If you are going to see the Dafosi Temple, don't miss the atmosphere of the streets along the nothern and western edge of the temple. Old buildings have been "built", but the effect here is good, with the eatern street (behind the Zhangye Hotel) pedestrianised.
Many of the buildings are occupied by antique dealers and the usual purveyors of tourist souvenirs, but many are just used by ordinary businesses.
In the early morning, this is a pleasant place for a stroll (and remember that the Dafosi opens early) and to get some breakfast at one of the many food stalls. There is a tiny but lively flower market in a side alley halfway along the northern street, on the same side as the temple.
At the front of the Dafosi (reviewed separately) is the Earth Pagoda, an elegant Ming-era 33m high structure.
Originally it was named the Amitabha Pagoda, and has eight small pagoda around the base, while each of the five sides of the main pagoda has niches with stone or bronze statues of Buddha at each level.
It was during the 1411 reconstruction that the then emperor Zhuqizeng donated 6,000 manuscripts to the library of the temple, so setting the tradition for this temple to become one of the prime repositories of its kind in western China. In response the emperor's gracious donation, the provinciel governors of Shaanxi and gansu ordered the creation of gold copies of the Mahaprajina Paramitra Sutra, which is now one of the most precious Buddhist manuscripts in the world.
In 1446, the emperor presented a set of the Tripitaka to the temple, which is now believed to be the only set still in existence of this northern version of the Buddhist classic.
In 1679, during Kangxi's reign, the temple reverted to the name of Hong Ren Temple (meaning broad benevolence).
The temple retains a lot of important manuscripts, in the second hall, but this building is closed for restoration currently. In front of that building is the Tu Ta or Earth Dagoba – actually easier to see from outside the temple than from inside.
It costs RMB41 to get in to the temple, a rather extortionate price for a single site in a small provincial city, but one of the nicest parts is free. On the northern side at the entrance, there is a line of old buildings which are part of the temple but are free to allow people to worship at the small hall at the end of this line. The other buildings are now antique and souvenir shops, but there is an attractive gateway and tiny drum and bell towers halfway along. This little corner of the temple is the most interesting, perhaps because it alone is really used as a spiritual place rather than as a tourist attraction.
There is access to the Dafosi from both the front (Nan Jie) and also the lovely pedestrianised street that runs along the back (and behind the Zhangye Hotel)
The most significant site in Zhangye itself is the Dafosi or Big Buddha Temple, which is home to China’s largest reclining Buddha – 34 metres in length, almost as long as three articulated trucks. During 2005 and 2006, the complex is being renovated and during this renovation work, some of the movable statues are being kept in storage: in June 2006, the ten arhats were removed from behind the main Buddha statue, although the eighteen bodhisattvas along the sides remain. Scafoolding inside the main Buddha hall make it difficult to appreciate the artwork or to get a feel for the size of the reclining Buddha.
The eighteen bodhisattvas are quite incredible with such a range of expressions: one in particular sits hunched over, scratching his back, his face contorted.
The temple is very old, having been first constructed in 1098 at the very beginning of the Northern Song Dynasty, but it has been rebuilt many times since then, and nothing obvious remains from those early days.
The reason for the temple is claimed to be because Wei Mie, the tutor of the emperor, is said to have heard heavenly music, which he floowed to its source. There he heard the music coming from underground so he dug down and found a small statue of Buddha, reclining. The Dafosi was built on the site of the heavenly music.
Later, it seems that the Southern Song emperor, Gong Di, became a Buddhist monk here after he was dethroned by the Mongol invaders. It is also claimed that Kublai Khan was born in this temple.
The temple was reconstructed in 1411 (so Marco Polo's descriptions are not accurate), and shortly afterwards it was renamed the Hong Ren Temple. Just two years later, sacred Buddhist relics and scriptures were discovered under the pedestal of the Jin Ta - or Gold Tower - and this brought considerable attention to the temple once more, with the Jin Ta being rebuilt and the whole temple being renamed the Baojue Temple in 1427.
Originally built in 1507 during the Ming Dynasty, the Drum Tower – or Gulou – is the biggest in the Hexi Corridor. Until recently it was only protected at provincial level, so didn’t get the full landscaping and lighting treatment, and suffered the insult of having an advertising banner for a local baijiu brand; on 1st May, its status was raised to state-protection, so I wonder what will become of it now.
Matisi is 70km southeast of Zhangye, reachable by taxi or by arranging a day trip with a travel agency in Zhangye. Unfortunately the only bus to Matisi from Zhangye leaves at 2pm and comes in to Zhangye in the morning. The tourism authorities have, in recent years, arranged a morning bus out to Matisi: ask at your hotel, but don't be surprised if they know nothing about it, as the ability for hotels in China to stay totally disengaged from the promotion of heritage and tourism attractions in their area is legendary.
Matisi is reviewed on a separate page.
The main temple and Matisi North Caves have been closed for restoration through much of 2005 and all summer 2006. If you are going to Matisi explicitly to see this, then you will be disappointed. of course, the tourism authorities should tell you this, but they don't.
However, Matisi is definitely worth the trip because of the Qilianshan Mountains behind, the beautiful scenery and the general spirit of the place.