20/01/17 – From Plaster to Rock from North to South

Disappointed Buddha is disappointed.

I’ll be honest, life in China has not been great lately. The first two days of survey in Rongxian consisted of me trying to acclimatize to the temperature and fighting off a severe chill on less than an hour of sleep per night – we got our methodology set but barely, which is why I’ll be focusing on the final part of the survey week in a later entry (hoping for greater success). On the plus side, it looks like I’ve finally been able to catch some z’s and today is shaping up to be a much less survivalist day than the past two.

But onto better things, and that includes finally catching up on the last few day’s travels:

After Shuiliandong was Tianshui, home of the ever-imposing Maijishan Grottoes. Built into the side of a cliff, and rising over the landscape through a series of treacherous ladders and scaffolding, Maijishan (translated literally as Wheatstack Mountain) has a longer period of construction than any cave we’ve seen thus far save for Mogao. It was inhabited continuously from the 5th – 19th centuries, and although construction essentially halted during the 13th century following Mongol conquest, the Ming left inscriptions and the Qing applied their traditional ugly blue-and-orange paintjob to a number of the niches.


Wheatstack Mountain.



Mom, if you’re seeing this, I promise I will NEVER make you climb these stairs.



3D Model of two of these niches forthcoming.


All of the grottoes and niches at Maijishan are carved out of the stone with figures constructed in plaster over straw and wood – this was fairly common practice in the Northwest of China. What isn’t as common is the presence of grand tombs at Buddhist sites, and while off-limits there’s the tomb of a princess (I forget what Dynasty off the top of my head) somewhere in the middle of the rock-face.


Dancing asuras guide your way across the highest hallway at Maijishan, which was originally covered until a rockslide cut it in half.



They all look so disapproving…



And these three look straight-up disinterested. Joke’s on them, they’re reconstructions because a rockslide took out the originals!


The Maijishan area is littered with smaller rock-cut sites, including the Arhat (disciple of the Buddha) cliff, approximately 5km away up a hill and down the side of a cliff.


Francesca: Hey, let’s see if we can climb across the barrier and get over to the cliff. Andrew: you know I have people at home who care if I live or die, right? Francesca: oh yeah, that whole “people care if we live or die” thing. Scratch that.


I used my veto power well.



There’s a monastery up on the hill with the “Om” on a repeating microphone hanging from a tree when the abbot is away, but from there we saw something quite peculiar: a Chinese ski resort on a near-flat strip of land:


Skiing has only picked up in China during the last five years. As skiiers get better there’ll probably be demand for slopes steeper than 2 degrees.


Francesca really wanted to see the Immortals Cliff (there’s about 1000 of these in China – I surveyed one yesterday outside of Rongxian), which supposedly had over 200 niches, so we flagged down a taxi and made the 12km trip through the mountains. By that point it was 4pm and the last bus back to Tianshui left at 6, so we had two hours to find the grottoes, photograph them, maybe build a model or two, and then bolt for the bus.


No grottoes or niches, but a wicked view.


We never found the niches or grottos (yet another case of wishful advertising in China), but we found some fairly cool Ming and Qing Dynasty temples set in the shelter of an enormous rocky outcrop:


I love when buildings are constructed under overhangs…


As well as some golden pheasants, which we spent ten minutes stalking with zoom lenses trying to find the perfect photo for Francesca’s mom, an avid birdwatcher and artist. These are a few of the best ones:


Why did the pheasant cross the road?



It didn’t actually cross the road – it got 9/10ths of the way across and scrambled back into the brambles when I made too much noise walking down the concrete steps…


We were also in a rush to catch the bus because we were invited to Francesca’s friend Huang’s house for dinner. Photos are forthcoming for that one, but in China the appropriate thing to do at dinners if you’re a host, to save face, is to stuff your guests and get them hammered. We had a night train to catch to Guangyuan that night so they did the former with four pots of dumplings and only got us tipsy for the latter with baiju, a wheat-based liquor that tastes like paint thinner.

The train arrived in Guangyuan at one o’clock in the afternoon – considering how many dumplings we both had the night before (and the fact that we were beginning to look like two of them ourselves), neither of us was particularly fussed about having a large lunch (let alone a large breakfast) so we both had a few tiny dishes at a local restaurant and marched into town.

Guangyuan, by Chinese standards, is a somewhat sleepy river town in the north of Sichuan Province on one of the routes of the Salt Road, a newly-identified/theorized set of trade networks traversing Sichuan from various salt mines in the south of the province and meeting with the main routes of the Silk Road at Lanzhou in central Gansu. With its location on this route, it received ample funding from trade taxation for both infrastructure and Buddhist construction. The city limits are home to two sets of rock-cut niches (no caves this time except for a few), and all the statues are carved in stone without any plaster.


There’s an island in Mexico City littered with creepy-looking dolls – if I didn’t know the context, this would be similar.


The first is the royal grottoes of the Empress Wu Zetian (r. 684 – 705 CE), the only female ruler of unified China. These ones were much less descript than Qianfoya further down the river, but gave me an idea of how green the South was in comparison to the north: we’re in jungle-country now!


Song Dynasty minaret surrounded by green – more green to come in Rongxian!


It also gave a wicked model of the main grotto – Wu Zetian is depicted as the central figure:


The original photo (1 of 85)


Wu Zetian Photoscan.PNG
With this model, I learned that despite taking a photo of something accurately, computer programs are persnickety. One half of the roof is missing and the arhat on the left is missing half it’s head…which is why I’m not posting the side profile.

The second, Qianfoya, has exactly 1000 niches and three caves.


I think this constitutes as the southern Chinese Buddhist version of being a hoarder.



One of only a few caves at Qianfoya, all rock-cut.


Qianfoya was a great precursor to what we’ve been finding in Rongxian – the images are similar, the construction is identical, and the stacking of niches up the side of a cliff is an inconvenient reality…to a surveyor, to a tourist it’s kind of awesome.


Each of those ten thousand Buddhas are carved differently – Francesca is thinking of turning this specific cave into a pretty wicked paper.


Getting into Chengdu that evening finally concluded the crazy train-hotel-train-hotel-train-hotel travel schedule that got us from Turfan to Rongxian, and we caught a bus to Rongxian via Zigong the next morning. About that time is when my body decided to completely crash, hence why the shivers probably set in much fiercer than they would have otherwise, but *fingers crossed* things are back to normal.

Next entry: the most incredibly neon Chinese Lantern Festival in Sichuan, right here in Rongxian!


Preview: Holy Chinese New Year epilepsy, Batman!


Andrew Harris

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