Mati Si caves are another famous stop in the silk road themed travels. It is one more rock cut temple on the line that links Xian to Jiayuguan where the westernmost tip of the Great Wall is. Only one of the many routes carving the desert and the mountains with pilgrims, monks and merchant feet.
I could not find much information about this site, most of the websites are based in China and based on my recent crosschecks with different sources, i have been applying a good dose of mistrust to what comes from Chinese speakers: the quote “history is written by victors” has a whole new meaning to Chinese government that seem to tend to rewrite history just to be eventually “victors”, with no hesitation in wiping out of the frame any influence that can be non Han . I wonder sometimes if at some point they will not claim the whole central India , saying that, since Emperor Ashoka was the first to advocate Buddhism as state religion, he must intrinsically have been Chinese . Or that the whole indian art in HImalaya was influenced by China and surely not the other way round.
This slightly grumpy ,although totally reasonable though, affirmation must spring out of my memories of the moments in which I was waiting for the bus in that Zhangye station. The employees let me wait for half an hour when I mentioned Mati Si and then led me , by hand, to a bus , where we waited for another hour until eventually we left. I understand now that they must have put me on the local tour bus. The people were exquisitely nice and kind and helpful , yet to me not knowing what the plans are, what is actually happening is something that drives me literally crazy. And it is something that marks a neat difference with my asian fellow human beings: whether it comes from lack of democracy practice or a family too present in their education, not being in control of their destiny does not seem to cause any anguish in them. Mei banfa, nothing much that you can do . At least apparently.
However , on that day , once the bus engine started I let go of my grumpiness and looked at how our little bus was entering expanses of deserts and barren fields. The ochre colored earth was surrounded by other barren mountains in the distances, too far away to understand their shapes. For an hour or two, we could forget the city and enter that pleasant and at the same time scaring uncertainty of finding something ahead of us. In that desert.
The road became unpaved and we crossed a couple of villages. Sometimes even some cultivated fields , image of a dreamt china that exists only in old novels and our imagination: to know this it takes just to realise that among more than two thousand pictures taken only a couple have people working in the fields . Those backs bent on rice fields almost seem inexact and unprecise in this slow setting of the desert landscape, realm of overdevelopment or simply forgetfulness.
Faces hardly look Han here, if Han Chinese has any meaning at all in this kaleidoscopic human world. From the bus window, the people look a little tibetan and maybe a little mongols, maybe turk , maybe even a little italian, babies of babies of babies of travellers that too weary to move on to the next villages just decided to stop here and used that precious merchandise to win the smile of that beautiful country girl. Maybe this is a trick of the imagination, though.
We arrive at Mati Si. The entrance caves are unfortunately close , or so they seem to the non chinese speaker . A little up from them there is another cluster of caves and temples. A very kind couple of Chinese accompanies me, impossible to refuse their polite requests not to leave me alone. I cannot figure out how old the caves are. They are probably fairly recent. In the surroundings other tombs and hermit caves are on the unstable edges . They seem to be fused with the countryside with even their share of sheep and goats droppings.
Sometimes climbing up on the ladders that lead to the temples balcony tricks you into thinking you are almost climbing the nude rock on your own. I wonder whether I would have distinguished these temples from erosion result holes in the rock, had i not been told that there were temple here. I toy with the idea what drove people to leave here, the desire of being hidden or the desire of live in the mountain, as if in the nature wombs. The reality is much more complex and obvious at the same time, these rock caves were probably easier to build and probably more easy to hide and protect from raids of neighboring villages,tribes , brigands as well as from storms and snow blizzards. The cave temples at the time also represented and easy stop where to replenish provision and rest when moving from one town to the other.
All of a sudden it starts to snow. The flakes seems to blur even more the place, the ongoing uncertainty that surrounds it , about its history and its present. Even the landscape seems almost to hesitate between desert dunes and high mountains.
A cluster of restaurant and souvenir shops are on the platform next to the parking. It is still low season and many places are closed.
We go away and I wish I could know more about this place. Why and how he was founded here. Why it is still so important to people.
The bus happily unwinds his way back, most of the chinese tourists are fast asleep.
There is a timid sun that comes out on our way back to town. When we arrive the couple that has accompanied me all the time in Mati Si proposes to go together to see Dafo Si temple. I am tempted but i frankly prefer to stay alone for some time rather than having another group visit.
Maybe I did a mistake. Or maybe not.
I walk back to the hotel and observe how Zhangye is taking a different face at different times of the day. The morning shoe polisher has left space to delicious yogurt and other snacks sellers around the town Bell. The town seems almost provided of its own life , as if that changing dress at different times of the day was its own way of breathing.
To console myself of missing the Dafo Si, I walk to a daoist temple just beyond my hotel inside a sort of little clay hutong. The immersion into the blue of the temple coming from the ochre clay soffused hutong is very pleasant, yet I wonder whether I should really have gone to the Dafo Si.