Niangniangba Things to Do
Also, don't miss the virgin boy and virgin girl statues in Cave 123 at the end of the same row. Both wear clothing typical of the Tungu, rather than Chinese nation, and date from the Western Wei.
The route taken by any single guide differs, although it will always start in the east and move westwards, exiting down the 'hanging stairs' at the far western end. Ask to see specific caves before you enter. I am not sure that all the caves described are open to the public; at least two caves were opened specially (and I can't remember which..one of them may have been Cave 133).
If statues are your thing - come to Maijishan. If you prefer frescos, keep on going until you reach Dunhuang (but remember to stop for the sculpted apsaras at little Matisi!!)
On the intermediate level on the western cliff is Cave 87, home of one of the more enigmatic and evocative statues. On the right is an extremely rare statue of Kayapa, Buddha's devoted disciple, companion of Ananda. This is a really wonderful statue, abd although still somewhat rigid, the human features are allowed to shine through much more clearly than with contemporary statues of Buddha and the Bodhisattvas, suggesting that there was a code for the artist-monks preventing them from representing Buddha as realistic to human form as perhaps they could do. The old monk is rounded, fragile and has real expression, as he mutters a prayer. This is probably the real true treasure of Maijishan, yet is in a comparatively minor cave.
The upper western part of the complex is not on all the tours, unless you insist. Cave 115 is worth a trip up those extra flights of stairs. But the real star of this part is Cave 127, where the stunning frescos have survived largely undamaged. One key fresco shows the Jataka of Shanzi. Shanzi doted on his bind parents, but was shot and died while meditating in the royal forest. When the king learned of the boys devotion to his parents, he vowed to look after them as if they were his own parents. Buddha was so overcome by everyone's actions that he created a cure that restored the son to life and also made the king's life easier as well.
On another fresco is the Jataka of Prince Mahasattva, who coming across a starving female tiger with her cub; the prince sacrificed himself to the female tiger so the cub would live.
In these and other early frescos, by the way, the black colouring was originally red.
Some of the statues in Cave 127 are also particularly compelling, with fine details while keeping the angular, chiselled features. Note also the unusual halos, as pointed out by Frances Wood, but not by tour guides!
Just two caves westwards from cave 76, in cave 74, there is a wonderfully decorated Gandharan Bodhisattva, crowned and bejewelled. Interesting on this sculpture is the haotie design on the crown: the haotie was an ancient legendary Chinese beast believed to ward off evil spirits. Even from the early days of Chinese Buddhism, the 'new' religion was liberally suffused with Chinese traditions!
Cave 133, way up from the "74 and 76" level, is a huge complex funereal cave, complete with frescos associated with death and reincarnation, and contains work from several periods. It is also called the Thousand Buddha Cave because of the vast numbers of tiny Buddhas in niches. The stone tablets, each with intricate and delicate carvings are particularly good. But the star of this cave has to be the disciple with the wonderful smile, his head cocked slightly. It's so lifelike, you expect him to utter some observation or fable. (A similar statue can be found in Cave 121 right over on the western side, below Cave 127, where the disciple and a Bodhisattva are to be found naughtily whispering something to each other while no-one is looking!). This cave is considered to be the best cave at Maijishan.
Down a flight from cave 74, is the "Chinese Bodhisattva" showing early representation of Chinese clothing and features which started to become more obvious in the Northern Wei period.
Niangniangba Warnings and Dangers
The cliff face at Maijishan is immense and this is not fully appreciated in photographs. The concrete walkways and steps are solid, but the walkways are narrow. Because there are large trees alongside the foot of the cliff and on nearby slopes, those who suffer from vertigo should be OK. However, note that the final exit (at the left hand side) is on a staircase that hangs out over the biggest drop, and it is simply impossible not to look down. You may wish to ask the guide to let you return the way you have come because the steps are close to a slope and the drop is much less.
Another note of caution is that the steps are covered with rubber sheeting (to reduce the vibrations of all those footsteps!) and in wet weather they are very, very slippery. It has been recommended to the site managers and Gansu tourism authorities that these are replaced. Do take care, especially with children or the elderly.
Favorite thing: This links to a general large-scale topographical map of the area around Niangniangba and Maijishan. Tianshui is at the north of this map.