The silk road wasn’t a road. It was a series of routes connecting India and China with the Middle East and Europe. And it carried a lot more than silk. In fact spices from India were at least, if not more, important.
The final destination of traders headed to China was Xi’an, the ancient capital. To get into or out of Xi’an, you had to pass through an a narrow corridor in between the unpassable Himalayas (present day Tibet) to the south, and the unsurvivable Gobi desert to the North (present day Inner and outer Mongolia).
This corridor is now called the Gansu province, and if you wanted to trade with China you had to pass through Gansu. And the entry and exit point of the Gansu corridor was the city we wake up in: Dunhuang.
Location, Location, Location
As an oasis, it was the natural place for a city to develop. From Dunhuang to the lawless West, you could take the road south to India or the road north through Central Asia to Pakistan. But whether you were coming or going, heading north or south, you would travel through Dunhuang into and out of China.
As a result of this strategic placement, Dunhuang was the beneficiary and victim of a lot of traffic including warring factions, intercontinental trade, diverse culture and massive wealth. Not only goods were traded along the Silk road. Slaves, technology, communicable diseases and religion were also exchanged. Dunhuang was, at it’s peak, a self-sufficient cosmopolitan city that was at the center of the earliest transcontinental relations.
The Buddhist Louvre
Dunhuang became a religious center for Buddihsm. Wealthy officials and traders spent extraordinary amounts of money to have monks, religious men and art in Dunhuang so they could pray for safe passage or express gratidude for surviving the harsh, empty, wild desert.
About 15 miles from the center of Dunhuang lies Mount Mingsha. Legend has it that a monk had a vision for 1000 buddha caves at Mount Mingsha and dug the first cave out of the sandstone and bedrock of the mountain. Buddhists already had a tradition of building these cave-rooms or cliff-side grottos.
From about 300 AD and for another thousand years, 466 separate cave-rooms were built in the mountain side. Together they are called the Mogao caves. They stored art, manuscripts and sculpture and were used for religious instruction, meditation and pursuit of enlightenment far away from the busy trade of the silk road. The art in the Mogao caves is the greatest repository of ancient Buddhist art on the planet.
Our driver helps us get tickets. It’s not hard to buy them for adults, but there are discounts for kids. Sometimes they base it on age, and sometimes height. It can be difficult to sort out without some Chinese language help.
Here at Mogao, we experience the strictest tour guide so far in China. Our prissy guide wears a black skirt and white blouse that would be acceptable at a funeral, and strolls with a parasol. She laughs when we ask for an audio guide for Lily, and refuses until we insist. (It’s true that Lily wasn’t interested for long, but why not let the kid try it?)
You are strictly forbidden to take any photos in the caves and even when I take my camera out to snap a portrait of the girls outside, the guide stops everything and scolds me until I put it away. The photographs in this blog are from a beautiful museum outside the caves where they flawlessly reporoduce ten of the most interesting caves.
The idea of recreating the caves nearby so that they could be photographed and touched is excellent. I have to say that we have been incredibly impressed with Chinese museums and presentation. The tomb of Emporer Jingdi was amazing, the Terracotta warriors and this are all well presented and taken care of – at least as far as we could tell.
Another sick kid
Lily is struggling again today. She complains of a tummyache and being tired. Unfortunately, unlike her older sister Emma, Lily is a bit of a hypocondriac and frequently complains of ailments and problems. She spent so much time in the nurses office this year that we got a call from the guidance counselor at her school.
She’s gotten better, but easily gets bored or cranky and begins to complain. Emma was just sick however, so we aren’t sure if her complaints are real or not. After being briefly annoyed with her, I switch my approach and try to be supportive. Maybe she is sick, and even if she isn’t, sometimes she just needs attention. An immodium from my first aid kid will settle her tummy if it’s just a little upset.
Jodi Foster and the Giant Buddha
Way back in the 80’s, I minored in ancient art history at NYU because I had a crush on a professor that looked like Jodi Foster. I earnestly sat right in front of her in the first row, but couldn’t help falling asleep in the dark auditorium no matter how much coffee I drank. I once got a wink from her when I woke up at the end of class. That’s the closest I ever got.
In the process, I actually learned about ancient art and now have a real fascination for it. (I was tricked into being educated.) It’s as much anthropology as art, and it’s only appreciated by understanding the history and context of the artist.
But it’s hard for the kids to appreciate it. I talk with Emma about the concept of perspective, and she gets that at least. She can see the development of perspective on some of the walls. But it’s even hard for me to envision the role this art played in the lives of the people that commissioned and used it almost two milennia ago.
What they can appreciate are the giant Buddhas, one the of the tallest and a beautiful reclining one. Size translates without context.
The tall buddha, is in the room behind this external structure and is over 75 feet high. It is one of the tallest indoor Buddahs, and is amazing because it’s fit into a very narrow space, so you can view it from afar. It can only be viewed from his feet straight up vertically, and the effect is awe inspiring. Big buddhas are created precisely to make you feel humble, and this one achieves that goal.
I have seen no good photos of this Buddha in any of the souvenir picture books for sale or even on the internet. You’ll have to come see it for yourself. (Phail Ninja Photo Alert: Trish tried to take an illegal picture, got scared that she would be yelled at, and only got this grainy shot of its foot.)
One of the repetitive themes in the caves are of asparas, which have become the quasi-official symbol of dunhuang. Asparas go by a variety of names in various languages but feature prominantly in buddhist art.
The Asparas are, among other things, “beautiful, supernatural women. They are youthful and elegant, and proficient in the art of dancing… Apsaras are said to be able to change their shape at will, and rule over the fortunes of gaming and gambling. (wikipedia)”
That sounds a lot like Trish, who coincidentally goes by the nick name Tinkerhell. We’ve been looking for a theme or model for a new tattoo that she will get across her new boobs, and these are amazing, perhaps combined with some of the guardian devil-like demi-gods from Qin dynasty sculpture here.
Imperialist Treasure Robbers
Our guide never fails to mention that Western expeditions stole huge quantities of priceless manuscripts that were once stored here. The caves had been forgotten except to a few locals until 1900 or so when a Hungarian born Brit bought them all for a few hundred pounds. Oddly the guide blames Americans who (according to anything I can find on the subject) were the only ones that weren’t exploiting here.
The Chinese government petitions for the return of these manuscripts which include Taoist, Confucian and Chinese administrative historical papers, some in extinct languages that have been vital for understanding the history of this region.
Apologists for the imperialist pigs point out that a lot of this stuff would have been destroyed in the Great Cultural Revolution, which might be true. But China is perfectly capable for managing these now and they should come back here, or to China at least.
It’s hard to imagine the scale of the caves even when you are there because you only get to see a few of them – about 12 or so. There are 492 temples in total. At it’s peak there were over 14,000 clergy and religious men here.
It is, simply, the greatest repository of buddhist art on the planet. If you come to China, this is really an amazing spot. Dunhuang used to be difficult to get to, but there are multiple direct flights from 4-5 other major cities each week now. It’s even doable in 2 days if you schedule it right.
Go home if you can’t handle massage
Back at the fantastic Silk Road Dunhuang hotel, we have a few hours to spare while the sun sets and the desert cools. We’re going to do some desert fun stuff in a few more hours.
To pass the time we, drumroll please…… get a massage. That’s right. This is China, and if you can’t handle cheap, professional massage available without an appointment, you’ll have to stay home. The girls and I get a foot massage, and Trish goes for the full body, which she says really cured her back ache.
Lily does has a 101 fever, but says she is feeling better. I give her some Cold/flu syrup anyway. Her energy level is good.
We snag some dinner at the beautiful terrace of the silk road hotel dining area. It’s not the best food here, and is somewhat expensive for China. But it works for us and the view is beautiful. The evening desert air should be bottled and sold to the suckers in hot sweaty East China.
Tourists play in the giant sandbox
Just a few kilometers from downtown Dunhuang is a dune mountain called Mingsha Shan, that is narrow and long. We have a fantastic view of it from our hotel roof restaurant (above).
Mingsha Shan is a really unusual place because it has 2 real oases. And it’s also has singing sands, which I think we heard a few times. Singing sands emit a rumble or hum for reasons that are not scientifically known exactly. It happens under very specific conditions of sand type and grain size. Mingsha Shan means Echo-sand mountain or whispering sand mountain.
Unfortunately, this is not a quiet secluded place. It’s a giant desesert activity amusement park with Camel rides, Sand surfing by the ride, motor propelled hang gliders, paraglides and self driven ATV rental. And of course you can go up and down anywhere on foot, but it’s hot and the sand is tough, so we elect not to do the long trek to the highest point.
A shuttle bus drops us off at the first oasis, decorated with a huge (an acre or more) flower garden. Just over the hill, we grab our first glimpse of Crescent Moon Oasis, a delightful Chinese pagoda and complex with a crescent shaped pool of water at the base.
The brown sand and blue sky contrast with the funny orange boots that you can rent to protect shoes. We wore Keens and didn’t need them.
At the most advantageous photo point we shoot a bunch of pictures. Everyone wants a photo of the Crescent moon oasis. We are, as always, asked to pose for a bunch of other Chinese tourists.
He explains that is teaches in a small Chinese town where he is the only foreigner.
Maybe the isolation is driving him mad?
Ancient Chinese Couples Therapy
At the pagoda that sits on the oasis there are some public toilets ( “Yay, they have a western in between the squatties! I hear Lily yell.”) and lots of expensive bottled water, which don’t need because we brought a bunch.
Lily gets the most princessy outfit they find. Emma looks for something more sensible. Trish is offered the queen costume but shakes her head NO. She wants the warrior garb with the fake sword!
Trish is a lot of things, but actress is not one of them. I feel like a runway photographer shouting “Give me more feeling. You have to live the growl. Be Fierce Trisha!” And I finally coax a good one out of her.
The take some family photos and we do a sword fight in the middle of the terrace. People gather around until there is a group of about 10, some Chinese some foreign.
Pushing kids too far?
We’ve been hesitant to do any hiking among the dunes because of Lily’s (slight) sickness. It’s incredibly hard walking in sand, and it’s harder walking up hill. Lily sees some kinds rolling down a steep dune and is inspired to try the hike to the top of the closest hill so she can do the same.
But as soon as we start she gives up and complains of being tired, which I’m sure she is. I also know she gives up too easily sometimes. One of our adventure travel goals is to push ourselves, and that means pushing the kids too. It requires a balance, and this is one of those times that I’m conflicted about whether to skip the mini-hike or try to encourage her.
She flops down on the sand with dramatic flair. Grabbing her hand, we take some small steps, and a few more. I know she can do this and will be glad that she did once she ‘s at the top. Trish needs long breaks too. Her stamina in the heat is not as good as it was in cooler Peru. Emma scrambles up swiftly.
For about 10 feet, I try to carry Lily on my shoulders. But it’s too steep and the sand is too soft. I think it helps her that I tried anyway. She makes it to the top, but not without a little more drama. The view is amazing because the sun, although hidden in the overcast sky, is setting over the far crest of the dunes. An ATV driver offers us a ride down? That’s bad business man! We needed the ride up.
Going down takes only an instant and Lily wins the family race. Emma face-plants 4 times in the gritty but soft sand that sticks to her sweaty face. She doesn’t mind. It’s hilriously fun to run down a hundred yards down a steep sand dune.
More Action tomorrow
We’re exhausted though, and there is a lot more to do here. We want to do the ATV, microflights and camel rides, but I’m out of money and we are all out of energy. Hopefully we can get back here tomorrow night!
Inside the hotel room, we quarrantine all personell to the foyer where sandy clothes are stored in a bag and people are showered before they can go in. We have sand in every nook and cranny of our bodies and clothes. The sand will get everywhere if we don’t contain it.