The Maijishan Grottoes (simplified Chinese: 麦积山; pinyin: Màijīshān Shíkū) are a series of 194 caves cut in the side of the hill of Maiji Shan in Tianshui, Gansu Province, northwest China.
This example of dramatic architecture contains over 7,800 Buddhist sculptures and over 1,000 square meters of murals. Construction began in the Later Qin era (384–417 CE).
The grottoes were first properly explored in 1952–53 by a team of Chinese archeologists from Beijing, who invented the scientific numbering system still in use today. Caves #1–50 are on the western cliff face; caves #51–191 on the eastern cliff face. These caves were later photographed by Michael Sullivan and Dominique Darbois, who subsequently published the primary English-language work on the caves noted in the footnotes below.
The name Maijishan consists of three Chinese words (麦积山) that literally translate as “Wheatstack Mountain”. But because the term “mai” (麦) is the generic term in Chinese used for most grains, one also sees such translations as “Corn Mound Mountain”. Mai means “grain”. Ji (积) means “stack” or “mound”. Shan (山) means “mountain”.
The mountain is formed from purplish red sandstone and the grottoes here are just one of many cave grottoes found throughout northwest China, lying more or less on the main trade routes connecting China and Central Asia.
Maijishan is located close to the east-west route that connects Xi’an with Lanzhou and eventually Dunhuang, as well as the route that veers off to the south that connects Xi’an with Chengdu in Sichuan and regions as far south as India. At this crossroads, several of the sculptures in Maijishan from around the 6th century appear to have Indian—and SE Asian—features that could have come north via these north-south routes. The earliest artistic influence came, however, from the northwest, through Central Asia along the Silk Road. Later, during the Song and Ming Dynasties, as the caves were renovated and repaired, the influences came from central and eastern China and the sculpture is more distinctly Chinese.
Cave shrines in China probably served two purposes: originally, before Buddhism came to China, they may have been used as local shrines to worship one’s ancestors or various nature deities. With the coming of Buddhism to China, however, influenced by the long tradition of cave shrines from India (such as Ajanta) and Central Asia (primarily Afghanistan), they became part of China’s religious architecture.
Buddhism in this part of China spread through the support of the Northern Liang, which was the last of the “Sixteen Kingdoms” that existed from 304–439 CE—a collection of numerous short-lived sovereign states in China. The Northern Liang was founded by Xiongnu “barbarians”. It was during their rule that cave shrines first appeared in Gansu, the two most famous sites being Tiantishan (“Celestial Ladder Mountain”) south of their capital at Yongcheng, and Wenshushan (“Manjusri’s Mountain” ), halfway between Yongcheng and Dunhuang. Maijishan was most likely started during this wave of religious enthusiasm.
An English-speaking guide charges ¥50 for up to a group of five. It may be possible to view normally closed caves (such as cave 133) for an extra fee of ¥500 per group.
The regular admission ticket includes entry to Ruìyìng Monastery (瑞应寺; Ruìyìng Sì), at the base of the mountain, which acts as a small museum of selected statues. Across from the monastery is the start of a trail to a botanic garden (植物园; zhíwùyuán), which allows for a short cut back to the entrance gate through the forest. If you don’t want to walk the 2km up the road from the ticket office to the cliff, ask for tickets for the sightseeing trolley (观光车; guānguāng chē; ¥15) when buying your entrance ticket.
You can also climb Xiāngjí Shān (香积山). For the trailhead, head back towards the visitor centre where the sightseeing bus drops you off and look for a sign down a side road to the left.
Sometime between 420 and 422 CE, a monk by the name of Tanhung arrived at Maijishan and proceeded to build a small monastic community. One of the legends is that he had previously been living in Chang’an but had fled to Maijishan when the city was invaded by the Sung army. Within a few years he was joined by another senior monk, Xuangao, who brought 100 followers to the mountain. Both are recorded in a book entitled Memoirs of Eminent Monks; eventually their community grew to 300 members. Xuangao later moved to the court of the local king where he remained until its conquest by the Northern Wei, when he, together with all the other inhabitants of the court, were forced to migrate and settle in the Wei capital. He died in 444 during a period of Buddhist persecution. Tanhung also left Maijishan during this period and travelled south, to somewhere in Cochin China, when in approximately 455, he burned himself to death.
How the original community was organized or looked, we don’t know. “Nor is there any evidence to show whether the settlement they founded was destroyed and its members scattered in the suppression of 444 and the ensuring years, or whether it was saved by its remoteness to become a heaven of refuse, as was to happen on several later occasions in the history of Maijishan”.
The Northern Wei were good to Maijishan and the grottoes existence close to the Wei capital city of Luoyang and the main road west brought the site recognition and, most likely, support. The earliest dated inscription is from 502, and records the excavation of what is now identified as Cave 115. Other inscriptions record the continued expansion of the grottoes, as works were dedicated by those with the financial means to do so.
With a 1.5 hour drive from Lanzhou, the capital of Gansu, this is a very accessible day trip from Lanzhou. You could also do this trip as a larger itinerary that continues onto Labrang monastery or Hezuo and Langmusi as well which are in southern Gansu Province.
The Bingling Caves were a work in progress for more than a millennium. The first grotto was begun around 420 AD at the end of the Western Qin kingdom. Work continued and more grottoes were added during the Wei, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The style of each grotto can easily be connected to the typical artwork from its corresponding dynasty. The Bingling Temple is both stylistically and geographically a midpoint between the monumental Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan and the Buddhist Grottoes of central China, such as the Yungang Grottoes near Datong and Longmen Grottoes near Luoyang.
Sadly, over the centuries, earthquakes, erosion, and looters have damaged or destroyed many of the caves and the artistic treasures within. Altogether there are 183 caves, 694 stone statues, and 82 clay sculptures that remain. The relief sculpture and caves filled with buddhas and frescoes line the northern side of the canyon for about 200 meters along the reservoir. Each cave is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery. These caves culminate at a large natural cavern where wooden walkways precariously wind up the rock face to hidden cliff-side caves as if visiting an ancient civilizaiton. It is here at the top of these steps that you can view the giant Maitreya or Future Buddha that stands more than 27 meters, or almost 100 feet tall.This 100 foot tall Buddha is the main attraction to visit Bingling Temple and is certainly worth the trip from Lazhou. As you loop around past the Maitreya cave, you might consider hiking 2.5km further up the impressive canyon to a small remote Tibetan monastery. If you do this extra hike, be aware than there may also be 4Wheel drive ATV’s There might also be 4WDs running the route.
The sculptures, carvings, and frescoes that remain are outstanding examples of Buddhist artwork and draw visitors from around the world. The site is extremely remote and can only be reached during summer and fall by boat via the Liujiaxia Reservoir. Boats leave from near the Liujiaxia Dam in Liujiaxia City (Yongjing County’s county seat), and sometimes also from other docks on the reservoir. The rest of the year, the site is inaccessible, as there are very few roads in the area because of the rocky landscape.
You can hire a covered speedboat (which seats 9 people in total) for 700 RMB per boat for the one-hour drive across the Liujiaxia Resevoir. Boats do not run unless the boat is full of the required 9 people, so you may have to wait for other guests or you may have to pay the difference to cover the empty seats. In the peak seasons from May to October it should be no problem to find other willing Chinese tourists who will want to share the boat with you. In low season, though, you may have to wait 30 minutes or more for your boat to fill up.
From Liujiaxia you can also hire a private car for around 300 RMB to take you to the other side of the reservoir, although most people opt for the boat since this gives a very nice view of the cliffs from the expansive reservoir. Out of Liújiāxiá, the road ascends the rugged hills of southern Gansu and winds above the reservoir. While the drive is quite scenic, if you are prone to motion sickness this is not the option for you as the drive is about 1.5 hours and twists and turns through terraced fields. The final descent to the turquoise reservoir, with its craggy canyon backdrop, is well worth the trip.
You can also opt to stay overnight in Liújiāxiá if you want the overnight experience. Most people do Bingling Si as a full day trip, but the Dorsett Hotel at the north end of town is a good option with huge rooms overlooking the Yellow River.
Most people hire a private car from Lanzhou, but if you are feeling more adventurous (and have some extra free time) you can take one of the frequent buses from Lanzhou’s west bus station that cost 20 RMB and take 2.5 hours to get to the Liújiāxiá bus station. From there, you will need to take a 10-minute taxi ( to the boat ticket office at the dam (大坝; dàbà). Try to catch the earliest buses possible from Lánzhōu (these start at 7am) to avoid missing the bus on the way back to Lanzhou. The last returning bus to Lánzhōu leaves Liujiaxia at 6.30pm at night.
Everest was first climbed by Tenzin Norgay and Sir Edmund Hillary in May 1953. Tenzin was a Nepalese Sherpa and the Hillary was a beekeeper from New Zealand, but the entire expedition was largely British run and organized.
As the Brits were the first to survey Everest, fly over Everest in an airplane, and for, many years to scout out its base, it was a matter of national pride for the British to “beat” the Swiss and the Russians to be the first westerners to summit the mountain.
Those responsible for planning and funding the successful 1953 British Everest Expedition were in no doubt that national pride was at stake. The British had enjoyed almost exclusive access to Everest through Tibet, granted (and sometimes strategically withheld) for the expeditions of the 1920s and 1930s. It came as something of a shock when the Nepali government decided to offer the Swiss not one, but two attempts on the mountain in 1952 – this made it absolutely clear to the Himalayan Committee (a joint committee of the Royal Geographical Society and Alpine Club) that the stakes had been raised. An attempt in 1953 might be the last chance for a British team to be the first to the top, with French, Russian and American climbers also hoping for a shot at the mountain.
Organizers and mountaineers argued that economic benefits would come from this sort of national success. In 1952 the Himalayan Committee sent a training expedition to nearby mountain Cho Oyu, to try out team members and equipment. This team sent back a report stating very clearly the monetary value of a successful climb of Everest:
The difference between a successful British attempt on Everest and a Continental or Russian ascent should be worth several millions to the British government as a very considerable and badly needed fillip to national prestige. This should be convertible to cash.
Earlier, the Himalayan Committee had tried to get British climbers onto the Swiss expedition – joint prestige was better than no prestige! – but the scheme fell apart. When the plans for 1953 were drawn up the Himalayan Committee refused permission for American and European climbers to join the team, on the grounds that it should be thoroughly British in composition (or, at least, British and Commonwealth). With many organizations busy with rearmament after World War II, and some rationing still in place, the argument about ‘national prestige’ and a thoroughly ‘British’ expedition was used to get hold of crucial respiratory technology and foodstuffs.
Despite the rhetoric, a fair part of the expedition was not British at all. Aside from the obvious point about climbers from New Zealand, the entire expedition would have been impossible without the support and experience of hundreds of porters and dozens of high altitude Sherpas. Less obvious, perhaps, is the amount of foreign technology and ‘know how’ used.
Several members of the expedition, including the physiologist Griff Pugh, went to Switzerland to talk to scientists and mountaineers about Everest. Much of the specialist equipment couldn’t be sourced in Britain, and instead Alpine nations – Switzerland, Germany, France – supplied gloves, snow shovels, tents, and so on. Military barometric chamber and aviation experiments by American mountaineering scientist Charles Houston were important to Griff Pugh’s careful techno-medical preparation. Even the food and oxygen left on the mountainside by the Swiss team were factored into the plan for the British expedition.
This sort of internationalism doesn’t always work out. The first specifically International Everest expedition, in 1971, found that Austrian crampons wouldn’t fit on German boots, and more importantly that the American oxygen masks would not fit the Sherpas. (The Americans had two styles of mask, the ‘Caucasian’, and the ‘Oriental’ which was based on Vietnamese physiognomy and was completely inappropriate for the Sherpas).
1953 was still, in lots of meaningful ways, a British success: nearly all the team members and organizers and funders were British, as was the majority of the food and equipment, and definitely the final, conclusive research by Griff Pugh. But the know-how was international. When it comes to funding science (including scientific expeditions), this can lead to dilemmas. How do we claim prestige in this mixed-up international space? How do we measure the success of national funding when ideas in one country may lead to technologies or successful expeditions or new ideas in another country? Can an invention or discovery be called ‘British’ if 80% of the science behind it was conducted elsewhere, or if half the components were made overseas? Or is it enough for the person who takes the final step – in science or on a mountain – to have a British passport?
The Old Town of Lijiang is located on the Lijiang plain at an elevation of 2,400 meters in southwest Yunnan Province, China. The Jade Dragon Snow Mountains are to the northwest and this incredibly scenic and snowy range is easily viewed as you take a leisurely stroll through time in the old quarters of Lijiang. These mountains are the source of much snowmelt that supplies the rivers and springs which water the plain and supply the nearby Heilong Pool (Black Dragon Pond) and the classic canals that wind through the old town of Lijiang .
The Old Town of Lijiang contains 3 main areas and you could easily spend 1-2 days getting lost amidst the cobblestone streets and antique coppersmiths that give this area its characteristic charm. These 3 areas include: Dayan Old Town (including the Black Dragon Pond), Baisha Old Town, and Shuhe Old Town. Dayan Old Town was established in the Ming dynasty as a commercial center and includes the Lijiang Junmin Prefectural Government Office; the Yizi pavilion and the Guabi Tower. Numerous two-storied timber-framed houses combine elements of Han and Zang dynasty architecture and decoration in the arched gateways, screen walls, courtyards, tiled roofs, and carved roof beams are representative of the Naxi culture and are built in rows following the contours of the mountainside. Wooden elements are elaborately carved with domestic and cultural elements – pottery, musical instruments, flowers and birds.
Baisha Old Town, though, was established earlier than the Dayan Old Town sector. Baisha was built during the Song and Yuan dynasties and is located 8km north of the Dayan Old Town. Houses here are arranged on a north-south axis around a central, terraced square. The religious complex includes halls and pavilions containing over 40 paintings dating from the early 13th century, which depict subjects relating to Buddhism, Taoism and the life of the Naxi people, incorporating cultural elements of the Bai people. Together with the Shuhe housing cluster located 4km north-west of Dayan Old Town, these quaint mountain settlements reflect the blend of local cultures, folk customs and traditions over several centuries. You can even see the local tile work depicted on the courtyard floors of the homes representing bats, cats, and other animals thought to scare away local spirits. The local Naxi people still walk barefoot over these intricate tile floorscapes, feeling every ridge and crest of the hand laid tilework in what they call “a free foot massage”.
The colorful village space, the delightful sounds of the water, the outstanding folk art and calligraphy and the old style of the local architecture all make for a very pleasant environment that will leave you with a deep feeling of peace in this gem hidden among the mountains.
Located about a 3 hour drive from the Xining, the capital of Qinghai Province, Kanbula National Park (or as it is called in Chinese “Kanbula National Forest Park”) is a wonderland of soaring red rock cliffs located right on the banks of the emerald green Yellow River. If you are driving the 2.5 hours south to Tongren 同仁 to see Rebkong Longwu Monastery, this makes an excellent side trip. In fact, you can see one of our favorite, best selling itineraries that combines Kanbula National Park and Rebkong Longwu Monastery HERE.
The Kanbula area is famous for its unique sandstone Danxia landforms. This scenic area has abundant rainfall and a cool and moist climate and, unlike most barren places in Qinghai Province, there are prolific evergreen forests here; the forest coverage rate is about 28% and its plant resources are extremely rich with some of the best wildflowers in all of Qinghai Province. Some of the tree species represented in Kanbula National Park are the Qinghai spruce, chinese pine, white birch, and various species of azaleas and honeysuckle. Other species include Ulmus glaucescens, Prunus sibirica, Salix oritepha, and Spiraea alpina. Kanbula also hosts a number of rare birds (including larks and cuckoos) and fauna like blue sheep, argali.
Buddhism here has a long history and this park is known for its meditation caves situated high above the park where monks and nuns silently retreat for periods of 2 months to 2 years eating only a simple diet with a singular bowl of rice per day. This is a ritual and discipline that is part of the practice of Tibetan Buddhism and is thought to help the practitioner release themselves from the attachments and distractions of the world. The hermitage caves are a short 45 minute hike up wooden steps just above the Aqiong Namzong Temple and are located on a 20 minute ride down a bumpy dirt road that leads off the main paved park road.
Kanbula offers amazing, unmatched views and is certainly one of the off-the-beaten track highlights of Qinghai Province. However, the price tag of tickets reflects it’s beauty, at 250 RMB/person. Kanbula can be seen as a day trip from Xining, but it has so much beauty that most of our guests prefer to spend at least one night in the park, sleeping in a local Tibetan village homestay full of roaming donkeys and colorful prayer flags waving high on the wind. On all Elevated Trips adventures transportation to and from the park as well as the entrance tickets to the park are included in the price of the tour.