Gansu Province 甘肃省 is one of our favourite provinces in China. There is so much to see and do and the people and the landscapes are so varied. From Chilling out on the banks of the Yellow River in Lanzhou to exploring Tibetan Grasslands around Xiahe.
Add silk route gems like Dunhuang, Maiji Shan and The Water Curtain Caves, and you have one of China’s best adventure trips.
The Sakyamuni statue, sculpted at the height of the Silk Road’s importance during the Tang Dynasty, is approached by climbing a temple lined trail on Daxiangshan 大像山
The Giant Moustached Buddha at Daxiang ShanGangu甘谷 Arriving.
The Giant Moustached Buddha at Daxiang Shan大像山Gangu甘谷 is Situated in Eastern Gansu 甘肃省 province. However, on arrival at Gangu 甘谷 you will quickly discover that this is not one of China’s most attractive towns: truth be told it’s pretty ugly.
However, if you are in Tianshui 天水 visiting Maiji Shan and have a day to spare, the large 23 meter moustached statue of Sakyamuni a few kilometers outside Gangu is well worth visiting and can be easily combined with a trip to the beautiful Water Curtain Caves near Luomen.
The Giant Moustached Buddha or Sakyamuni statue
The Sakyamuni statue, sculpted at the height of the Silk Road’s importance during the Tang Dynasty, is approached by climbing a temple lined trail on Daxiangshan 大像山.
While none of the temples are spectacular, they are quiet and peaceful. You and a handful of pilgrims will be the only people on the trail even in the middle of August. The statue itself is quite special.
The colours are vibrant and the decorations surrounding it unique. But what stands out is the blue moustache, something almost unseen in the rest of China. There are some good views towards the rising Loess Plateau as you climb the trail.
You can get to Gangu from Tianshui 天水by train in just over an hour. The convenient K377 leaves Tianshui station in Beidao 北道 at 8.32 and costs 13 hard seat (buy your ticket the night before, there were plenty of seats available).
Alternatively you can take one of the frequent buses from Tianshui’s twin town Qincheng 秦城.
Hiring a taxi for the best part of a day from in front of Gangu train station costs 200 Yuan after a little bargaining. However, I don’t recommend visiting The Water Curtain Caves until restoration work has finished sometime next year (read the next posting).
One curious feature of the statue is that when you see it close up, the face of the giant Buddha has a contented expression. However, Seen from a distance, he looks quite miserable.
Kongtong Shan Daoist paradice: Pingliang has become a large prosperous town in the last decade and has expanded enormously. Along with that expansion there are more hotel and eating options than what we have listed here. Kongtong Shan has become a huge domestic tourist spot and has undergone a lot of renovations. Many of the old temples have been rebuilt and some of the authenic atmosphere of a taoist hideaway has disppeared forever. That said it is still a beautiful place. Transport to and from Pingliang has also improved. Especially the bus connections to other major cities such as Lanzhou, Tianshui and Xian. You also don’t need to purchase the Gansu Travel Insurance anymore (Click here.)
Kongtong Shan Daoist paradice Part one: Lanzhou – Pingliang
Once you get there, Pingliang is a small town which makes an excellent base for a visit to the Taoist Mountain of Kongtong Shan, one of the most sacred in China, which is a mere 15 kms away.
Kongtong Shan Daoist paradice: Getting there
The best approach is to take a taxi to the reservoir (around 20 Yuan); a steep flight of steps will take you up to a road, skirting the reservoir, and on to the first temple. This is a beautiful ancient Taoist structure, guarded by venerable old priests, some of them with the pointy goatee and bun, characteristic of many followers of Tao.
Maijishan 麦积山 Haystack Mountain Gansu Province. There is nothing quite like Maijishan 麦积山 in China. The bizarre, haystack shaped mountain rises majestically up over a subtropical zone of greenery and rivers. Other Buddhist sites might have enormous statues or high ceiling-ed painted caves, but the views they offer are often more restrictive and it may be difficult to get up close, due to barriers or hordes of visitors.
At Maijishan 麦积山, the cave art and statues are right in your face and you can almost touch them, though you mustn’t, of course! And, in addition, there is the mountain itself: a honeycomb of caves and statues reached by climbing up a snakes and ladder board of incredible staircases that cling precariously to the side of the mountain.
Amazing Xiahe: This is the final part of our travel report on Xiahe and the Labrang Monastery in China’s Gansu Province. The article is an unedited extract from the diary that Margie kept during our two year trip around Asia and the Middle East. The trip began in Lahore, Pakistan in early October 1990. By late November 1990 we had reached Xiahe. Though we have now visited Xiahe 3 times (see previous articles), it was our first visit that really stood out, probably because we hadn’t really experienced Tibetan culture before.
Wednesday 21/11/ 1990 (Lanzhou to Xiahe)
We have to get up early to catch the 7.30 bus to Xiahe; the only one of the day. The scenery gradually becomes more and more interesting. The whole morning we have been driving through a winter landscape of soft brown, reddish and yellowish shades. Every available scrap of land is being used: all the mountains have been terraced and divided into tiny vegetable plots, while the fields are used to grow potatoes, cereals and barley. There are haystacks everywhere and corns on the cob on every roof, drying. The villages, of a pinkish-brown hue, form an indistinguishable part of the landscape.
Looking out of the bus window, we can see many non-Chinese people, walking along the road. Most of them closely resemble Uyghur people, and they are wearing greatcoats, animal skins and furs, as well as heavy leather boots. The majority seem to be Muslims, judging by the white skull caps of the men and the black velvet and lace headscarves of the women. Many of the men also wear the large, round, horn-rimmed sunglasses that seem to be typical around here.
We stop for lunch just outside Linxia, a large Muslim market town, situated atop a reddish loess plateau. We can see lots of yaks milling about; as well as a whole pile of severed yak heads lying in a cart. Apart from yaks, there is a busy traffic of donkeys, pony’s and bicycles. Lunch, of course, consists of beef noodles, eaten at a street stall.
Xiahe 夏河: 3 visits; a reflection: The Xiahe we found on our last visit had changed considerably since 2004. It was no longer the rather innocent, peaceful, Tibetan little backwater we had enjoyed so much before.
The Chinese new town is much larger now, with charmless, concrete buildings, traffic lights and plenty of motorized vehicles. There was building work going on everywhere: in the new town, where more and more buildings were being put up at the usual breakneck speed; opposite the monastery, where a large coach park was beginning to take shape; and even in the monastery town itself, where trenches had been dug and water pipes were being laid.
Excursions from Xiahe; there are so many, here are just a few. Once you have seen all there is to see in Xiahe, you should go and explore the grasslands. Though some of the areas nearest to town have become quite commercial, there is still plenty of scope for exploring.
We went on a great day trip, for which we hire a car through our hotel. At first, the price of 400 Yuan for half a day’s sightseeing seems a bit steep. However, when our vehicle appears, a shiny, brand-new black Sedan, driven by a sleek young Tibetan guy with shoulder- length hair, a golden tooth and lots of big rings, we are quick to appreciate the difference between this car, and any old taxi.
We drive out of Xiahe, which takes so much longer now that there are traffic lights and lots more traffic, and head towards Tongren. Immediately, and almost imperceptible, we start climbing and before we know it, we Continue reading “Excursions from Xiahe”
Despite many of the changes taking place in Xiahe, mentioned in the previous article, don’t be put you off from visiting. Xiahe, and in particular its monastery, is still a fascinating place; though you might want to get there quick!
The Labrang Monastery
Start your first visit with the obligatory guided tour around some of the main temples and halls. These days, there are English-speaking guides and our 2011 guide was truly excellent; a great improvement on the 2004 one. He tells us, among other things, that he learnt all his English in Xining and that he is a second-year philosophy student. Apparently, the monks studying philosophy have to pass 13 levels of knowledge, the equivalent of 13 years’ of study.
He says that many of the younger monks find it quite difficult to be strict vegetarians. Having been brought up on a nomads’ diet, their bodies crave meat, especially during the bitterly cold winter months. The masters and lamas, however, do without meat and tend to eat very little (though you wouldn’t say so, judging by their sturdy physiques).
Xiahe Revisted: 1990 / 2004 / 2011: When we emerge from our hotel at 6.00am to catch the 7.30 bus, it’s still pitch-black and still pouring with rain. Yet, we are lucky because for once there’s a taxi waiting by the gates, and we don’t even hit one of those infernal Lanzhou traffic jams! At the station, we find a handful of shivering passengers huddled in the spartan hall. The toilet is in a little shack to the right of the waiting room, with a gorgeous, but miserable-looking, soaking-wet Husky tied up out front.
The bus leaves on time, half-full and with only a couple of tourists on board, none of them Westerners. Our driver moves slowly and carefully down the brand-new, almost deserted, motorway. Adam starts reminiscing about how this ride once took 10 hours … back in 1990. For this is not our first visit to Xiahe, or even second, but our third!
We whizz through Linxia; now a large, bland, Chinese city, but then an exotic market town with a distinctly Muslim feel to it.
Suddenly there is Snow
Next, an amazing thing happens: we enter the third tunnel with rain drumming on the roof of our bus and streaming down the windows, and emerge onto a dry patch of road… There is snow on the mountains in the distance and, suddenly, our bus is driving through a flurry of snow as well. And this is only mid-September.
Zhangye Danxia Landforms Geology Park (张掖丹霞地貌) Is now firmly on the must see list in Gansu province. When we visited back in 2001 it was still under contruction and not a single tourist was there. I must admit that when I see recent photos of the Danxia Rocks it looks as if a coat of paint has been added. Yes they were colourful but not that colourful. Or is it photoshop?
Zhangye Danxia Landforms Geology Park: A great day trip from Zhangye
On our last day (in Zhangye), we decided to visit this newly developed geo-park, a scenic area of multi-coloured rocks, which has been put on the map by Zhang Yimou 张艺谋 who shot (part of) his film SanQiang Pai An Jing Qi 三枪拍案惊奇 here. This film, which is known by the titlesA Woman, A Gun And A Noodle Shop 三枪拍案惊奇, as well as A Simple Noodle Story, is Zhang’s personal take on the Coen brothers debut film Blood Simple.
The geology park is about 40 kms, or an hour’s drive fromZhangye, in the opposite direction from Mati Si.
We are told to get on a bus, and after a short drive we are let off at a viewing platform, from where we gaze at the amazing scenery.
The landscape is positively lunar, or something out of a sci-fi pic: we are surrounded by row after row of reddish rock formations, streaked with pink, white, yellow, grey and green.
Mati Si: The Horse Hoof Monastery is a great day trip from Zhangye. Here is a diary account of our trip.
Once we’ve passed Zhangye’s outskirts, where a whole forest of gleaming highrises is springing up, and have negotiated the chaos of smallish lorries, pick-ups, tractors and loaded carts that convert the narrow, two-lane road out of town into such a nightmare, we can begin to enjoy the scenery.
An initial rural stretch of fields, haystacks and little mud-brick farms descends into a dry, dusty bowl, after which the ground starts rising again and the land becomes fertile once more. A huge mountain range comes into view on our right and, to our amazement, we see that some of the peaks are covered in snow!
This is, of course, the Qian lian range in the foothills of which the temples of Mati Si can be found, and the people of the Yugur (Yugu) minority.