The Maijishan Grottoes near Tianshui were supposed to be the very last stop of Alexander’s and my China trip from Ürümqi back to Beijing. Due to unforeseen circumstances, however, we had to reverse our itinerary and ended up traveling to Tianshui via Taiyuan first. What might have seemed like an abrupt and disappointing change of our initial travel plans turned out to be a blessing in disguise: if only we had known before how exciting Tianshui and the surrounding Gansu region really was! For example the Maijishan Grottoes, one of Tianshui‘s greatest gems: an incredible mountain with 194 little caves and over 7’200 Buddha sculptures and carvings hidden within. The smile of the Buddhas, the beautiful panorama and the calm rain at the Maijishan Grottoes slowly washed our previous travel frustrations away.

Our adventure began in Beijing, when we were told that there were no more train tickets to Ürümqi. Summer holidays, as it was July. Knowing very little about China at that time, we were (falsely) convinced that this must have been a lie to keep potentially troublesome tourists out of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (which is the northwestern tip of China, bordering to Mongolia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India). So our extremely smart plan was to travel to the west of China by taking it step by step, until we would eventually reach our goal. During our short stay at the first checkpoint Taiyuan, we met a kind police officer who unfortunately informed us that all the train seats to Ürümqi were booked out, again, and the only westbound option was taking the last two seats on a train to Tianshui. The catch: one ticket was for a 2nd class sleeper wagon, the other was a “no seat”-ticket. A “no seat”-ticket for a 16 hour train ride to Tianshui? Oh, what the hell – can’t be that bad! Let’s do it!

As solidly united brothers, Alexander and I decided to go to the “no seat”-wagon together where we quickly made our way through from one end to the other. “Oh, crap.” was the expression on our faces once we had realized how the next 16 hours in the train would look like: an overcrowded wagon (people were standing) that was not air-conditioned, with dozens of farmers s(p)itting on the floor, sitting next to chicken in cages, crying children and even people cooking their meals. Don’t Complain. Luckily, we quickly found a restaurant wagon where we could observe the cook sweating and smoking in the kitchen, while preparing an absolutely tasteless rice soup. The following 16 hours can be quickly summarized: a lot of beer to maintain our right as customers to remain in the restaurant wagon, trying to rest in the 2nd class wagon together with our single 2nd class ticket, then getting chased through the train and locked out from the 2nd class wagon, a lot more beer in the restaurant wagon, making a new Chinese friend, saying good bye to our new Chinese friend who had protected us for as long as he could, subsequently getting chased out and banned from the restaurant wagon, standing a couple of hours at the exit of the “no seat”-wagon until finally: Tianshui.

Did you enjoy our Maijishan (Tianshui) adventure so far?


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Tianshui is the ideal starting point for visiting the Maijishan Grottoes. It’s a city with a population of roughly 3.5 million – a city that until shortly before, I had never heard of. Alexander and I used only the train to get from Beijing to Tianshui, but there would have also been some flight options via Xi’an. We quickly found a hotel near the main station and explored the city for the day. Tianshui itself was unexpectedly modern, with large shopping streets and “Western” bakeries. We were also astonished to discover a fake Apple store in Tianshui, which (unsurprisingly) sold fake Apple products. The people were extremely curious to see us – many people stopped and looked at us, some children (and adults…) even followed us for a while. In the three days we had spent there, we never saw any other foreign tourists. Luckily, we met two very kind locals who showed us around, introduced us to the regional cuisine and even made us proud clients of China Mobile. However, even with their generous help, we had reached our peak of frustration at the Tianshui main station, when the lady at the counter repeatedly informed us that there were no train tickets to Ürümqi. Period. Don’t Complain.

It’s best to get to the Maijishan Grottoes by taking a taxi or public bus – it’s only a short trip. Once you have paid the entry fee, you can either take a shuttle bus to the foot of the Maijishan hill, or simply walk there. It’s surrounded by a beautiful Chinese forest, so I recommend the latter. The Maijishan Grottoes are carved into a steep mountain wall, which you can climb with the stairs they have built to it. Besides the giant Buddha carvings, you’ll find several little “caves” with more sculptures, drawings and carvings inside. What I appreciated the most was the variety of artwork you find within the Maijishan Grottoes: most of the more than 7’200 sculptures were unique, so it was actually fun to explore them from cave to cave. At the top of the Maijishan Grottoes, you could take a short break and marvel at the same beautiful panorama that the initial builders must have already seen more than 1’600 years ago. For a second there, I was finally able to forget the exhausting train ride and the disappointment of not being able to explore Ürümqi. We embraced the atmosphere for a while before heading back to Tianshui, where we prepared ourselves for our next adventure trip to Shuiliandong.

I would like to thank Alexander for being such a reliable and fun travel companion, and also for generously providing us with some of his valuable photos, videos and memories.

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