Matisi temple

The Korean boy was initially thinking of making it to Matisi, an ancient Buddhist temple in the area of Zhangye, but in the end decided to move on straight to his next destination and withdraw a little bit of support to my same intention. I wavered whether I really wanted not to miss out on Matisi.

I was riddled with doubts on the real interest of this listed tourist attraction. Besides, being such one actually made me cringe at the likely invasion of tourists. I had initially planned to even stay for the night in order to enjoy the natural mountain environment, but now I was questioning my going at all. However, I considered I did not need to hurry along, and if my friends were breaking the bond of company and moving on alone, there was no reason why I shouldn’t be independent too.

So I resigned to the necessity of being cased once again in the Chinese tourist machine, only mitigated by a faint hope of doing some spontaneous open air activity in the nearby Qilian mountains.

I took the bus to the village of Matisi and I was dropped at the junction. From there it was still 9 km to the temple and I set out along the road. It was clearly too long to do on foot and I hitchhiked for a lift as soon as cars came by. Soon a beautiful landcruiser picked me up.

It was a family from Zhangye on a day excursion: a young engineer with his wife, his mother and a little daughter. Among themselves they spoke a totally incomprehensible local dialect, Gansuhua, but they addressed me in standard Mandarin. When we arrived at the temple, I was invited to follow them rather than go on my own. If it is company I wanted, I found a whole new family.

The temple, if not a beautiful building, is nevertheless a remarkable  achievement. It cannot probably be defined a building because it is all hewn in the mountain. I see a sheer rock face with various balconies sticking out at three successive levels. Its proportions dwarf me to the dimensions of an ant. I am very pleasantly surprised at the extraordinary location of this temple.

I start exploring the entrails of the mountain with my family sliding up narrow ill-lit passages that land us at the top chamber where a Buddha likeness is immersed in the floating smoke from burning joss-sticks.

My family too have brought a bundle of joss-stick to light in front of an altar but, however devout they appear, I notice they are not fully conversant with the rites because they walk around the shrine in an inauspicious anticlockwise direction.

Back down, a huge cave opens at the base of the cliff. The central shrine is surrounded by a gangway adorned with niches, each containing a sculpture. Many have unfortunately been destroyed by time or human action as a sign diplomatically points out, hushing up the circumstances of the Cultural revolution.

After lunch we move to another cave. In the car, the engineer turns around to ask if I have any Euro money to show them. I dig into my pocket for a few coins that make everyone gape in wonder as if I had let them into Aladdin’s cave. Then the wife asks if we also have paper money, so I take out a banknote. At this point the admiration is such that  that the driver pulls up the vehicle in the middle of the track, careless of other cars coming along. Their eyeballs are already falling out of their sockets, but I have one last surprise in store. I take out a 100,000 dong Vietnamese banknote. Regardless of the real value, this fabulous figure holds them all literally mesmerized.

I am offered a lift back to Zhangye, but I’ve decided to stay for the night. I expected more rocky mountains, but the higher peaks are not visible in the cloudy weather. However, I can still walk in the woods.

At the guesthouse they try to stop me having a shower where there is no facility or hot water, but I manage with the thermos water and a basin, regardless of the threat “You’ll fall ill!”. Then it is all relaxation and quiet. There are a few venues designed for Chinese revellers offering dancing and singing shows, but I steer clear of them, happy to have come to Matisi.