19/01/17 – A Five Hour Layover in Shuiliandong


There’s not much in this world comparable to the sound of chiming bells walking up an enormous cliff stairway to an ancient monastery…


We’re now in Rongxian, a small town in Sichuan Province about two-and-a-half hours south of Chengdu – keep your eyes peeled, there’ll be an entry about pandas when we get back to the Panda Capital of the Universe after the survey. After a few setbacks, including a GPS that refused to show the proper elevation, we’re finally on our way mapping.

We’ve had extremely positive feedback on our 3D Mogao grotto model from the folks we’ve met along the road, administrators and scholars mainly, so I figured I’d share it here as promised:

Mogao Grotto 1.PNG
What I’ve started referring to as the Starship Mogao-Prise. Also, please forgive the holes in the top – that grotto is four-and-a-half feet tall and I’m six foot two. You need a tiny 11th century Chinese monk to really get into those nooks and crannies.


Mogao Grotto 2.PNG
Middle Room – Francesca did the left and right caves. Also, those lumps are tumbleweed and the red thing is a plastic bag that kept blowing in the cave.


Mogao Grotto 3.PNG
Back room – if you look closely you can see the terracotta tiles on the floor of the cave.

It’s actually been so positive that I’ve been commissioned, as part of our permit, to build a 3D model of a 36.5 meter Buddha, but more on that in later entries.

The last week has been a sprint through various important Buddhist grotto sites to the finish, and in doing so I’ve had very little room to breathe. But sometimes that’s a good thing, especially when Francesca Monteith decides we’re going to see one of her favorite sites of all time (and this is a woman who’s lived in China for a half-decade): the monastery of Shuiliandong.

We left Dunhuang on a night train to Lanzhou – it was eerily quiet considering that a good 50% or more of China’s population is on the move for the New Year, and we had a choice whether to go straight to Tianshui (our next stop on the Tang-Song Dynasty Buddhist world tour) or take a few stop-start trains and buses. If we chose the former, we’d be in Tianshui by two. If we chose the latter, we’d be there by seven and have a five hour layover as we moved from town to town by local transportation.

Naturally, Francesca chose the road less traveled…


Shuiliandong Valley – on the other side is a giant Buddha.

Shuiliandong, dating from the 5th – 10th centuries, is one of those sites in China that you’d never know was there unless someone knew already. It’s located in a giant mountainous river valley, and is one of the many religious sites (including Mogao) thought to have been inhabited continuously. That said, Buddhists don’t come to Shuiliandong as much anymore, and the original monastery has been replaced by a Taoist one…and at one point this happened:


This is Francesca’s favorite Chinglish (English translated by Chinese people through Google Translate or by mistaking their characters for other words, all while being apathetic about it) signboard in China.




This is apparently what it’s describing….


Locally, it’s famous for its enormous Buddha, an extremely well-preserved plaster carving continuously augmented from the 5th – 8th centuries during the Northern Wei and the Tang Dynasties. It’s approximately a twenty-minute drive from the town of Loumen, which again is a place that you’d never find unless you knew someone who knew it. But it has quickly become my favorite site in China and a top-5 site of all-time. The photos below really don’t do it justice:


Gigantic plaster Buddha, Tang Dynasty. It’s been augmented a lot over time (see the niches carved into the original motif of deer and lions), but it’s been incredibly well preserved due to being on an overhang out of the wind or rain.



Shuiliangong was the first site I started to notice the transition between caves and niches as you move further south in Gansu to Sichuan. Tomorrow’s entry on the caves at Maijishan and Qianfoya is a bit more obvious.



The monastery apparently offers free meditation for visitors – this wouldn’t be a bad landscape to wake up to every day.



The first set of steps up to the monastery – Francesca, who’s deathly afraid of heights, did these happily. I could really see how much she loves this place.


The real gem of the site, though, isn’t the Buddha – that’s obvious that it doesn’t get the proper amount of respect as Tang Dynasty masterpiece. It’s the monastery…up the side of the cliff, small pagodas marking vistas and waypoints, bells chiming, and the people beneath you growing smaller and smaller as the air becomes cooler and cooler. Shuiliangong is the epitome of a destination made all so much more meaningful by the journey to get there.


Stairs up to the monastery…or the last five of two hundred of them anyway.



The entire monastery is built on a rocky crag underneath a natural overhang.



This woodwork has been around since the Qing Dynasty…or at least that’s the theory.



Snow-capped roofs…that’s what I came to see.


But ahhhh man…there are no words for how amazing Shuiliandong was! It’s a MOUNTAIN MONASTERY HIDDEN IN AN ANCIENT BUDDHIST VALLEY!!!!!! MIND = BLOWN!


In the center is the Buddha.



And a good zoom lens got the rest.


Anyway, we caught our scheduled bus to Tianshui at 5pm after spending a meagre 2 1/2 hours hiking around, but five days later Shuiliandong is still just…wow…if you can ever find it, go, but I like to think that the fact that it doesn’t turn up in Lonely Planet is a good thing. Francesca will be back another dozen times, so I’ll forget how I got there.


A place like this is better when the hordes don’t come trampling…and believe me, the state of their bathrooms will ensure that mass-tourism doesn’t happen any time soon.


On another topic, I thought about doing a whole section on the various incredible dishes we ate in Turfan and Gansu, but then I realized that for an entire six days I ate lamb skewers and kiln bread. So here’s some of the awesome Uighur food to keep you hungry as I transition from wheat to rice down south:


The official motto of Xinjiang: You don’t win friends with salad.


You do win friends with fresh bread though. Tip in Turfan: get them right out of the kiln because they harden quick and the roads get dusty.




There’s actually a really beautiful story to this photo: Erin West took this one of a woman making bread in her kiln, all smiles and laughs. As soon as she was finished her husband, an elderly guy as well, excitedly ran over to the camera and started pointing at his wife and pointing at the camera. We’re almost entirely sure he’d never seen a photograph of her before.


I also thought about putting my friends’ engagement party video up for this entry, but considering the party is on the 21st of January, wouldn’t it make more sense to post it then? So look out for a really cold Andrew standing on the top of a sand dune trying to utter a congratulatory remark through frozen lips on January 21st!


Hate to see it leave, love to watch it go…Shuiliandong is a truly magical place.


Next entry: more mountains, more caves, and my photogrammetry playlist!

Andrew Harris







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