Another very famous and popular tourist site in Zhangye is the Mati Temple Grottoes which is a group of 7 grottoes for as long as 30 kilometres. Legend has it that a Pegasus landed in the area and left behind an imprint of its hoof which is why the temple is named as horse hoof temple. This hoof print can still be seen in the main hall of the temple.
There are 2 temples; the Mati temple and the Thousand Buddha temple in this area. Other temples are at least 15km drive away. The best way to visit this site is to hire a private car with a guide or take a taxi from the city centre as there is no direct public transport near the site. Your driver can wait at the huge carpark while you purchase the tickets here at the ticket centre before proceeding to the temples. The price for both temples is at CNY¥ 70. Since there is no washroom at the temples, you should visit the washroom at the ticket centre before proceeding.
Our driver and guide drove us to the Mati temple first as that is the main site and we wanted to visit before the crowd starts streaming in. You will pass many restaurants scattered around the carpark area before reaching the slope to the temple.
From the carpark, we start walking towards the temple on a gentle uphill slope and it took almost 15 mins to reach the pagoda. For very fit people, it will probably take only 5 – 6 mins on a fast pace climb.
The story of Mati Temple can be read on the stone plaque.
You will first reach these beautiful white pagodas which are a symbol of Tibetian Buddhism with copper bells which you can turn in a clockwise manner for good luck. Once you turn one bell, you have to complete the entire set in the same direction.
One of the more important and famous ones is the Thirty-three Heavens Grottos. The highest level of the Thirty-three Heavens Grottos is 42 meters from the ground and there is a total of 5 levels in the grotto. 1st to 3rd level has 5 grottoes each with Buddhist statues and wall cravings, 4th level with 3 grottoes and the 5th level with only 1 grotto. Most of the paintings and carvings were created during the Ming dynasty but many have already been destroyed.
From the pagodas, it is another 10 mins walk upslope to reach the grottoes and 5 mins upstairs climb
The steps going up to the temple grottoes are not very steep and well maintained and there is approximately 50 over steps
At the far right, you will see the main Mati Temple ( Horse Hoof Temple) where you can find the hoof imprint of the pegasus from the legend. As photography is not allowed within the halls as a sign of respect for the Buddha, I did not take any pictures inside the halls. Within the temple grotto, you can find many Buddha statues as well as wall paintings.
Right next to the Mati Temple, you will find another huge grotto, right at the centre of the main hall of this grotto, you will find a gold-copper Buddha statue standing at least 3 m tall. The interesting background to this statue is that legend has it that one day a statue of the Buddha made of Malachite appeared hanging by the cliff and glowed brightly in green. The monk climbed the dangerous cliff to retrieve the status and it is now housed in the stomach of the current 3 m golden copper Buddha statue since the Malachite statue is treated as a Buddha presence.
The next site to go is the Thirty-three Heavens Grottos which has a really tiny entrance. The background story to this grotto is somewhat religious. In Buddhism, it is believed that there is Mount Meru which is the sacred five-peaked mountain of Hindu, Jain, and Buddhist cosmology and is considered to be the centre of all the physical, metaphysical and spiritual universes. The main heaven is on the centre peak while the other 4 peaks have 8 heavens each and each heaven guarded by one god. The total of heavens including the main one will make up 33 in number. In Buddhist teachings, this is considered as the journey of Buddhism practice until one reaches the realm of Nirvana. To depict this 33 heaven, people built the grotto with the hopes that by climbing the 33-heaven grottos, they can reach the 33 heavens.
Back to modern-day beliefs, people now believe that for those practising Buddhism, the grotto represents a human’s life where you start your life easy but start facing obstacles as you go through life and you have to cross each hurdle with earnest and perseverance. Therefore, they should climb the 33 heaven grottoes as it is a way to cleanse ourselves of the sins and bad karma in our lives.
The way up to the highest level of the grotto is extremely small and tight and is only possible for 1 person each way. All of the steps are very steep and shallow so you can hardly climb up and down confidently. Due to the tight spaces, there is a limit of 15 people per every 30 mins and there are controllers in the grotto pointing and shooing you to move on at every level. There are certain levels within the grotto where you have to get on all fours to crawl or lift yourself through small spaces as there are no proper steps. Thinking back to the Buddhism beliefs, this is probably what they mean by tribulations in your life as you manoeuvre through difficulties in life. Although the meaning is simplified to a cave climb but yet it feels extremely symbolic as you reach each level and pay your respects to the different Buddha at each level.
This picture is a good representation of how small and tight some of the passageway and entrances to each level is and you practically have to climb through a hole in the wall.
- This grotto climb is not suitable at all for people who are claustrophobic as space is extremely tight.
- Moving around the grotto could be tough for really tall people as heads have to be lowered all the time due to the low ceiling. I am 163cm and I have my head lower all the time.
- The climb might not be suitable for bigger frame people due to the small corridors and spaces. You can refer to the pictures on how tight the spaces are. For a clearer understanding, the width of the tightest space is only about 70 to 75cm
From Mati Temple, we moved on to Thousand Buddha Temple which is just 2 mins drive down from the carpark area from Mati Temple. The Thousand Buddha Temple carries the Han teachings of Buddhism which are slightly different from the ones in Mati temple which is from Tibet.
After passing the main entrance, there is a big compound where you can find the monk’s praying quarters as well as living quarters. These buildings are newly built as the old ones have all been destroyed during the civil war. You can leisurely look around the area or what most visitors do is head straight to the grottoes at the end compound. There are another 4 small temples here, some of them only reachable from pathway or stairway within the cave just like the 33 heaven grotto. Due to safety, the pathway to the highest temple has already been closed.
The grottoes are named thousand Buddha as there are more than 1,000 Buddha statues big and small in the grottoes all over the hills. On top of that, there are as many as 500 small pagodas that contain Śarīra from the various spiritual monks who practised Buddhism in the temple. ( Śarīra is a generic term referring to Buddhist relics, although in common usage it usually refers to a pearl or crystal-like bead-shaped objects that are purportedly found among the cremated ashes of Buddhist spiritual masters – Source Wikipedia) Some of the grottoes also contain over 40 statues which are preserved from Sixteen Kingdom (AD 304 to 439), Northern and Southern dynasties – Northern Wei ( 386–535) and Tang Dynasty (618 to 907). There are also over 300 square meters of wall paintings from Northern and Southern dynasties – Northern Wei ( 386–535). Western Wei (535–557), Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) and Ming Dynasty (1368 to 1644)
Personally, I feel the visit to Mati Temple and Thousand Buddha Temples is quite out of this world. As a Buddhist myself, I felt a strange sense of serenity and peace even while panting and climbing upslope, stairs and narrow corridors in the grottoes. For non-Buddhist, I believe this is also a great discovery on history and culture which is unique to Mati county only. Aside from the Zhanye Geopark, this is definitely a must-visit if you are in Zhangye
Address: West Bank of the Mati River in the Sunan Yugu County
Opening hours: 8 am to 6 pm
Ticket price: CNY¥ 15 per temple
Recommended Transport: Hired car or taxi costing CNY¥ 100 – 200. For the adventurous, you can take public transport from the southern bus station in Zhangye to reach Mati. On weekends, tourist buses are also available to travel to and back from Mati
Time to spend: At least 3 hours. If you can afford it, 4 hours to take in the sight