Zhangye: exploring the colourful mountains of Danxia and ancient grottoes of Mati Temple

Zhangye is a lively yet laidback city located in the centre of the Hexi Corridor, a strategically important corridor on the ancient Silk Road. Squashed between the dramatic peaks of the Qilian Mountains to the south and endless desert to the north, the narrow strip of land that makes up the Hexi Corridor offered the only feasible option to enter and exit China to the west for those journeying on the Silk Road. Historically, Zhangye was one of China’s frontier cities, and an important stopover between the Chinese empire and Central Asia. Marco Polo reportedly spent a year living in Zhangye around 1274. 

Zhangye is no longer the remote outpost it once was, as it is now accessible by China’s ever expanding high-speed rail network. Zhangye is a springboard to access spectacular desert parks and ancient temple-grottoes nearby. Zhangye and its surrounds are where Chinese, Mongolian and Tibetan cultures have interacted for thousands of years, along with traders from Central Asia and beyond due to its strategic location on the ancient Silk Road. If you’re deciding whether to make the trip to Zhangye, or a stopover on your way to Jiayuguan or Dunhuang, our advice is a resounding ‘yes’, for the following sights:

Danxia Colourful Mountains
Danxia is famous for its ‘rainbow mountains’, a vast expanse of colourful mountains with scalloped lines that range from beige and dusty orange to bright vermillion and red. The colours are incredibly vivid.

The rainbow mountains are cretaceous sandstone and siltstone that were deposited with iron and trace minerals millions of years ago. Initially the stone was layered flat horizontally, however the collision of the Indian Plate with the Eurasian Plate around 55 million years ago caused these flat layers to fold and uplift into mountains (Nace 2016). This explains why the same colours and patterns seem to flow between mountains. 

The park is divided into different viewing platforms, which park buses will shuttle you between. The park is busy with Chinese tourists, however the platforms are large, with multiple viewing points connected by wooden boardwalks, and you can find a quiet spot to enjoy the views. The last platform is the most spectacular, where you will find the most famous view of the rainbow mountains.

At every step, there are speakers playing an assortment of music, ranging from Chinese hits to Spanish guitar. Some of the speakers are disguised as rocks, so you will hear them before you see them. Even the road is coloured salmon pink to match the surrounding scenery.

We also found some of the most amazing Chinese-to-English translations of the scenery that we have seen in our three months in China.

Logistics 

We took the public bus to Danxia from Zhangye West Bus Station. This was relatively simple, as the staff at the bus station assumed tourists would be going to Danxia, and directed us accordingly. The bus will drop you at the north entrance to the park, in what feels like the world’s largest and emptiest car park. You need to walk to the Visitors Centre to purchase an entrance ticket. We managed to use our Australian license as our ‘student card’ for a discounted entry fee, as the full-priced tickets are pricey (for backpackers).

Our journey home was not as smooth. We exited from the West Gate, and ended up waiting for over an hour on a hot bus to wait for passengers, of which there were very few. After an hour plus of waiting, the bus left with only about eight passengers, so we drove the rest of the way at snails pace, honking our horn at every trace of human settlement in an attempt to attract more passengers. Surprisingly this worked, and the bus was full as we rolled into Zhangye, although the journey took us almost three hours in total. If you find a more efficient way home, please post in the comments to let other readers know.

Mati Temple and the ancient grottoes

Mati Temple

Mati Temple, or Mati Si, which translates into Horse Hoof Temple, is a network of grottoes that form a temple carved into a 100-meter high cliff face. Monks began carving the grottoes around 1,600 years ago. There are 21 grottoes arranged into seven stories, with each of the grottoes containing statues of Buddha and other Buddhist figures. Some were also painted with intricate Buddhist paintings. The grottoes have a strong Tibetan influence, as this area was at one point controlled by the Tibetan kingdom.

The grottoes are connected by dark stone passageways and steep, uneven stairs. Reaching the more inaccessible grottoes requires climbing near vertical, slippery stone staircases in dark and narrow tunnels. One passageway had no steps but rather little handholds cut into the stone walls for you to wedge your hands and feet into, with one hand and foot on each side of the passageway. We were some of the first arrivals to the temple in the morning, so navigating the labyrinth was not so difficult, however we have heard it can get quite crowded. If you are claustrophobic, we suggest avoiding the most challenging passageways.

The area surrounding Mati Si is stunning, with views of the desert, small patches of agricultural land and towering snowy mountains. We did a short hike up and along a mountain ridge. To access this hike, take the steep staircase on the left of an enormous white pagoda, which is on the path to Mati Si.

Mati Si scenic area is part of the Sunan Yugur Autonomous County, home to the Yugur ethnic minority. The Yugur are descendants of the Huihu people, who migrated from present-day Mongolia in approximately 840 A.D. The Huihu split into two main groups: the Uyghur, who settled in the far western province of Xinjiang and converted to Islam, and the Yugur, who converted to Tibetan Buddhism. The Yugur only came under imperial Chinese control during Kangxi Emperor’s reign (1661-1722) during the Qing Dynasty. Interestingly, there are two subgroups of Yugur, one that speaks a Turkic language and the other that speak a Mongolic language (Deason 2018:

King Gesar’s Palace and Thousand Buddha Temple
Next we visited King Gesar’s Palace, a single grotto where Gesar and his followers worshipped. King Gesar is a Tibetan historical figure who reportedly vanquished evil from across the grasslands. The grotto is 70 meters long and houses statues of King Gesar and his 36 generals on horseback.

We then stopped at the Thousand Buddha Temple, a smaller and newer network of temple grottoes carved into the cliff face during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). There are two beautiful old Chinese houses on either side as you enter, with a few resident monks wandering around.

The temples are spread over two floors, and also contain Buddhist sculptures inside. We found the Thousand Buddha Temple to be quieter and more peaceful than Mati Si. Remarkably, the cliff face is pock marked with small holes like Swiss cheese.

On our way out, we visited the Pagoda Forest, where dozens of pagodas have been carved out of a small hill. Interestingly, the styles of these pagodas are similar to those found in Cambodia, including at Angkor Wat, rather than in China.

Logistics 
Mati Temple is about 65 km south of Zhangye. It is possible to get there by public transport, however transportation around the scenic area itself may be challenging, as Mati Si scenic area is quite large and lacking internal transport, aside from local taxi drivers. Apparently you can hire one of these drivers upon arrival at the scenic area to take you between sites. We arranged our driver through the Silk Road Travellers Hostel, which cost only a few dollars more than doing the trip independently. Our driver helped us to purchase entrance tickets, which covered several sites in the scenic area, and cost around 70 yuan per person (AU$ 15).

Zhangye city
We stayed at the Silk Road Travellers Hostel in downtown Zhangye. This was one of our favourite hostels of the trip. The owners are incredibly friendly and helpful, going out of their way to help you plan your travels, for example if you decide to take public transport to the above attractions. They also offer inexpensive drivers for Danxia Geopark, Mati Si and many other attractions.

We ate most of our meals at the local food markets, which are a few minutes walk from the Silk Road Travellers Hostel. Here we found a dish that somewhat resembled minestrone with a Chinese twist – shell-pasta in soup with beef and a few vegetables and chili [XX I might have a photo on my phone], as well as freshly fried shallot pancakes. There are several stalls selling dried fruit and nuts, including freshly shelled walnuts which are grown nearby. If buying bulk food sounds challenging, our tactic was to take out a 10 or 20 yuan (AU$2-4) note, and point to the goods we wanted.

Zhangye is accessible by high-speed train on the Lanzhou-Xinjiang line. A taxi from the high-speed railway station (Zhangye West Station) to downtown should cost around 10 yuan (AU$2).

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