Maijishan Grottoes

Maijishan ("Wheatstack Mountain"), located on the northern side of the Qinling Mountain Range and at a height of 1742m above sea level, gets it's name from its giant, haystack-like shape.

Located southeast of Tianshui City in Gansu Province on a 142 meters high hill, it's fame arises not just from its appearance, but from the many Buddhist caves that are gouged into its southwestern face.

Work on the grottoes started in the late 4th century and continued through successive North Wei (386-534 A.D.) and Song (960-1279 A.D.) dynasties until the 19th century. This is the fourth largest area of concentrated Buddhist grottoes in China, after Dunhuang, Datong and Luoyang. The area around and on the mountain is one of the most beautiful sights in Gansu for both stunning natural, and impressive man- made, scenery. 

The mountain, studded with caves and strapped by many winding walkways and spiral stairs, rises majestically from the surrounding heavily wooded slopes, so any visitor here with a bit of time on their hands could easily spend a few days hiking and admiring.

There are 194 existing caves, in which are preserved more than 7,000 sculptures made of terra cotta and over 1,000 square meters of murals. Earthquakes, rain and fire have damaged a large part of the caves and wooden structures.

The cave dwellings carved out of its soft loess, however, attain Maijishan its status as one of the most historically significant and sacred of the Buddhist cave sanctuaries. Cave sanctuaries in China range from single chambers to enormous monastic compounds that include halls for worship and teaching, living quarters for monks and travelers, and spaces such as kitchens and libraries. As way stations, cave sites like Maijishan played an important role in the development and dissemination of Buddhism into China. 

On arrival at the sight the most prominent sculpture is the 16m Buddha that is carved high up on the mountain. The grottoes, all packed together on the sheer, rocky cliff faces below and above this, look from afar like chambers of a gargantuan beehive. 

On ascending the mountain, the grottoes are divided into two sections, the western and eastern, since the central section was almost completely destroyed by an eighth century earthquake. 

The western section is probably the better, with statues and other Buddhist articles dating mainly from the Northern Wei Dynasty to the Tang (618-907 AD). Just ascending the mountain, on winding, rickety walkways and spiral stairs, with the wooded mountain panorama below, is a breath of fresh air for even the most unconvinced China traveler.

The Grottoes are not the end of a comprehensive trip here. 15m above the giant clay Buddha, on the eastern slope, is the Seven Buddha Pavilion (Qifo ge), a typical Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) construction of interesting architectural value. Recent years have also witnessed the opening of a few of the dilapidated temples around the mountain making the area good for hiking. The best place for such activity is in the Botanical Garden. This is situated in front of the mountain, reached by taking stairs to the right, down the road before the grottoes' ticket office.

The Buddhist iconography of the Northern Wei and Western Wei Dynasties are simple, like those of the earliest caves at Tunhuang. The most common theme is a seated Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas and other attendants, or sometimes by monks or lay worshippers (See Fig. 5). 

Standing guard near the doorways of most Wei Period caves are pairs of dvarapala and the four Heavenly Kings (lokapala) (See Fig. 8). The monk disciples of Ananda and Kasyapa, accompanied by other lesser monks and nuns, stand in attendance in several other caves. 
Most of the imagery from the Northern Chou and Sui Dynasties has been destroyed over time due to the rough climate of Gansu Province. Restored Sui Dynasty imagery includes the Buddha Triad (Buddha of the Past, Present and Future) and the Buddhas of the Ten Quarters. 

Buddhist art of the Sung Dynasty found in the Maijishan caves include one cave where the central seated figure is a bodhisattva, flanked by very feminine bodhisattvas. In another cave, where earlier ascetic figures of Ananda and Kasyapa would have stood, lies a pair of charming young ladies who are not even nuns. 

Over the years, from the Wei to Sung Dynasties, the imagery of Maijishan shifted emphasis from the Buddha to the bodhisattva, an important characteristic of later popular Buddhism in China. 

The way that these pieces of Buddhist art were created is also important since it represents the common methods of sculpture creation in China and the influence that religion has on sculpting methods. Early craftsmen and patrons took with orthodox iconography; however, a shift of iconography was also accompanied by a shift in method. Except for any sandstone figures which were brought into the caves from elsewhere, all the sculptures of Maijishan were made of clay. 

The seated Buddha figures in the caves were, for the most part, modeled solid in clay, and then painted. The clay was applied in several layers, and a rough wooden armature was used to support projecting arms. 

Some of the standing figures such as bodhisattvas, worshipers and monks are solid; others are hollow-molded over a wooden armature. The head in most cases was made separately and inserted into a socket between the shoulders. The importance of these sculptures stems in the very fact that it is modeled in clay, which expresses most directly the feeling of the craftsman as he manipulates the highly plastic medium with his hands and fingers. 

Ultimately, Maijishan Mountain had transformed Buddhist image-making from a foreign sculptural art into a native one. Along with the imagery of Buddhism, the ideas of Buddhism were brought from India to China. Some of the finest clay sculpture of Chinese art lies within the caves of Maijishan. 

The abundance of clay sculptures at Maijishan makes it possible to consider clay sculpture in the history of Chinese art. This diminutive mountain, only 142 meters tall, through all of its effects, has had an extremely important impact on the Chinese culture.

Sakyamuni Buddha, the Bodhisttva of Maridjusri, and the Bodhisattva of Samanta Bhadra on Cliff #13 of Maijishan Mountain


Tianshui is not really known for its own specialty cuisine, but you can find many varieties of the cuisine of Gansu here. The best of these include Lanzhou Beef Noodles (Lanzhou lamian), Zhangye Fish Balls (Cuo yuzi) and Dunhuang Saozi Noodles (Saozi mian). Cuisines from further afield are also prevalent and travelers should try the Xi'an Yangrou Paomo, Xinjiang kebabs (Kao yangrou), roast lamb leg (Kao yangtui), stewed lamb (Men yangrou) and beef hotpot (Niurou huoguo), that can be found on most stalls and restaurants about town.

There is one specialty that the Tianshui locals are fairly proud of: a yellowish pastry type substance made almost wholly of flour called Mianpi. These balls are simply made by mixing flour and water, forming the product into a thick pancake structure, and then boiling this. The flavour of these pieces are made by the addition of a variety of seasonings. The best place to sample Mianpi is in Jianchang, a local fair within the city center.

The area around Tianshui is also known for its productive soil, and there is an abundance fo fruits that could take your fancy. These are still all mostly seasonal, and include such exotica as peach, apricot, muskmelon and refreshingly juicy watermelon.

Food stalls and semi decent restaurants can be found scattered about town. For those staying in the Tianshui Hotel, on 5 Yingbin lu, there is probably the best restaurant in town within, and some decent ones in the nearby locale. For those spending a few days in the Maijishan area there are a few restaurants and a scattering of stalls on or near the mountain. The Maiji Hotel also has its own restaurant.

Climate of Tianshui

Located in the southeastern part of Gansu Province and the southern part of the Yellow Soil Plateau, Tianshui is 1,100m above sea level. The city has a semi-moist, temperate climate. The annual average temperature is 11.5°C, with July being the hottest month and January the coldest. The annual precipitation is between 550mm and 770mm, mainly falling during the rainy season from June to September.

Monthly Average Temperature in Tianshui

Month Jan. Feb. Mar. Apr. May  Jun. Jul. Aug. Sep. Oct. Nov. Dec.
Average Temperature (°C) -0.6 0.2 6.3 11.7 17.7 21.1 23.3 21.7 16.3 11.3 3.9 -1.8

Tianshui is a strange city in that it is divided into two parts, separated by about 17km. On arrival here you are dropped off either by train in Beidao, the western section, or by bus in Qincheng, the main area of the city situated in the east. Transport between the two is frequent, although not overly convenient.

When choosing on your hotel location your decision is determined by either where you are dropped off, or by preference: minibuses for Maijishan leave from Beidao, but most of the better hotels are situated in Qincheng. For those with a bit of time on their hands, hiking and staying around the Majishan area is also definitely worth considering.

Within Beidao there are an array of cheap, simple and mostly clean hotels. Convenient and cheap is the Xihuang Hotel (Xihuang binguan, 0938-273-4700), situated diagonally opposite to the right of the railway station, on Longchang lu.

Also on Longchang lu, is the Government Hostel (Zhengfu zhaodaisuo, 0938-272-7712) that has really cheap dorms for less than RMB20. Better options, although more expensive, are a longer walk from the railway station, over the Wei River.

The Asia Pacific Hotel (Yatai dajiudian, 0938-272-7712), over the river and left onto Weibin nanlu, is the newest, is fairly reasonably priced, has nice rooms and is on the bus route to Maijishan.

Even further away is the Longlin Hotel (Longlin binguan, 0938-273-1594) about a thirty minute walk from the station, straight over the river along Bu nanlu. Rooms are comfortable.

By Train
Tianshui, the first stop for trains coming into Gansu Province from the east, is a critical point for travelers going to west China. Since even the most express trains stop here (about 30 daily trains travel both ways via Tianshui), the city is a most convenient stopover for those visiting Lanzhou (6 hours), Dunhuang, Jiayuguan and Zhangye.

Since it is on the Xi'an-Lanzhou railway line, there are also quite a number of daily trains (that take about 7 hours) going both ways.

You may also take trains from here to Urumqi, Xining, Luoyang, Zhengzhou and Chengdu. Trains traveling west go through Tianshui mainly between 11:30am and 1pm and hourly from 7pm to 7am the next day. Those heading east mainly pass the city between 12:45pm and 7pm and hourly between 11pm and 7am.


By Road
State Expressway No.310 and 312 both traverse the city, linking east with west China. The most frequently used route is the part from Tianshui to Lanzhou (daily 6:00am for RMB28, 6:00pm sleeper for RMB54), which takes about 10 hours because of the circuitous road. As an alternative, you may also take a bus in front of the railway station at Beidao.

It is possible from Qincheng to take a bus to Luoyang (6:00am sleeper for RMB107), Xi'an (6:00pm sleeper for RMB50), Xining (5:40am for RMB47), Linxia (6:30am for RMB29), Yinchuan (5:40am for RMB45) and Guyuan (7:00am for RMB21).

By City Transport
City transport between the two centers is in most cases fast. Minibuses shuttle from one end to the other for RMB1 within half an hour. Taxi drivers charge about RMB20 for the same distance. However, one disadvantage here is that public transport stops at around 10pm. If you arrive at the city late at night, the only viable mode of transport is by taxi. It is generally easy to take a bus from the long-distance bus station (Beidao bus station) in the city to Maijishan (taking no more than an hour and costing about RMB6).

The more upmarket options are in Qincheng, where there are a few sights worth visiting. Closest to the bus station, and with a cheap and friendly service, is the Jianxin Hotel (Jianxin binguan, 0938-821-4900). The hotel is on Xinhua lu and has a selection of good restaurants in its locale. More foreign tourist orientated, the Tianshui Hotel (Tianshui binguan, 0938-821-2611) is a little further away, at 5 Yinbing lu. This is probably the most upmarket in town, although with this comes the additional price tag. You could also try the new Tianyuan Hotel (Tianyuan binguan), just a few minutes from the bus station on Minzhu Lu. The hotel offers nice, clean accommodation, costing around RMB150 to RMB200 for a double room.

Travelers who want to stay near the Maiji Mountain should try the Maiji Hotel (Maiji shanzhuang, 0938-281-1268) which is about 500 meters before the main gate of the mountain. The hotel provides lodging and dining facilities.