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As you climb up Mati Temple, each view past those rainbow railings is a stunning one, out to the beautiful mountains nearby. (Photo by Alexandra Sieh)
Alexandra Sieh / Daily columnist
As you climb up Mati Temple, each view past those rainbow railings is a stunning one, out to the beautiful mountains nearby. (Photo by Alexandra Sieh)

“But what about pupu*?” our driver asked in Mandarin.

I looked over at Manfriend. His face was taut. Childish laughter was imminent.


“Erm … could you say that again?” I asked.

“Pupu! Don’t you want to go see pupu too?”

So I hadn’t misheard. Manfriend turned, snickering away.

I pulled out my map of the park. She pointed at the waterfall tucked further back into the area.

“Pupu!” she insisted again.

Ah, so perhaps this was the name of the waterfall? I wasn’t sure, but I did know I wasn’t up for much more that day.

“No no, that’s OK. We don’t need to see it.”

Our driver shrugged. I could tell I had disappointed her. But it had already been such a perfect day — I was all right with skipping pupu.

Honestly, we were just grateful to not have seen any of Manfriend’s after Mati Temple, a site literally carved into the great rocks outside Zhangye, in Gansu Province, China.

Months ago, as an end to our trip around China, Manfriend and I decided to explore the wilds of Gansu. We were off to the mountains, to Mati Temple, an ancient collection of grottoes etched into the cliff sides.

Now, it may seem odd I would (crudely) hint at Manfriend’s wariness of such a site. What’s so frightening about a mountain temple?

Well let’s be clear, folks. This site is literally carved into the rock. Staircases wind precariously upward, etched into the side of the wall. Each step is a different height and depth, making the climb a stressful one. There were only short, narrow paths to wander if you wanted to see those quiet grottoes.

But those views.

At the top of each staircase, you would come to a long row of silent shrines all facing out toward the mountains. There were railings, yes — brilliantly painted ones all lining those narrow walkways. But if you imagined a time without those railings, you had to give props to the believers who came before — that took some nerve.

Those views, though. They made it all worth it. Even for poor Manfriend, who’s no fan of heights or low-set railings that offer little in the way of sturdy protection.

To recover from the cramped yet glorious experiences in the temple, we stretched back out with a hike up the hillside nearby. A hell of a lot of stairs later, we were staring out at a mountain range that had this Coloradan in tears. I felt like I was back home, staring at those rugged peaks under a beautiful blue sky.

It was a perfect day.

So by the end of it, we passed on the pupu. We couldn’t imagine topping something that had both tested and delighted us as much as Mati Temple had.

And while the waterfall would, no doubt, have been incredible, sometimes what you already have is more than enough.

*Note: Months have passed since that adventure. In a recent conversation with a good friend, I heard that word again. Pupu. As it turns out, the Mandarin word for “waterfall” is “pubu.” And so the last string was (finally) all tied up.

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