The Horse's Hoof Temple: Mati Si 马蹄寺

After three days of trekking in the desert on the back of a camel and sleeping on sand dunes (not as soft, warm or comfortable as it sounds, but more on that adventure in the next post) I can barely move, such are the depths of my camel-riding agonies, so forgive me, today's post is light on words but instead lush with pictures of one of the best places we've yet visited in our first 10,000km around China. 

Intriguing, extraordinary and quite magical, the Horse's Hoof Temple is a place that should be a massively popular attraction, but thankfully isn't. This is the sort of place you want to enjoy all by yourself.

Mati Si (literally Horse's Hoof Temple, named for the imprint left by the hoof of a Chinese pegasus) is an ancient Buddhist temple complex dating back some 1500 years. A series of temples spread over several miles on a long, undulating sandstone cliff face, the temples face the stunning snow-peaked Qilian mountain range and look out over a fertile, lush alpine meadow filled with wildflowers. 



In contrast to the impressively and precariously cantilevered Hanging Temple in northern Shanxi, reached by rickety outer wooden stairs and walkways, Mati Si is hollowed directly into the cliff itself. The labyrinthine collection of some several hundred temple shaped caves and caverns are all reached by a spellbinding and dizzying series of vertical, horizontal and diagonal tunnels and stairs carved directly into the rock. 

More than a little decrepit compared with the World Heritage-listed caves of Yaodong and Dunhuang, Mati Si is refreshingly free of crowds, free of guides, and free of souvenir sellers. I just enjoyed exploring the site, unrushed and unhindered, each dark tunnel leading to a Buddha niche filled with a riot of colour and pattern.

Sometimes the opportunity to be alone with your thoughts, seeing the immense beauty of nature and the ingenuity of man, is a much more powerful experience than a hundred famous temples.



Mati Si - the main temple, set into a cliff

The outdoor stairs, for the truly devoted. I took the tunnel instead.

Horse's Hoof Temple: Mati Si 马蹄寺

Gansu Province 
About 65km south-south-west of Zhangye township at the foot of the Qilian mountain range
Co-ordinates:  Lat: 38.486396° Long: 100.417540°

Admission: 35 yuan per person to the lower (Thousand Buddha) temple and nature reserve, additional 35 yuan per person for entrance to the main temple. Students half-price, under 1.3m free.

Open 7 days

For information on getting there from Zhangye this website has useful information

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