Dunhuang Buddhist caves

Visiting Tibetan monks

The small town of Dunhuang was a pivotal point for Silk Road travellers where the North and South winter and summer routes from the west join up after desert crossings, and was always going to be the most magical stop on our route. It lies just inside China proper beyond the vast Jinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region in the Hexi corridor separating Mongolia to the north and Tibet to the south. We, however, reached it by overnight railway train from Turpan rather than by camel train though I am not sure which option would have been the least comfortable.

Initially the landscape, dominated by what seemed to be heaps of broken black rock turned more scrub-like until quite suddenly short remnants of the extreme western end of the Great Wall came into view with nothing to indicate its significance, no signs, no lay-by, zilch.

Signs of intensive crop farming, especially fruit trees, preceded the outer limits of this small town dominated by a backdrop of desert sand-dunes and pagoda-style hotels dotted along tree-lined streets.

Closer inspection revealed that these huge dunes were providing a range of leisure activities for mainly Chinese visitors: long strings of mounted camels, sand-boarding, helicopter rides, jeep rides etc set against a small oasis of lake-side wooden pagoda within clumps of well-watered green trees.

But all this is mere frippery. The real significance of Dunhuang lies a few miles outside the town out in the desert. As you approach a low range of hills rising out of the flat surrounding desert, dozens of niches which look at first like Tora Bora in Afghanistan appear carved out of the cliffs. Although the caves initially served as a place of meditation for hermit monks, the Mogao caves developed to serve as monasteries, a place of worship and pilgrimage representing the largest and most richly endowed treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. Dating from the fourth to the 14th century, nearly 500 caves show wall paintings, painted sculptures and other cultural relics and only 25 years ago, yielded up thousands of manuscripts hidden away for safety in a niche in the Library cave which some have called the world's greatest discovery of Oriental culture.

Usually a cave was only 20 feet high but one rose a hundred feet up to reveal a Buddha figure of the same height carved out of the sandstone facing wall. Another stretched to a hundred feet in width to accommodate a lying Buddha figure of the same length.

Fortunately five hundred years of neglect has left these treasures in incredible condition (though again some images had eyes scratched out at lower levels) and are well managed by the authorities to prevent any further deterioration despite two million visitors a year, ninety percent Chinese. Small groups are shepherded in and out of different caves under a master controller somewhere ensuring minimal environmental damage and crowd control.

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