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July 13, 2011 (Wednesday)
Forty-eighth day in China, third day in Dunhuang: 莫高窟 Mogao Caves
The object of any visit to Dunhuang are the Mogao Caves, the site of Buddhism’s introduction into China, and home to thousands of grottoes decorated with delicate statuary and wall paintings. We took a cab to the caves, down a dusty road just past the train station, arrayed along a rocky cliff facing a river. A Chinese guide took us to about ten caves. The caves are locked, and the inside monitored for moisture and oxygen levels. If the level is too high, the guides are advised by headset not to take tourists inside. Though statues were stolen by European, Japanese and American “explorers”, and others–including many central Buddhas–destroyed, many remaining figures are in excellent condition. The white-faced Tang dynasty statuary was especially attractive. Two caves contained giant Buddhas, each some three stories tall. One sits straight up. The shorter one in fact appears larger, as it leans over the visitors. Patches in the leg of the seated Buddha exposed Tang-era straw filling. Each successive dynasty added dirt to the floor of the Buddha’s chamber. When the original floor was uncovered, locals joked that the Buddha grew one meter.
Off one of the more famous caves, the ceiling covered in little Buddhas, sat a tiny room, once the 藏經洞 scripture depository at Mogaoku. The room once held 58,000 Buddhist scriptures. When the Hungarian scholar Aurel Stein arrived in 1907, he got them to open the room, and bought some 15,000 scriptures in various languages to take back to England (they’re now in the British Museum). A French explorer and a Japanese followed soon after. The Louvre has many of those. Japanese collectors have returned some of the manuscripts.
We snuck into a second group and got a guide who was not really a guide, but a researcher filling in. He told us (and Joy translated) more about rooms we had already visited, and took us to a few new ones, those he liked. In one, two identical paintings faced one another, each telling the story of the same Buddhist parable. Rival painters took up the same subject. When the paintings were shown, baskets for donations were placed in front of each so visitors could vote with their wallets. The blue pigments were especially bright, having been painted with a special pigment imported from Afghanistan via the Silk Road. Images from the walls of Mogaoku are iconic representations of Chinese art.
The buses and cabs had all gone, so we caught a ride with the staff from the souvenir stalls in their bus back to Dunhuang. One staffer, a woman with two kids, showed us a place for local food on a busy street. We ate donkey meat and cold noodles.
July 11, 2011 (Monday)
Forty-sixth day in China, first day in Dunhuang: 敦煌 Dunhuang, 鸣沙山 Mingshashan
We arrived early in the morning at Dunhuang’s shiny new beige stone station, and bought return sleeper tickets from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou. We met a Korean traveler on his way to 乌鲁木齐 Urumqi. At the cab stand we made friends with a fellow traveler named Ye, and rode together to Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse, a hostel south of Dunhuang, near the sand dunes.
We got a private cabin in an apricot orchard. Apricots dried on tables all over the garden, and the dunes towered right behind the hostel, which comprised a four-sided courtyard. We ate lunch and headed into Dunhuang proper with our friend Ye, but found nothing to be seen. The weather was bone dry and unbearably hot. The streets were deserted. Rather than the Silk Road trading post of my foolish imagination, Dunhuang was a small town in modern Han style. A mosque in square, contemporary style sat at the city center. We stopped for milk tea at 三毛 Sanmao cafe, and were pleasantly surprised to be seated on legless benches suspended from the cieling.
We took the bus down to the colossal dunes at 鸣沙山 Mingshashan, or maybe “Singing Sand Mountain”. We saw camels climbing around the side, rented orange gaiters to cover our shoes, and walked right up the middle on a narrow path. Truly mountainous, the dune was many times taller than anything I had seen in Morocco. The smooth slopes curved gracefully. The center path was hard to climb. Only by stepping in the footprints of those climbing ahead could you avoid slipping in the sand. We reached the top and saw 月牙泉 Yueyaquan, or “Crescent Moon Lake”, and got a great photo taken at the golden hour, as the sun set over the opposite dune. By chance, we met our friend Ye, on his way down, and together watched the sun go down over the lake.
In darkness we whipped off our gaiters and shoes and–forsaking the path–walked right down the slope. The dune sloped at a gentle gradient. I jumped as far as I could. For a moment, I flew off the mountain, only to touch down in forgiving sand a few meters below.