The Thousand Buddha Caves are just inside the entrance gateway to the Matisi Scenic Area, and walking up the road is a pleasant experience, with the river rushing past on one side, and the decaying niches studding the cliffface on the other.
There are 8 caves here, of a similar age and style as at Matisi Bei up the valley. The temple and small monastery at the front is very new (built 1992) but has managed to age gracefully and looks very much 'part of the fabric'. This temple is Chinese Buddhist, while the Shengguo Temple above Mati village is Tibetan.
There are several cave series here, including on accessed about 75 m further up the road.
After Qianfodong, it is about another 2km or so to the top end of Mati village, where the options are to head for the Guanyin Caves, Jinta Caves and Gesar King Tomb (in the valleys to the south east of Mati), enjoy the walk up the main valley to Lotus Mountain and the waterfall, or move into the next valey to see the Matisi Bei caves and temple, the Matisi Nan niches and the Shengguo Temple.
Above the very end shop of the new shopping street is a small ethnic culture and cultural heritage museum that is well hidden, but well worth visiting.
Matisi Nan - Matisi South Caves
Just above the Shengguo Temple, and clearly visible from Mati village are the Matisi Nankou, the southern Matisi Caves. Although impressive from the valley floor, there is less to see at the Matisi Nan site (there are no caves here, compared to the 9 caves at Matisi Bei, which is about 1.5km away along the track that runs past the base of the Matisi nan cliff and the Shengguo Temple.
However, there are good views of the deep valleys and the wide Heix Corridor plain to the north.
Matisi Bei - Matisi North Caves - Part II
Just south of the main temple building compound are a series of caves not normally open to the public, but it might be possible - by begging..or perhaps even by asking at the administrative offices in the village - to get a quick glimpse.
Some 20km south of the vilage is the site of a Tibetan monastery, Jintasi (see separet review). Unfortunately it is off-limits, although the drive out there is fun and gets you into the beautifully forested valleys and mountain foothills. The local authorities will, categorically, not allow you to visit Jintasi. Unless you are a researcher or your name is Professor Angela F. Howard, you simply will not get even close to Jintasi (there is an armed checkpoint at the foot of the valley). These caves are simply too precious, too small, and largely unresearched so far.
If you want to see some of the treasures at Jintasi, check several photographs at this website and check out Professor Howard's books and papers. There are several photographs in the book "Monks and Merchants".
Matisi Bei - Matisi North Caves - Part I
The main attraction at Matisi are the grottos and caves which date back to the Northern Wei period and continue through 1,000 years of Buddhist inhabitation and devotion in this area.
NOTE: The whole cave area is closed to visitors during 2005 and will reopen in mid 2006. If it is important to see them, contact Gansu, Zhangye or Matisi Culutral Heritage to see if they have been reopened.
The temple buildings at the entrance to the village look impressive enough in their own right, but the buildings and protective fronts date back only to the 1980s. This is, however, a good starting point for travelling to the far larger series of grottos to the north-east of the village. This is where the famous horse-shoe mark on the rock can be seen; this is where Mati gets its name.
Currently, these grottoes are undergoing extensive protective work by Gansu Cultural Heritage Bureau teams. As at Dunhuang, the caves were originally open to the elements and have suffered over the centuries.
Shengguo Tibetan Temple
Originally constructed in the 1920s, the Tibetan Yellow Hat sect Shenguo Temple lies in a tiny cleft in the valley above Matisi Village on the track up to the Matisi Bei temple and caves.
It was largely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution (as was the better known Jinta Monastery, 25km away to the south east) and is being repaired with contributions from local villagers and residents.
Sadly, the quality of restoration is rather poor, as unsuitable wood is being used for the main timber framing and it is already cracking badly from the large diurnal temperature range that this area experiences for much of the year.
Prayer wheels surround the main building. The Matisi nan group of niches lie above this temple but are difficult to access from here (and are closed for major renovation until mid-2006 anyway).
Definitely worth looking at the modern paintings inside the entrance doorway (especially on the left) to see some quite gruesome depictions of stories of the Buddha's life.
Above the village shop (in the modern row of buildings at the top end) is a small museum which explains the history of the area. It is a modern museum with good labelling (albeit mainly in Chinese) and is worth visiting for 30 minutes. There is a god display of traditional Yugur and Tibetan clothing as well.
Hiking and Riding
The area is slowly being built up as a 'Scenic Area' () and so the local people are becoming used to tourists.
There are virtually endless opportunities for walking up into the forested valleys leading into the Qilianshan. However, note that this is remote countryside. Distances are long and farms can be many kilometres apart.
It would be advisable to let local officials or friends know your plans, and use the services of a local guide.
Riding is a possibility here and as well as the 'ride on the back of a horse' trips in the village, there are opportunities to get on horseback further afield.