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By Ernie Diaz
Don’t let the fact that it’s summer keep you from visiting China’s desert. By all means avoid the Gobi, unless you’re made of the same stern stuff as Sven Hedin. But say you make it out to Gansu, past grim Lanzhou, and out to the Hexi corridor. The ‘oasis’ of Dunhuang makes a fine goal, but first linger in the desert around Zhangye.
Such high-desert as Zhangye’s recharges your personal power, drained to flashing-red status by constant connectivity. You take modern shaman Carlos Castaneda, for example. Wandering around in the high desert of Sonora with his mentor Don Juan gave him enough personal power to become a hunter, then a warrior, and finally a man of knowledge. He accomplished this evolution through activities like erasing his personal history, and becoming inaccessible – spiritually, not literally.
Bereft of beach or five-star buffet, Zhangye guards the way to a geological treasure that will reinvigorate all but the most drained spirit, a multihued miracle bristling with power, for those equipped to absorb it.
Be advised, Zhangye has little to recommend it to other than the connoisseur of Chinese liquor, who will find the local rice wine a challenge to the palate, and the siluchun a rite of passage. All the power not diluted by 1.5 million far-west China dwellers is further absorbed in the sustaining of ghosts from its glory days, when not a trader bound for Xinjiang and points beyond on the Silk Road failed to stop there. It was a safe haven for a journey to the West starting in 111 BCE, when the Western Han began using the place as a garrison from which to fend off those marauding proto-Huns, the Xiongnu.
The reverberations of all that ancient hustle and bustle, sturm und drang, totally messes with your vibe, man. That’s why, after examining the bizarre array of paid extras in your hotel room (12 o’clock Man X-cite cream; no more 6:30 man!), and getting your head around some Gansu flat noodles, the next stop should be the Big Buddha Temple.
Contrary to what that sole-roaster Tony Robbins would have you believe, personal power has little to do with getting ‘psyched’, and everything to do with conserving energy. Even Guatama’s springy hips got tired from hours of full lotus, so he also adopted a supine pose in which to await Nirvana. There are bigger Buddhas in China, but none so large depicting Him lying down, 35 meters long, 7.5 high.
One stroll along this giant, taking particular note of the serene, half-lidded gaze, should be enough to convince that proper chilling out must precede great displays of power. No one’s telling if any of the scripture in the six thousand plus ancient scrolls of the temple concur, but consider: Queen Bieji of the Yuan Dynasty sojourned in the Big Buddha Temple for months before giving birth to the mighty Kublai Khan, a feat of power if ever there was one.
Still and all, considering how attenuated you probably are from being always within cell range, eyes and mind seldom wandering from the confines of a computer screen, you are not yet ready to absorb the power of Zhangye’s treasure. Time for a day trip south, to the foot of Qilian mountain, to see that faith can cultivate the power necessary to bore deep into a cliff side. A few hours’ drive from Zhangye will take you to Sunan Yugu Autonomous Prefecture, nominally Tibetan territory, but in actuality the last redoubt of the unsung Yugur minority.
More than likely it will be a Yugur, adorned with tall felt witch hat, who will guide you through the Mati (Horse Hoof) Temple. As to the name, long ago a Chinese Pegasus found the place holy enough to alight there, leaving a huge horseshoe imprint that can still be seen within the Mati Hall.
Going up and in, from hall to grottoe, requires the power of resolve; nothing like a precipitous climb to focus you on the here and now. The way down takes even more concentration. Within the temple, tunnels made labyrinthine through centuries of effort testify to the power of resolve, resolve sustained by a larger purpose, eternal perspective.
Scrambling from alcove to alcove, empty of anything to focus on other than shrines, statues of deities, quickly turns claustrophobic, underlining the difference of a place gazed on from afar, a lofty feeling of sanctuary its great effect, and the experience of working through its bowels, trapped and wondering at the mindset of those who spent long stretches of time within.
Without, past the tourist town, is Bonanza country, a world away from the desert treasure, a world of big country grown awesome in the shadow of Qilian. The Yugur, children of Qilian, have souls writ large on their broad faces. The elemental power of these uplands long ago left the Yugur too noble and direct to master the wrangle of business, famously trading horses for bricks of tea. But by all means roam the hillsides and meadows, sleep in a tent, on a bellyful of barley wine, drawing power in repose from the good earth.
Grounded, electronic tether slipped from the neck and ability to focus, to be here, regained, you are ready for Zhangye’s Danxia. When the bus rattles around that final corner, and the horizon suddenly crenellates, a still riot of colors more sincere than a brush stroke from Van Gogh, on Ritalin, resist the urge to wonder why or how. Do not struggle to rationalize the making, lest the effect on your psyche be diminished, like a shot of Drambuie on a man coked to the gills.
Geologists may go on at length about ‘terrigenous sedimentary beds influenced by endogenous forces’, the organic sediments that produce such extra-organic hues. Pay them no heed, for these explanations do no more for the experience than the classification of a coon hound does the experience of hunting with one. Zhangye’s danxia are one of earth’s most brazen declarations that she is more animate, more profound, more magnificent than the loftiest ideal a homo sapien mind ever conceived. In that realization there is humility, and in that humility there is power.