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These are some of the most remarkable Buddhist caves in China, demonstrating a fine range of statuary styles amid spectacular scenery. Located 30km (19 miles) southeast of Tianshui, the haystack-shaped mountain which gives the caves their name, is home to 194 extant caves, most on the western side of the mountain. The first caves were carved out during the Later Qin (384-417), a non-Han dynasty established during the Sixteen Kingdoms Period. Unlike other Buddhist caves, these saw little construction during the Tang dynasty, due to a series of earthquakes. The most serious occurred in 734, when the middle part of the grottoes collapsed. Significant statuary dates from the Northern Wei, Northern Zhou, and Sui dynasties.

Unlike other sites, the statuary here was not carved from the crumbling red rock, but added to it. Grotto 18 explains the method of construction: A wooden superstructure is hauled up the mountain, bored into the soft cliffs, and coated with clay. Striking grottoes include no. 191, which houses a menacing winged figure with bulging eyes as its centerpiece; no. 13, with a huge Buddha and two attendant bodhisattvas dating from either the Northern Zhou dynasty or the Sui dynasty; and no. 5, with a sensuous bodhisattva dating from the Tang dynasty. As you scramble up the ladders that connect the caves, the charming scenery complements the statuary.

Many of the most interesting caves are off-limits without payment of between ¥300 and ¥600 per group. If you have either the money or many like-minded friends, cave no. 133 (which is actually a tomb; ¥600) from the Northern Wei is recognized as Maiji Shan's best. It contains 18 carved granite stones that depict the life of the Buddha. A sublime statue stands to the right, depicting one of Buddha's disciples, Bhiksu, smiling enigmatically as he listens to the master. When (now ex-) Prime Minister Zhu Rongji visited in 2001, he was depressed by the poverty he saw on his tour of Gansu. After staring at this statue, his good humor returned.

Buses for Maiji Shan (1-1 1/2 hr.) leave Beidao Qu railway station from 7am, with the last bus leaving the mountain at 6pm. The bus will stop at a ticket office, where you pay ¥80 to enter the "scenic area." Collect a map of the area, which is included in the price but is not offered without prompting. The bus stops farther up the mountain; the 10-minute walk to the ticket office takes you through souvenir stalls and excited locals letting off firecrackers. There are no English-speaking guides on-site, so unless you are fluent in Mandarin, there is no need to pay for a guide unless you arrange one in advance through CITS. Take a picnic, and leave time to explore the surrounding mountains and the botanical gardens.