Thursday, September 22, 2016

On the Way to Dunhuang. Yulin Grottoes.


After a VERY uninspiring breakfast at the hotel, we left Jiayuguan bright and early this morning. By day's end, we had arrived into Dunhuang. It was a long road journey and along the way, we made a few stops - most notably at Yulin Grottoes, hands down the nicest cave temples we've seen so far. 


It was a pretty boring landscape that we drove through.


Unexpectedly, we drove a windfarm.  Usually, it might go for a few miles but this farm was enormous.  I didn't clock from start to end but we drove for at least a good 40 minutes during which time all I could see for as far as I could see were windmills.  I read later that this farm is one of six initiated by the Chinese government.  With its ever growing population, energy demands will only soar so successfully harnessing wind energy can only be beneficial to the nation. 


We did make a refueling stop.  For us gals, it was the opportunity to stretch our legs, use the facilities and stock up on snacks.



You know you're not in Kansas when the convenience store stocks snack packs of chicken feet :-)   The only chicken feet I like to eat are the ones cooked by my mom because they are finger licking good.  So, I passed on these.

Braised.

Plain.
You're still not in Kansas if you can get braised chicken wings in a snack pack.  Only in China.


Sadly, China is into plastic bottles as most countries are.  Life is about convenience but it breaks my environmentalist heart.  I am confounded as to why no one has yet to invent a container that is biodegradable.


So, in the end, what did I get?  Yep, Lay's potato chips but with that special "Mexican Tomato Chicken Flavor".  Sabor que no existe en México :-)   Verdict?  Strange taste.  Two chips in and I was done.



Our next stop was "Lunch!!"  I have no idea which town we were but as I noted in a previous post, they all look the same to me. 


And as I've seen in several other Chinese towns, small trucks, motorcycles, bicycles, and electric bikes were popular forms of transportation.  After seeing all the small trucks zipping by, I decided if I ever live in a small town, I would get one of these - they seem so practical.  Perhaps you need some sort of a cover for rain.






Food wise, sigh.....it was okay.  At least we had options to go chili free.



The one surprise was the warm drink we were served.  Warm rice water.  As you might guess, it's made by boiling rice.  The rice is not discarded.  They just add extra water to the rice pot and then remove the excess liquid to finish cooking the rice.  What we got was that excess liquid.  This simple bowl of rice water was a reminder to me of how so much of the culture of China today reflects its poor economic roots.



Back on the road after lunch. 





Back to a really boring ride.  So I took out my earbuds, plugged them into my iPod and daydreamed as we made our way through the arid landscape.


Third stop was when we came upon a small herd of domesticated Bactrian camels.




At some point, we lost the desert hills and the landscape was flat as a pancake.  Even more boring.


We passed by quite a few mining operations.  I know we need ores, and minerals, and stones to sustain our modern way of living but it really does an incredible amount of damage to the landscape.



Our journey took us through many a village and small town.  Surrounded by trees and farmland, they all appeared as oases in the desert.


In one small village, we ran into a bit of an issue when a fallen tree log blocked the road.  Given that this is China and everything can be done lickety split, I was surprised that no one had yet removed the fallen trunk from the road.


It took some asking around for directions but eventually our driver was able to find a detour around it and we continued on our way.


Yep...more boring landscape.  I just kept imagining what it must have been like for the traders and camel caravans to have passed through all this back in the Silk Road days.  We had a road to follow.  How did they manage to find their way?




In the middle of literally nowhere, our driver pulled over and parked the van.  We had arrived at Yulin Grottoes.  If not for the sign that marked the entrance, you would have no idea that a cultural treasure was located here.

Before we began our walk, Cathy informed us that photography was not allowed inside any of the grottoes so I opted to leave my dSLR in the car, taking only my cellphone with me.  So, the next few photos were all taken using my Samsung Galaxy 4S.  With the sun glaring down, it was hard to see the screen on my phone so the photos did not come out all that well.  C'est la vie!


From the parking lot, if you can call it that, we made our way down some steps that basically took us into a narrow gorge.




On either side of the gorge, the cliff walls were dotted with openings that presumably were cave temples.   There were no obvious signs of steps or paths leading up to them so I figured we weren't going to be visiting them.


When I can't go somewhere, it just makes me more curious as I think that access is restricted because something special is contained there.  Hmmm.....


A small river ran through the gorge.  First bit of water I've seen in the desert here.


We continued on the path until it led us to a small green space where the ticket office as well as administrative offices and public toilet facilities were located.



Cathy got our tickets and then we waited for an English speaking guide to show up to take us around.  Soon enough, a very slender, young Chinese man appeared.  With his perfect command of English, we began our tour of several of the cave temples.  A larger group of Chinese tourists was right on our heels and often they were in the same cave as we were making it difficult to hear our guide speak.  Often, I don't care to listen but these caves were so stupendous I wanted to know as much as I could about them.

There 43 caves here housing some 250 polychrome statues and 4,200 m2 of wall paintings, dating from the Tang Dynasty to the Yuan Dynasty (7th to 14th centuries).  A number of the caves were reworked and repainted in later periods, since the site remained in use throughout the Tang, Five Dynasties, Song, Western Xia, and Yuan Dynasties. It fell into disuse during the Ming Dynasty.


Most of the caves take the form of an entrance corridor, antechamber, and main chamber.  The walls are fully painted.  Unlike the frescoes at Maijishan and Binglin, the paintings here are not painted directly on the rock.  Instead they are executed on an earthen render with mineral and organic pigments and gum or glue binders.  While there is plenty of Buddhist art here (Buddhas, bodhisatvas, apsaras, etc) , the paintings also include portraits of donors, dancers and musicians, representatives of China's ethnic minorities and reflect secular life e.g., farming scenes , wine-making, a smelting furnace, and a marriage ceremony.

At the end of our tour, our guide handed us a brochure with photos of several of the paintings we saw.  That's where the photo image, above and the two below were scanned from

In one of the caves, I had joked that I looked like one of the woman whose portrait was painted on the wall.  We all had a good laugh at my humility :-)  As he handed me the brochure, he told me she was in it!  

According to me, I obviously resemble the wealthy lady portrayed on the lower left.  No? :-)

I don't remember which caves we went to but the statues and frescoes were simply magnificent.  Given that we had already been to the Maijishan Grottoes and Bingling Temple, I was expecting to see more the same but I was so wrong.  The frescoes here were far more exquisite in terms of detail and color than anything we had seen so far and the statues were stunning to look at.  My head was spinning trying to take in all the beautiful detail.  I can now understand why photos are not allowed - they need to preserve these beautiful works of religious art from flash bulbs and I can see people spending so much time taking photos inside a cave, it would quickly become a veritable logjam for people waiting to enter.


The tour didn't last very long and I was sad when it ended as the caves were just fascinating and our young guide had done a marvelous job explaining everything to us. 

By the time we arrived into Dunhuang, I was itching to get out of the car.  As much as I would rather be in the countryside, when the landscape is as boring as what we had spent our time driving through, I was happy to be back in the city.

Cathy and our driver deposited at the hotel and Cathy got us checked in.  The hotel is decent enough though when I threw back the bedspread to look at the pillow case and sheets, I could've sworn they had not been changed.  The other two had a similar reaction so we informed the receptionist and made a note to tell Cathy as well.  I'm a very low maintenance traveler but even for me, if the bedding is not clean, I take issue.  In any case, we are about to meet up with Yim and Sal to explore a bit of Dunhuang before dinner and calling it a day.

Thrilled to finally be in Dunhuang!