Some local attractions in the town of Zhanye, and an excursion to the temple and Buddhist caves of Mati Si.
We arrive in the evening in Zhanye, a mud pit after the rain, distinctly unattractive, but the next day it had cleared up, allowing a wonderful view over the snow-peaked mountains of the Tibetan Plateau. Although Zhanye has some tourist attractions of its own, the real reason to stop off here is to get to Mati Si, a small and little visited Buddhist Monastery perched against the mountains, some 60 km south of Zhanye. It took us two hours by bus, only to reach a junction in the middle of nowhere, where we somehow had ourselves convinced by the bus driver that we had to get off. Miraculously, a motorcycle taxi turned up at the moment the bus left, and the driver suggested we got in, so that he would bring us to the village of Mati Si. Not being in a negotiating position, we got seriously ripped off, but never mind, the ride was really fantastic, in the open air, a beautiful day, with the mountains in the distance and the motorcycle slowly climbing the foothills of the plateau. On the way we stopped at something that looked a police checkpoint, but actually turned out to be a ticket office, where we were urged to buy three different tickets. We still do not know for what, because wherever we subsequently wished to get to in Mati Si, we had to buy yet another ticket again. The art of charging is second nature to the Chinese, and here it proved that even in areas not frequented by foreign tourists a lively industry had been set up. That said, compared to western standards prices were modest to say the least.
Mati Si is an amazing place. The village is nothing but a few huts, small shops, three restaurants and a very basic hotel. However, it is strategically positioned to extort money from the mainly Chinese tourists who come to visit the temple of the Monastery. This temple consists of a number of man-made caves in the sandstone cliffs. The caves are at various levels, connected by a range of dark corridors and staircases, also hewn in the rock. The Buddhist art here has sadly suffered, probably from the Cultural Revolution. Many caves have arches that must have contained sculptures at one stage, but are now empty. Large parts of other statues are missing, eyes have been poked out, and a lot of damage has been inflicted indiscriminately, for no apparent reason other than to molest.
We had intended to stay longer in Mati Si, but the rather unattractive prospect of the hotel, combined with the temptation offered by a taxi driver who returned empty to Zhanye late that afternoon, made us change our mind and return the same day. The comfortable taxi ride took just one hour and contrasted sharply with the outward journey, whilst costing the same!
Back in Zhanye we discovered that the town, unknown to many tourist guides, actually has some nice attractions of its own, not in the last place a beautiful, old temple with a large Reclining Buddha statue. The local park supports the usual market, and no less than 30 pool tables. Billiards is one of these things that is, unsuspectedly, tremendously popular in China, and wherever we went, we would find a pool table, or a snooker table. Inside temples, in the town squares, on the pavement next to little bars and terraces, or, like in Zhanye, in the parks. And not just one or two!