Saturday, August 6, 2016

At the Crossroads. Dunhuang.

Crescent Lake, Dunhuang.  (Photo by Sigismund von Dobschütz.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.)

Situated on the edge of the Gobi Desert in western China, the city of Dunhuang was founded by Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty in 111 BC at the cross roads of the ancient Southern and Northern routes.

There is evidence of human habitation in the Dunhuang area as early as 2,000 BC, possibly by people recorded as the Qiang in Chinese history. Flash forward to the 3rd century BC and the area became dominated by the Xiongnu but then came under Chinese rule during the Han Dynasty after Emperor Wu defeated the Xiongnu in 121 BC.

Dunhuang was one of the four frontier garrison towns (along with Jiuquan, Zhangye and Wuwei) established by the Emperor Wu after the defeat of Xiongnu.  The Chinese built fortifications at Dunhuang and sent settlers there.

Because of its geographic location, Dunhuang controlled access to to the narrow Hexi Corridor which led straight to the heart of the north Chinese plains and the ancient capitals of Chang'an (known today as Xi'an) and Luoyang.  For this reason, Dunhuang was also a town of military importance.

The Great Wall was extended to Dunhuang, and a line of fortified beacon towers stretched westwards into the desert. By the 2nd century AD, Dunhuang had a population of more than 76,000 and was a key supply base for caravans that passed through the city.   Dunhuang prospered on the heavy flow of traffic. The first Buddhist caves in the Dunhuang area were hewn in 353 AD.

During the Sui and Tang dynasties, it was the main stop of communication between ancient China and the rest of the world and a major hub of commerce of the Silk Road.  Dunhuang was the intersection city of all three main silk routes - North, Central, South).

Yulin Grottoes, cave 19.
The Dunhuang Caves.  We so associate Buddhism as a religion of the Far East that we don't realize it actually came from west of China via the Silk Road.  The first Buddhist monks arrived into China around the 1st century AD, and a sizable Buddhist community eventually developed in Dunhuang.  Numerous caves,  carved out by the monks and originally used for shelter and meditation, quickly developed into places of worship and pilgrimage.

 The earliest examples of the caves were small and plain but by the early 5th century,  larger grottoes were excavated as temples and monastic lecture halls. Many had chapel-like niches and freestanding altars, all cut from stone. The interiors were sculpted with architectural features as if to simulate buildings.

Painting covered everything. Murals illustrating tales from the Buddha's past lives, were popular, as were images of court fetes. Rock ceilings were painted with fields of decorative patterning to evoke an illusion of fabric pavilions. Any leftover space was filled with figures of tiny deities. Sculptures for the most part were made of mud.

The Mogao Caves or "Caves of a Thousand Buddhas." are the most famous of the Dunhuang Caves and we'll be visiting them on this trip.

The Magao Caves are hewn into the side of a cliff situated alongside the Dachuan River. 

According to legend, in 366 AD a monk called Lo-tsun had a vision of 1,000 Buddhas, and began to carve out the first cave out of the soft sandstone  As the popularity of Buddhism rose, so did the number of caves.  492 cave temples have survived to date. The largest cave measure 40 meters (130 feet) high and the smallest under 1 meter (39 inches).  The caves span some 1.6 kilometers (1 mile) across the cliff face.

Statue of Maitreya Buddha in Magao Cave 275.
It is said that the carvings, paintings and other artifacts retrieved from the caves represent more than 1,000 years of Buddhist art.  Collectively, the caves contain approximately 2,415 painted clay statues of the Buddha, holy men, Bodhisattvas and the Buddhist faithful, ranging in size from 10 centimeters (4 inches) to 33 meters (108 feet).  Some 50,000 sq meters (484,000 sq feet) of wall paintings have survived the centuries, with subjects as diverse as floral patterns, Buddha’s teachings, fairy tales and legends and episodes from the Sutras, all of which were designed to teach and inspire illiterate worshipers. Five of the wooden buildings within the caves also survived.

After the 14th century, the caves were all but abandoned and forgotten until they were *rediscovered* at the turn of the twentieth century by Wang Yuan-lu, a Taoist priest and abbot.  He discovered a large cache of more than 40,000 scrolls, bronze statues and silk paintings in cave 16, and embarked on a restoration project, funded partly by donations from neighboring towns and partly by selling the treasures found in cave 16 to western archaeologists until the Chinese government stopped him doing so. The government officially set up a research unit in 1949 and archaeological work continues to this day.

The Magao Caves were inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1987.  Today, they are in danger of damage from over tourism.  In response, plans are already under way to recast the entire Dunhuang experience using digital technology to create essentially walk users through the caves.  I fully appreciate the need to preserve these ancient caves and the priceless art they contain but I just hope we'll be able to at least walk through a few of the caves just to get a real feel rather than a 3D experience.

The Getty Research Institute and the Getty Conservation Institution (both affiliated with the Getty Center and the Getty Villa), in collaboration with the Dunhuang Academy are staging an exhibition featuring numerous objects originally from the site - paintings and manuscripts that have rarely, if ever, traveled to the United States, as well as three spectacular full-size cave replicas.  The exhibition, titled "Cave Temples of Dunhuang: Buddhist Art on China's Silk Road" will be on view at the Getty Center May 7 – Sept. 4, 2016.  The exhibition offers visitors the opportunity to see large panoramic projections of the Mogao site, and use 3-D glasses to view stereoscopic images of Cave 45.

While in Dunhuang, we'll also travel about 100 kilometers outside the city to visit the Yulin Grottoes - 42 caves containing 250 statues and 4,200 square meters of wall paintings dating back to the Tang and Yuan Dynasties

Echoing Sand Mountain and Crescent Lake. Located just a short distance from Dunhuang is a mountain sand dune called Echoing Sand Mountain (Mingsha Shan) so called because as the wind blows and the sand shifts, sounds emanate from the mountain.  The stronger the wind, the louder the sound which has been describe to be something akin to hearing a plane fly overhead.  You also get the same effect as you slide down the dune though the sound is a far gentler one.  Some have described as almost musical in tone.


Legend has it that in ancient times, a battle took place here. As the soldiers were engaged in a fierce fight, a great gust of wind buried all the warriors in the sand and the sand mountain was formed. As the battle was at its height, the soldiers continued to fight beneath the sand. Thus, the sound you hear is said to be the roar of the soldiers.

However, the real cause is the friction and static created as the wind shifts the sand or you slip down the mountainside.  I was curious so I decided to learn more and I came across this YouTube video explaining the same phenomenon as it pertains to two sand mountains in California.   Mother Nature is so full of surprises!
A popular activity here is to ride bactrian camels across the dunes.  I've ridden camels across desert sand before, in Mongolia and in Morocco, but I would definitely love to do it again!  

Ruins of the Great Wall at Dunhuang.  Not much left of the wall that was built to
keep out the Mongols!
(Photo by Bairuilong.  Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0  via Wikimedia Commons
Encircled by the mountain, there is Crescent Lake so called because of its shape.  The lake is also known as the First Spring in the Deserts because it has never dried out since it was discovered centuries ago.  No doubt, it sits in an oasis but to me, it's still absolutely amazing that this lake still exists given that it is situated in the middle of an arid desert!  Supposedly, Crescent Lake was already a famous attraction back in the days of the Han Dynasty (208-202 BC).  During Tang Dynasty (618-907AD), there was a large complex of halls and towers by the side of lake, but many of them ruined in the later eras. Today, there are several Tang style buildings built for tourists. 

While we're in Dunhuang, we'll also visit a very old and restored section of the Great Wall and Yumenguan (Jade Gate Pass), the was both a gateway of the Silk Road as well as a fortress that once guarded and defended the region from invaders.

I cannot wait to get to Dunhuang!!  There is such a wealth of history and culture here.  I know I will not be able to take it all in or digest it all but I am thrilled that I even get to see some small bit of it.