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Dunhuang Region & Mogao Caves

CHINA | Friday, 24 August 2018 | Views [545]

Dunhuang and the Mogao Grottoes

 When we got off the flight from Beijing we were confronted with a hot blast of air that almost took my breath away.  Yes, this is the Gobi Desert.  As we made our way with the taxi to our hotel by Mingsha Mountain, just south of Dunhuang city, I stared at a landscape replete with trees, grape vines, corn, watermelons and tomatoes.  Irrigation canals line the region bringing much needed water from the Dangxiang River to fertilize the sandy desert soil.  At first glance the irrigated fields and sand dunes in the distance reminded me of Yuma, Arizona.  There is perhaps even less vegetation here than in Yuma in the non-irrigated areas, but the general feeling of the place was quite similar. Water makes the desert bloom.

 The main reason for coming to this region as a non-Chinese tourist, is to visit the Mogao Buddhist Grottoes. Tickets (Y220per person) need to be purchase a day in advance at the official Mogao Ticket Office downtown.  The fellow who runs our hotel was kind enough to take us there and to a travel agency where we could book a taxi for a day excursion (Y350) later in the week. After returning to the hotel, we headed out for a walk passing by the stalls where the camels that transport hordes of domestic tourists up the Singing Dunes live to a line of tourist stalls selling all kinds of trinkets, hats, sunglasses, and silk, or imitation silk, scarves in front of the entrance to Mingsha Mountain. We saw a corridor of moving beasts headed up the dunes in one area and then a complete line from bottom to top of people headed to sled down the singing sands.  We decided it would be better to put off going into the site for another day when we hoped it wouldn’t be quite so crowded.

 Our tickets for the Grottoes were for 11:30 on Tuesday. We got there a bit early and wanted to get in, but there is a strict time sequence to their people moving strategy and we weren’t going to upset that.  They did let us into the café and gift store so that we could wait in the shade. When our time came, we were admitted into the first of two films about the area.  The first was basically on the history of the region starting with how a Buddhist monk had a vision of building a meditation cave in the sandstone cliffs in about 362 CE. Then followed an impressive visual explanation of the various clans and dynasties who fought each other and ruled the region.  The highlight of the Mogao Grottoes artistic period was in the Tang Dynasty and this was the focus of the second film.  After leaving the theater, the audience was escorted onto busses that cross the desert to the actual Grotto site. Here again, one waits in line for a guide who takes a certain number of people into each of the eight caves that visitors can enter.  They rotate the caves so that the human impact on any particular cave art isn’t too great. At present only the caves in the South section were available, the North was entirely closed off. As this is a renown World Heritage site, there was – luckily- an English guide available; which we didn’t have at any of the other places.

The caves we visited were from the Wei, Northern Wei, Sui, and Tang periods. They differed in architectural as well as iconographic styles.  Unfortunately, it was not permitted to take pictures, so I’m unable to show the differences.  One of the most striking changes was in the construction of the roofs, however.  The four-sided pinnacle with a top knot in the earlier caves, gave way at one point to a sloped ceiling with a break and a more angled upward thrust toward the entrance way, which we were told is similar to ancient Chinese residential architecture.  During all eras, 1000 Buddhas graced the ceilings as well as lotus flowers in a myriad of forms.  Images of Buddha Sakyamuni, Maitreya, Avolokiteshavara, illustraions from the Jataka Tales as well as some of the Sutras, most notably the Lotus Sutra were present in the eight caves we visited, which included the famous Library Cave and the largest Buddha (35.5m) in Mogao.  The second largest, which was probably donated by a family wanting to gain favor with Empress Wu, who was an advocate of this as well as other Buddhist cave sites, was closed for repairs. There is some speculation that her face is also on the largest Buddha, as it is in the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, Henan Province, but given the angle, straight up, at which the Buddha’s face can be seen, it is difficult to verify. The Library Cave (Cave 16) on the other hand really is as small as the web and book descriptions.  The space must have been completely packed to house the number of manuscripts and scrolls found there. The guidebooks now speak about “The Despicable Treasure Hunters” who bought many of the scrolls and brought them back to England, Japan, Russia, and France.  Most of them are now housed in the British Museum or the Guimet in Paris, much to the consternation of the Chinese. After the official tour, there are two other sites to visit, the first an exhibition hall with some of the Library Cave scrolls, and the second a more descriptive museum of the site itself.  The first did not have any English translations, but the museum did and they were helpful.  When I had heard that we were only going to get to see eight caves, I was a bit disappointed, but the artistry in the caves is stunning and sometimes it is good to savor just a little bit. 

 The next day we headed out for our day-long excursion to sites outside of town.  Our first stop was at an old movie set and model Old Dunhuang village. (Entrance Y40 pp) It was a recreated fort with a row of battering rams and flame throwers lining the outside walls. Through the gate there were six regions representing differing periods and cultures, two rooms with imitation caves, and a couple of recreated temples, with Buddha figures that are actively donated to. The site is quite large and takes a fair amount of time to adequately see.  Our next stop was the 1000 Buddha Western Caves, which are like the little sister of the Mogao Caves. (Entrance Y30 pp) Both have recently had the sandstone cliff facings repaired and renovated with stairs that keep the massive number of visiting tourists safe. As we drove across the desert I was looking for the cliff wall, but didn’t see it; all I saw was desert. When the taxi driver pulled into a parking lot I realized I must have missed something.  I had; the cave wall was below us in an oasis grove with filled with trees and running water, unseen from the surface.  The Dangxiang River runs right by the site, which has led to many of the caves being destroyed.  Here again, the site administration only lets a few people in at a time and only with a guide.  There were no English speaking guides available, but quite fortunately, our Chinese guide had had an American English teacher in school and decided to try her language skills on us.  She did a remarkable job, and we could understand much of what she was relating to her domestic participants. At this site we could only visit four caves, but again they were from different periods.  As one of the caves was the one Russian soldiers were imprisoned in during WWI, much of that artwork was destroyed by black ink.  The soldiers had clearly no interest in preserving the heritage of their captors. I had wanted to get into Cave 16 here as there is an image of Mani and Uighur apsaras on the east side, but it was closed for renovation so no amount of begging would have worked. The last site of this tour was to Yangguan Pass, which is a fair distance from town. (Entrance Y60pp) In the distance the peaks of the Tian Shan mountains are visible. As in Old Dunhuang the site is a large fortress with the tools of weaponry on display outside the walls. When entering through the large gate, one comes to a courtyard lined with large, ca. 1.5m in width, pillars with battle scenes and some Buddhist iconography in relief. From there off to the left is an exhibition hall, which is really a small museum that provides a good introduction to the history of the site. No actual remains of the original pass have been found, but centuries of traders and warriors have created a few different routes. This was the gateway to the West.  Beyond this site were the wild Huns or other malevolent forces that the rulers needed to prevent entering, hence the build up of the Great Wall. After walking through the fortress, one can line up and pay a fee for a camel, donkey, or cart ride up the sand dunes to view this inauspicious area.  As I had been struggling with a fever and was quite sick, we decided to forgo simply looking at more desert and head back to the hotel.  It was a good day despite my health and the two replica fortress sites, while intended for tourism, were informative and well worth going to, and the art in Buddhist caves is remarkable no matter where one is. (Please see some of the earlier blogs from Sri Lanka, India, Laos, Vietnam and other sites in China for more information on others.)

 The following day we took a bus to the Dunhuang Museum.  This is a very nicely laid out museum with solid English translations of all the descriptions and inscriptions. The museum is laid out chronologically with artifacts from each of the periods.  It is not a Buddhist museum, although there are a few Buddhist artifacts on display. The museum ends in a display of various printed silks and a special exhibit room that this time had ancient weaponry and kettles on display. In the gift shop there were sofas where one could drink tea regardless of whether one bought anything or not.  This was the best selection of nice souvenirs that I had seen in town and the domestic visitors were happily purchasing all manner of sculptures, silk scarves, silk paintings as well as simple postcards.

 We had wanted to go to the famous Silk Road performance that is currently touring the U.S. and Europe for exorbitant ticket prices, figuring that surely it must be cheaper here, where the performance originated. It was, but not by that much and given the state of my very loud hack, it was probably best we didn’t go.

 On our last morning the temperature was down to a moderate 93F/34C and as it was a bit overcast we decided we had to try our luck getting in the Mingsha Mountain Crescent Lake Geo Park.  Amazingly, there were hardly any people there.  We didn’t have to stand in line at either the main ticket office (entrance Y120pp) or at the shuttle bus (Y20 roundtrip).  Paul wanted to take an ultralight, but it seemed they weren’t flying that day, only the helicopter was. We had understood, mistakenly, that we had to take a shuttle to the lake area.  That really isn’t necessary as the walk is not that far and there is a paved road to use through the sands. Crescent Spring lake is 242 meters across in an east – west direction, and it is really quite surprising to find this water source amid the barren high dunes. There is a watchtower by the lake which provides a bit of elevation for photos and is a great place to people watch. Most people had on large orange cloth boots provided by the site so that their shoes wouldn’t get destroyed in the sands.  Women with silk scarves flowing across their heads and shoulders with clunky bright orange knee-high boots is quite a site. Large groups line up to take Bactrian camel rides to the top of some of the dunes, while others can choose to ride a 4-wheeler. We didn’t see any of the noisy ones, but the camel trek was in full swing. On the way back to the entrance, Paul saw an ultralight flying and made another attempt.  This time he was successful and had a 3-4 minute sweep of the dunes and lake (Y480). He remarked that he had a nice glance at the entire crescent shape of the lake. After spending a couple of hours in the Geo-Park, it was time to get ready for our flight to the last leg of this trip, Urumqi, where I hope to learn more about Uighur history at the museum tomorrow morning.

(FYI, when I say people don't speak English, I also mean that we didn't find anyone who spoke German, Spanish, Italian or French either....) 


Tags: cities, landscapes, off road, religious sites

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