Visitors first have to travel due South West of Town to Sunan Town, which is about 65 kilometers from Zhangye. Not far from there is the location of The Grottoes of the Matisi Temple Complex, which consists of various Temples and the Caves with their Deities and Murals. Set within the beautiful surroundings of the Green foothills of the Qilian Mountains, and along a cool and refreshing river, Mati Si offers a unique and amazing scenery.
Relating of his travels during the Yuan Dynasty Era (1271 AD - 1368 AD) , the Mati Si were described by Marco Polo in his Book "Travels to the Orient" (or Ill Millione). According to the Book: "... abbeys, built after the manner of the country, and in these a multitude of idols, some of which are of wood, and some of clay, covered with gilding. They are carved in masterly style. Among these are some of very large size, and some small. The former are full ten paces in length, and lie in recumbent posture (explanation: the 'reclining Buddha' or nirvana position), the small figures stand besides them, and have the appearance of disciples in reverential salutation. Both great and small are held in extreme veneration. Those person among the idolaters who are devoted (explanation: Buddhist) to the services of religion lead more correct lives ...".
Thus the Mati Si were well developed, active and full of Buddhist Monks and Pilgrims by the time of the 13Th Century.
Located in the foothills of the Qilian Shan the Caves and surrounding Park are quite unique giving plenty of opportunity to hike around and exploring the surrounding trails and paths. Many climb the ridges in the area, providing spectacular overviews of the Grottoes and wider hexi Corridor.
After seeing the Caves, take the rest of the day to hike to the nearby Linsong Pubu (Linsong Waterfall) and the Jianpisi (sword split stone), a peculiar rock formation said to have been cut by a sword. This is roughly a five hour hike taking up your entire day with a worthwhile itinerary with unforgettable views.
According to Lonely Planet, the best views and panorama's are to be begotten from a hike up the steep trail behind the White Chorten (or Stupa) at Sanshisantian Shikou.
Those who wish to stay overnight nearby can check in at the Wolong Shanzhuang, a Hostel like Hotel. During the Tourist season (1st of May to End September) camping near the Mati Si Caves is possible. Come adequately prepared for campaign and the cold nights.
A visit to the Grottoes combines the three-fold package of Ancient Silk Road History and Cave Art, the magnificent scenery of Zhangye's Qilian Shan Nature Reserve and the brightness of the colorful Yugur Minority.
Catch the Bus to Sunan at Zhangye Nanguan Coach Bus Station first and then arrange for a Taxi or wait for a Mini-Bus to travel onwards to the grottoes and their scenic zone.
To be exact: Buses leave every 30 minutes from Nanguan Bus Station, located in the South of Town near the Lanzhou-Urumqi Highway. Take the Bus in the direction of Sunan but get off at the cross-roads village of Mati He. Mati He village lies at only some 7 kilometers distance from the Mati Si scenic zone so one can take a local Bus or a Taxi to bridge the remaining gap.
Oddly, a direct Bus leaves from Zhangye's Southern Bus Station at 3:40 pm each afternoon, but for a proper visit this is no good. A morning Bus may leave to travel
Joehoe, Taxi please !
The Shengguo Temple, Puguang Temple, Thousand-Buddha Cave (The actual Grottoes), the Golden Pagoda Temple and the Upper-, Middle- and Lower- Caves of the Goddess of Mercy (Guanyin), making up a total of seven Cave Temples including 70 Caves and Shrines.
The Puguang Temple comprises 33 Caves and is the place where the name giving relic of this Buddhist Holy Complex can be found. It is the so-called "Horse Hoof Print", the Treasure of the Temple.
According to the legend, a horse from the heavens (a Bixi, or Chinese Pegasus) once left a mark of its hooves here, and thus the temple got its name. The legendary print of the horse hooves now exists as a Holy Relic inside the Mati Hall (Mati Dian) inside of Puguang Temple, serving as an indispensable treasure of the temple.
The 33 Caves are also known as the 33 Heavenly Caves. 21 of them are arranged in 5 separate levels or floors, together forming the shape of a Dagoba (or Stupa), all according to the Buddhist theory of the organization of the Universe and all things living and reincarnating within.
The Puguang Temple has Buddhist Statues and Caves on the inside as well as on the outside, all of them of peculiar shapes. In total there are 49 Shrines in this part of the Complex.
Puguang Temple serves as a depository and display hall for the Horse Hoof print, but otherwise is only a small part of the larger Temple Complex made up by the Thousand Buddha Cave Temple. The thousand buddha caves of Mati Si count some 500 Caves and shrines carved at various points interspersed along a towering and impressive Cliff.
Some of the best art pieces remaining in the damaged complex can be found inside of the Golden Pagoda Temple, where a mummified body kept in good condition by the dry climate of Gansu that has been decorated in the form of Asparas, is on display.
The mummy turned Art-piece is a unique specimen, not found anywhere else along the long pathways of the ancient Silk Road.
The Grottoes themselves are ancient remnants of the Silk Road. Influenced by Indian, Tibetan and Han Chinese styles they represent a unique window into the past, a bygone era of transition of Faith and Art along an everflowing highway between major civilizations. Unfortunately, most have been heavily damaged in history, with a wave of vandalism destroying much of the Art during the Muslim Uprisings that plagued the Region during the 19Th and 20Th Century. Others were robbed or vandalized by Foreign travelers on the Silk Road (Read More: Islam in China during the Ching Dynasty).
Browse around the many levels, climbing walkways and enjoying the pine forest and interconnecting walkways between the various caves an Temples. In between of sightseeing the Caves one can enjoy the spectacular scenery of the Qilian Shan Range with its radiant snow-white tops. It is not hard to imagine why this site was chosen as the special and auspicious location for a extensive and important Temple Complex.
directly to Mati Shan on weekends during the High Season.
The last Bus departing from Mati Si scenic zone leaves at 4 PM, so be on time or otherwise get stuck and likely stay overnight. Its not the worst thing that could happen since the scenery is unrivalled, the food simple but good and the ethnic minority people friendly. In the worst case, if no local lodging has vacancy, one can always put up with a local family and have a unique experience.
The Road from Zhangye to Sunan leads via Highway No.312 (Lanzhou-Urumqi) from where a side-road leads down to Sunan. It is a modern and well-kept road well-suited for self-drive tourism. However, although the distance from Zhangye is only about 70 kilometers, the driving time needed is more than one hour due to the steep roads and mountainous terrain.