The ancient Buddhist cave temples at Xumishan face danger

by Sheila OConnor, World Travel Examiner, November 10, 2009

Los Angeles, CA (USA) -- The Xumishan cave temples are in danger.  You might never have heard of them but they are a real  treasure, just not well known. In fact, they're not even visited a lot by those outside the country.

You’ll find the temples deep in the deserts of the Ningxia Hui autonomous region, in Xumishan, a Buddhist complex with over 130 grottoes in it. And these grottoes are ancient – they date back between the 5th and 10th centuries AD. Much of the art you'll find here is religious in nature, having been influenced by both Indian and central Asian cultures. Note that the 130 grottoes are spread out over a mile in area.

But just in case you think you can’t possibly visit all 130 grottoes in one visit, know that not all the grottoes have something to offer. In fact, around 50 percent of them are actually empty (these may have been used as living quarters for monks). The others, on the other hand, offer unique inscriptions, fascinating stone statues and intriguing inscriptions that are well worth your time. Don’t forget to check out the staggering 65 foot high Maitreya Buddha that originates from the Tang dynasty.

But the walk to the grottoes is not for the faint of heart. This proves to be quite a workout and will require good sturdy shoes to scale the steps and follow the hiking trails. But the trip is well worth it. You’ll likely pass through the town of Guyuan which lies 50km from Xumishan. In that case, be sure to stop at any of the Hui villages (the Hui Muslim food alone is worth the stop) and see the city ruins along the way. Islam is strong here and around a third of the people are Muslim.

But all is not well in this area and although the Xumishan is protected as a national heritage site, the cultural location is constantly threatened by erosion, earthquakes and unpredictable flooding. Hopefully, now that it is has been on the bi-annual danger list produced by the New York organization-- the World Monuments Fund—since 2007, the area will receive more worldwide attention and, hopefully, with that, more assistance. The World Monuments Fund highlights the plight of historic areas under threat.

Let’s hope then that something can be done to prevent this area from disappearing. It would be a great pity to lose one of history’s most beautiful historic sites.  Even though Buddha's motto is "everything changes," this is one thing that we hope does not.

If you go

Air China flies every day from LAX, NYC, YVR, and 5 days out of every week from SFO to Beijing. You can fly from Beijing to Yinchuan, or take the train/bus to Guyuan (this takes 4 to 6 hours), and then take a taxi or a minivan from Guyuan to Xumishan (this takes about an hour).