Admittedly we’ve seen a lot of things on this trip. Good, bad and ugly, it takes something really special to amaze us anymore. Coming out of Central Asia, the sites, sounds and smells were all pretty similar in Xinjiang province. That was until we got to Mogao Caves at Dunhuang. A major stop on the silk road, positioned to control the roads to India, Mongolia, the Siberian plateau and eastern China, Dunhuang was a strategic oasis. Dunhuang attracted not only traders and merchants, but also scholars, philosophers, artists, sculptors and fortune seekers.
Tucked away in the middle of a desert plateau, the caves at Dunhuang literally hold Silk Road treasure. According to local legend, a Buddhist monk sought enlightenment there sometime around the year 350 CE. He carved a Buddhist temple out of the rock, and in a vision dreamt that the temples should number 1000 in all. Today more than a thousand caves exist and from the 4th-14th centuries, thousands of Buddhist monks inhabited the caves, making them a center of Buddhist life and culture.
So what’s this treasure? The caves themselves are so richly decorated that its hard to believe they’re 1000 years old. To their credit the Chinese government has recently done a great job of conserving the atmosphere as well as the art itself, limiting the number of tourists in each cave per day, monitoring the humidity, temperature and light within the caves and protecting the site from further human destruction.
The caves were breathtaking and incredible. Although we were limited to remaining on our tour, the caves we saw were spectacular and each very, very different. Inside the first cave we found beautiful Buddha statues of a kind we’d simply never imagined. In the second we could see something large was in front of us….indeed it was a 35meter (>100feet) high Buddha just sitting there watching over things. The size was one thing but given that it was constructed inside a cave made it all the more awe-inspiring. Because no pictures are allowed inside (a result of tourists who could not be bothered to learn how to turn off their flashes) the caves, all photos here come from the International Dunhuang Project, an international effort to make the art and manuscripts available to the world on the Internet.
That’s right the manuscripts. In a scene out of Indiana Jones, a local monk discovered a walled over secret cave in 1900. Sealed for centuries the small cave contained 50,000 manuscripts, religious paintings, calligraphy and commercial documents- some in languages that no longer exist today. The treasure within this cave proved without a doubt the globalism of the silk road, but also gave new insights to the culture, ideas, music and art that traveled along with the goods.
Unfortunately news of the monks discovery spread among amateur archaeologists and two in particular purchased, for a rather palsy sum an incredible trove of these treasures. Now maintained in the British Museum in the UK and the Biblioteque Nationale in France, these items constitute the majority of the 50,000 objects found. It was clear from the exhibit on stolen treasures (remarkably, only in English for the 2% of tourists who don’t speak Chinese) that the Chinese government wants the items returned, however despite their attempt at the higher ground, its clear the left over treasures were often handed out as gifts and favors in the early half of the 20th Century by the Chinese themselves. As the saying goes, “you never know what you have until it’s gone.”
IF YOU GO: Most guidebooks recommend flying to Dunhuang, but it’s now directly connected to China on the main Urumqi/Lanzhou line. The town is well planned and we spent a day at other minor sites in the area without complaint. Eschew the hotels in the guidebook, there are a number of nicer and less expensive Chinese options in downtown. Despite what you might hear, the night market is very, very, touristy, although most of the tourists are Chinese!