A weekend in Tianshui: a tour of Mai Ji Shan, and Ms. Mi’s wedding

Back in August when we took the train from Chengdu to Lanzhou, a teacher from another college, Ms. Mi, told us that she was getting married in a month. The waiban reps and I were all excited for her, and she casually mentioned we were invited to her wedding in Tianshui. Now, a lot of times I will hear people say things like “I’d love for you to come!”, “We’d be happy to have you!” “You’re a great fit for the team!” for dinner or parties or work but most of the time they hope I don’t actually follow up with them, probably because they hate my guts, but are too faux-polite to tell me this. Chinese people are not like that though, at least not here in Gansu, and last week I received a weChat message from Ms. Mi formally inviting me to her big day!!

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fateful meeting on our train ride up, back in august. They are teachers from 4 different colleges sent to pick up the volunteers. Brian (in blue) is my school rep and good friend. Ms. Mi is on the far left

Friday evening I took the train four hours from Lanzhou to Tianshui, and made plans with my dearest friend Jess (a PCV in TianShui) to see Mai Ji Shan, a sacred Buddhist mountain about an hour bus ride from the city. On Saturday we packed some snacks (including a blueberry grape milk drink, yuck), switched three different buses, and got to the mountain. Mai Ji Shan is famous in China for its thousands of mountainside Buddhist carvings and murals, some dating back to the Qin dynasty (400 AD).

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Mai Ji Shan from afar- can you see the three,gigantic standing buddhas?
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Jess and another trio of large buddhas in the mountain

The highlight of Mai Ji Shan is several enormous Buddhas and their attendants carved into the cliffside. It must have been breathtaking for monks to see these figures, after traveling hundreds or thousands of kilometers by horse and camel some 500 or 1,000 years ago. I’m pretty jaded and I’ve seen a lot around the world, and was still thoroughly impressed with the size and detail on their faces, hands, and generally strong posture that has helped them stand tall overlooking the valley for 1,000 years.

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Buddha and bodhisattvas. originally male, over the centuries bodhisattvas became females

Equally impressive was the wall of one thousand buddhas- I didn’t actually count but I’m sure there were at least several hundred mini buddhas sitting on top of each other!

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Another short climb up and we reached the top; there was a series of caves carved deep into the mountain, with gods standing inside. Outside was a rather ferocious, red skinned guardian watching over the site- he probably keeps the evil spirits and sinners away! Im surprised jess and I weren’t blasted off the mountain by some mystic force when we entered 🙂

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angry statue keeping watch

Each cave was similar; Buddha sat in the middle meditating, and was flanked by three lesser gods on both sides of him. We also noticed that the man on his left was always wrinkly and old, probably a sign of wisdom.

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sketch list? yes!

The level of detail put into the statues is incredible- I love the positioning of the hands, the floral pattern on her sleeves, the phoenix on her dress, and just the way everything drapes and flows like real clothing.

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It was definitely worth the one hour bus ride (5 RMB), and 90 RMB entrance fee to check out Mai Ji Shan. I also paid 10 RMB to burn incense at the base of the mountain- kind of a rip off, but if my dreams come true I’ll be grateful. Also, the view was spectacular! (priceless)

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fresh air in China, always appreciated

The next day we are joined by Dariush, the PCV at Ms. Mi’s school, and we head over to Ms. Mi’s big day. The wedding took place at a local Chinese mosque with a beautiful courtyard.

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quiet courtyard of the mosque

We sat around for a short while, drinking tea, cracking open peanuts and sunflower seeds, taking selfies with the little kids curious to see Americans. The kids were mostly interested in Dariush – token white guy – because I look like a typical Chinese, and Jess (Mexican American) apparently looks Chinese too! People thought she was a Uighur from Xinjiang province because of her darker skin, strong nose, and large eyes. (We are in north-west China now, so it actually makes sense, and we do see a lot of Central Asian/ Middle Eastern Chinese folk in town) Ironically, Dariush is half Persian and grew up in Germany so he shouldn’t really be the token American guy either.

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HELLOOOOO! mei guo ren! (american!)

Then Ms. Mi came out to greet us, dressed in breathtaking, deep red wedding attire (like a qipao, but longer, and with a head scarf) with gold flower patterns laced throughout her dress.

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OMG! beyond excited to celebrate with Ms Mi!
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Jess (the “Uighur”) in the front, myself and Dariush in the back. Brian (my Waiban rep) could not attend but later said “wow you all dress up so much for weddings! we normally wear jeans.. if we don’t know the person well, we might even wear flip flops)

Ms. Mi’s grandfather was very happy to take part in the wedding, and I got a poignant photo of the two of them with my DSLR camera.

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Ms. Mi’s second dress was equally stunning, this one was a white bridal gown (western style) also with a head scarf. The little girls and I were going nuts, haha.

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dress #2!

There was no formal reception at the mosque, the Chinese describe this type of gathering as 流水席, liu shui xi, which means the guests are like water in a river- people will come and go as they please, to say hello, eat lunch, stick around for a little more and then leave.

so we did the same- we met some of Ms Mi’s friends (many wearing jeans, thankfully no flipflops), ate a delicious mutton and beef heavy lunch (with sprite, alcohol is not allowed at the mosque) and then headed out to catch the train home. The groom was fashionably late to his own wedding- yikes! – but we did get a chance to meet him and hand over a red envelope (money) for taking part in the festivities.

Quite the memorable weekend, and I’m so, so glad to be in this part of China, at the crux of the old silk road, a mishmash of cultures that have still managed to retain their unique customs after 2,000 years of war, conquest, revolution… and now globalization!

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