The Maiji Grottoes

The main attraction to visit when you are in Tianshui are the Maiji Grottoes. The Maiji Grottoes are a group of carvings of Buddhist motifs sculpted on a hill called Maiji Mountain (麦积山). This hill is more like a huge rock with completely vertical walls and the carvings just hang there! To see them you need to climb several sets of wooden stairs so this visit is not recommended for people with limited mobility or fear of heights.

Climbing wasn't as hard as I had expected though.

Climbing wasn’t as hard as I had expected when I first saw the mountain though.

 

The carvings in the Maiji grottoes mainly date from the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-535 AD). Buddhism was introduced from India around that time.

Maiji Grottoes are one of the four famous ancient Buddhist sculpture sites in China. Well, to be precise there are three famous sites: Yungang caves in Datong (Shanxi province), Longmen caves in Luoyang (Henan province) and Mogao caves in Dunhuang (Gansu province). I had never heard about the Maiji grottoes before, but the locals say their grottoes are as important as the other three and should be considered in the same group! I haven’t been to the Mogao caves yet, but I can compare Yungang and Longmen with Maiji: the Maiji caves are definitely smaller and I would say less important. But don’t tell the people in Tianshui I said that or they will kill me!

However it is true that the location of the carvings right there on the side of the mountain make the Maiji Grottoes a different sight from the other caves. While you are climbing the wooden stairs you can look to one side and see the carvings on the rock; look to the other side and see the mountains and the trees; and look down and see the ground through the metal net that covers the space between the steps! (That is why I said this place is not recommended if you fear heights!).

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However this disposition also makes very difficult taking pictures of the biggest carvings. I couldn’t get a decent photo where you can see the whole thing.

Carvings

 

It might be due to the weather in this area or to other factors, but the paint in the Maiji carvings has been preserved way better than in the other Buddhist grottoes I’ve been to (originally all these sculptures were painted with bright colours).

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I have a complaint regarding the Maiji grottoes: many sculptures were protected with doors that were locked. There was a metallic net which in theory should allow you to see them but the truth is you couldn’t see anything. While I see the importance of protecting the carvings from the hands of the tourists, I would have liked to be able to see these sculptures clearly.

In fact you can see more in this picture that in reality! Maybe it was also because of the sun but I could hardly see inside the locked doors.

In fact you can see more in this picture that in reality! Maybe it was also because of the sun but I could hardly see inside the locked doors.

 

Almost all of the sculptures, even the ones covered with the metallic net, had a lot of money thrown in front of them! Well, they were mostly 1 RMB notes, but with all the tourists going every day and putting new money, I think the salaries of all the people working in the caves are covered with the visitors “offerings”! I didn’t take any picture of the money thrown in front of the Buddhas but I do have one of a curious sight you can see when going down the mountain, in a crack opened in the mountain wall:

Should this be interpreted as a metaphor? The visitor's money is keeping the mountain up?

Should this be interpreted as a metaphor? The visitor’s money is keeping the mountain up?

 

How to get there: Tianshui has its own airport but with just a few flights every day. It is easier to fly to Xi’an and take a train or a bus from there. The Maiji grottoes are located around 40 km away from Tianshui and to get there you just need to take bus number 34 from the train station. It will take around 50 minutes and it costs 5 RMB. The entrance ticket to the area is 70 RMB, plus 15 RMB for a return ticket in an electric golf cart if you don’t want to walk the 3 km from the area entrance to the grottoes.

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