For a day I jumped off the train to visit the Magao Caves near Dunhuang, four hours out of Jiayuguan. The Magao Caves (or Grottoes) consist of 492 chambers carved in the side of a cliff 1700 meters long and is the best rove of Buddhist art in the world.
From AD 366, traders, merchants, and officials patroned the building and painting of religious caves for the next 1000 years. The area is particulary interesting as it lies in a crossroads of different cultures. Peoples from all over Asia and Europe meshed here and some depicitions have clear Tibetan, Chinese, Indian, and even Greek influence.
In Mongolia I had a few days repast waiting for the train and I ripped through 4 or 5 books, inluding Peter Kopkirk’s Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. The book describes in vivid detail how the caves lay dormat for about a 1000 years, bricked off or filled by the sands of the Taklamakan Desert that also ate many towns along the Silk Road after it’s decline.
For the first quarter of the 20th Century, several groups of European, Japanese, and American adventurers and archieologists (notably Aurel Stein and Paul Pelliot) took notice of the vast Central Asian area and its trove of history. They followed in one of the world’s greatest explorers footsteps, Sven Hedin. They came in force and dug up cities lost to the desert to find frescoes, statues, and manuscripts from a chapter in history long forgotten.
They hauled thousands of relics back to their sponsoring organizations. Their methods were often destructive, sometimes sawing off huge chunks of frescoes. China considers this a dark period and the items stolen. Counter to this is the fact local people were burning the precious items as a source of scare wood and the vast destruction of religious items during the Cultural Revolution. Some items were also destroyed in WWII bombing in Europe.
Even so, perhaps the greatest trove lies in the Magao Caves, 28 km from Dunhuang. In three sperate caves lie Buddha statues of over 30 meters, two sitting and one reclining. The frescoes are in various states of decay, some areas peeling away to show three layers of paintings covering different Chinese dynasties. Many statues still display vivid color.
The Chinese governement has poured a lot of resources into the maintainence and restoration of the caves. Entrance is strictly regulated and bears a high entrance fee of 160 RMB, plus 20 RMB for foreign language guides. Visitors are taken conveyor belt stlye and shown 8 – 10 caves. No photos are allowed, except from the outside.
One of the most interesting is Cave 17, called the Library Cave. A self-appointed curator of the caves, Wang Yuanlu, discovered the small cave inside number 16 behind a false wall of fresco containg many thousands of ancient manuscrips in many languages, including some ancient unknown Central Asia languages such as Khotanese. Inside lay editions of classic Buddist texts by the most famous caligraphers and the oldest printed book known, The Diamond Sutra. The Europeans gained Wang’s trust and bought thousands of them for miniscule sums before China slammed the door shut.
I had great interest in the site after reading the aforementioned book. It’s one of the highlights of the Northern Silk Road. The site is well maintained and has a nice International Research Project Building where 8 caves have been nicely reproduced (though half were closed) in addition to many relics. I found it extremely interesting but had a few reservations.
The price is extremely high (highest I have paid for any entrance), having been increased from 100 RMB in the last year. For that price, I wanted to see more caves and have a better tour guide. She was knowlegable enough, but spoke hurried, making it a bit hard to understand, and moved me right along. It was only her and I, and I don’t think I saw as many caves as a larger group though I had great interest in the site. I did not come away disappointed, though I overheard other foreigners express as much later on.
More information about the caves can be found at the International Dunhuang Project.
The caves are located about 28 km from the city of Dunhuang. Halfway in between them is the train station. I found a sleeper available that evening for Urumqi, so just made a day of the caves and moved on.
Both the train ticket and admission were higher than expected, leaving me short of money before I could get to a bank to change more (plus it was Sunday).
Luckily, I met perhaps the nicest people of my stay in China; a couple from Urumqi visiting for the weekend. I arrived with 3 hours to kill at the station and found them camped by a foodstall passing time. None of us spoke the other’s language, but we got on well. They ushured me up to some hidden room with beds to chill out before the train, and gave me tangerines, bananas, water, and bought me a bowl of delicious noodles and a beer. Amazing, considering I didn’t have enough money to properly eat.
I checked their seat assignment (we had the same train) and found them later with a meeger offering of a couple of beers. They further supplied me with more fruit and snacks of spicy chicken toes and some kind of spicy hardboiled bird egg (yes, Chinese foods are crazy).
By the time I reached a bank in Urumqi, I had 4.3 RMB left (~US.50), so it worked out perfectly!