later Qin Dynasty (384-417), when Buddhism began making its way from India to China via the Silk Road. It gradually travelled through Gansu province thanks to the support of the Northern Liang Dynasty (397–460) and it was around about this time that construction of the Maijishan Grottoes began. Sometime between 420 and 422, a monk named Tanhong settled at Maijishan and began building a small monastic community there. He was swiftly joined by another monk named Xuangao, who brought 100 followers to the mountain, and eventually this community grew to be over 300 strong.

The grottoes’ unique location resulted in a strange mixture of artistic styles, as they rest near to the East-West route that connected Xi’an with Lanzhou and Dunhuang. This route eventually led as far south as India, and so their position at this pivotal crossroads resulted in the sculptors being heavily influenced by Indian and Southeast Asia styles of art. Although the earliest artistic influences came from Central Asia, sculptures from around about the 6th century have a much more southern India and Asian appearance. As the caves were renovated and repaired during the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, the sculptures took on far more central and eastern Chinese-style features.

Construction of the grottoes reached its peak during the Northern Wei (386-535), Western Wei (535–557), and Northern Zhou (557-581) dynasties, but continued well into the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, representing over 1,000 years’ worth of effort and artistry. The earlier caves are far more simplistic in design and mainly feature a seated Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas[1] and other attendants. The most commonly used Buddha in these sculptures is known as Amitābha, the principal Buddha of the Pure Land branch of Buddhism.

He is well-known for his ability to enable his followers to be reborn into his heaven, known as the “Pure Land”, where they worship diligently until they are made into bodhisattvas and Buddhas in their own right. This school of Buddhism was hugely popular during the Western Wei Dynasty, hence why such emphasis was placed upon it in Buddhist grottoes at the time. After all, who could resist the opportunity to become worshipped as a demi-god?

The bodhisattvas who usually accompany Amitābha are Avalokitesvara on his right and Mahasthamaprapta on his left. Avalokitesvara is the most identifiable, as he is typically depicted with an image of Amitābha on his headdress and a small water flask in his hands. In a few more hundred years, Avalokitesvara will change genders and eventually reappear in the grottoes as the bodhisattva of mercy, known as Guanyin. That being said, when it comes to eternal enlightenment, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a man or a woman! Other statues include those of the historical Shakyamuni[2] Buddha and Maitreya[3], the Buddha of the Future.

Nearly all of the sculptures are made from a mixture of clay and some sort of binding agent, which has helped to preserve them. There are a few stone sculptures dotted throughout the complex that are made of sandstone, but bizarrely not the kind that is indigenous to the mountain. Instead, this sandstone is of unknown origin and to this day no one knows how these statues were made or how they were hauled up into the caves. Perhaps it was an act of God, or Buddha!

 

[1] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[2] Shakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

[3] Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.

 

Maijishan Grottoes is one of the many wonderful stops on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China

 

The Dunhuang Yardang Landform

yardang

While he was travelling through the treacherous Lop Nur region of Western China, Swedish explorer Sven Hedin (1865-1952) came upon a group of strange rock formations just outside of Dunhuang. He named them “yardangs”, a term that is still in use today. Yet you’d be right to think that the word “yardang” doesn’t sound particularly Swedish! It was derived from the Chinese name “Yǎ Dān Dìmào” (雅丹地貌), which literally means “small solid hills with a sharp cliff”.

Yardangs are the result of severe weathering, where wind and rain have stripped all of the soft material from the rocks and left only the hard material behind. Over a period of approximately 700,000 years, this erosion produced the wonderfully bizarre rock formations that we find today. They have characteristically wide bottoms that gradually taper off towards the top, giving them an appearance similar to the hull of a boat, although there are huge variations in their size and shape.

China owns the largest distribution of yardangs in the world and, of these, Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark contains the lion’s share. Exhibiting over 300 square kilometres (116 sq. mi) of yardangs, it covers an area over 100 times the size of the city of London! It’s rumoured that, if you use your imagination, some of these them begin to look like famous world sites, such as the Leaning Tower of Pisa and the Pyramids of Egypt. That being said, to you they may all just look like rocks!

From the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD) onwards, one of the ancient Silk Road’s southern branches passed through this eerie alien landscape. Trading caravans would frequently get lost for several days amongst the yardangs, as they were notoriously difficult to navigate, and the monstrous shapes of the rocks, coupled with the ghostly sound of the wind whipping through the narrow passes, resulted in the area being nicknamed the “Town of Demons”. From the “Camel” and the “Stone Bird” to the “Peacock” and the “Golden Lion Welcoming His Guests”, this geopark is haunted by a myriad of stone animals.

dunhuang yardang

Located just 185 kilometres (115 mi) from Dunhuang and about 85 kilometres (53 mi) west of the legendary Yumen Pass, the Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark is a must-see attraction for those eager to explore the weirder side of the Gobi Desert and the Silk Road. Surrounded by the unnerving silence of the desert and faced with the alien shapes of the yardangs, it’s no wonder people have become fascinated with this spooky place.

Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark is one of the many wonderful stops on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China

The Qilian Mountains

qilian mountains

The snow-capped Qilian Mountains rise up mistily between the borders of Qinghai and Gansu, forming a stunning tableau behind the lush meadows and sleepy settlements of these provinces. They form part of the Qinghai-Tibet Plateau in the northeast and part of the Hexi Corridor in the southwest. Having stood for thousands of years, this mountain range has been witness to mankind’s history from the construction of the Great Wall in its northern reaches to the bustling trade that took place along the Northern Silk Road passing through the Hexi Corridor.

Magnificent shimmering glaciers, thick with ice, cover an area of over 1,970 square kilometres (760 sq. mi) atop the range. To put that into perspective, this icy expanse dominates an area larger than that of London! It is the most important water source for the Hexi Corridor in the north and the Qaidam Basin in the south, making it invaluable for the inhabitants of both Gansu and Qinghai.

Its only mountain pass is known as Biandukou, which connects Minle County in Gansu to Qilian County in Qinghai. The mountains themselves rise to an average height of about 4,000 metres (13,000 ft.), with the highest peaks towering at over 5,800 metres (19,000 ft.). This makes the average mountain peak over four times the size of the Burj Khalifa in Dubai! From the verdant valleys where nomads graze their sheep to the icy peaks untouched by mankind, the Qilian Mountains are a natural wonder that have provoked the curiosity of visitors for decades.

Qilian Mountains will be seen as one of the many wonderful land views on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China