A story of great treasures plundered, a sand dune which sings and a miracle spring in the desert

Dunhuang Travel Blog

 › entry 9 of 17 › view all entries
On the way to Mogao Caves
Dunhuang, a city of more than 2000 years of history at the throat of Hexi Corridor, and the Silk Road. It's about 1200m above sea level, at the edge of the desert, but it has been an oasis, a gateway between the east and west. Foreign merchants and ambassdors came through Dunhuang on camels, donkeys or horses on their way to Xian, or Luoyang or elsewhere in China. Chinese merchants, monks, soldiers and generals came through Dunhuang feeling  adventurous or desparate because they were going to the "west territory". It was a bustling city with lots of antiqutities. Most famous of them of course is the Mogao Grottoes, also known as the Thousand Buddha Cave (actually, it seems there are so many Thousand Buddha Caves here and in Xinchiang, I think it's better to use the name Mogao Grottoes).
from far away, the north big buddha cave can be seen
There are 3 other grottoes nearby, which we did not have time to visit, but all had a long history.

Mogoa Caves, the most famous of the Chinese Grottoes of buddhist art, and the largest. It had a long history of at least 10 Chinese Dynasties, 492 caves still exist,  more than 2400 statues, but even more murals (more than 45000 sq meters). The caves are located 25km from the city of Dunhuang, at the foothills of Mingshashan bordering the River. More than 600 meters long of cliff side with 5 levels of caves were lined up like beehives. The caves were first built in the year 366 AD, supposedly because a passing monk saw shining golden lights from the hillside and thought it was a sign of 1000 buddhas, so he vowed to build niches with budda statues here. After years of begging he was to return and hired craftsmen to start building the caves.
distance view of the caves (to the right of the allowable caves)
From then on, many generations of craftsmen spent their lives here, sometimes local or ordinary people also come to contribute to cave building. By the Tang dynasty (7th century), Mogao had more than 1000 caves and was a holy land of buddhism.

By the 13th century, with the rise of the Ocean Silk Road, Dunhuang was in a decline, and gradually the caves were obscured and forgotten! In the 7th year of the Ming Dynasty (1528 AD), the Ming court closed the pass at Jiayuguan and Dunhuang became a herding outpost. A couple of hundreds years later, it began a revival with a garrison set up and immigation from the Gansu area (the province it is in now). In 1900, a Toaist monk named Wang Yuanlu discovered what became known as the Library Cave in Dunhuang, more than 50000 pieces of Buddhist sutras, manuscripts, paintings, and religious objects were found in the Library Cave.
more distant view of caves at Mogao and the river in front
The oldest manuscript was dated from 359AD! Many maniscripts were written in Sanskrit, early Tibetan, Hui, Yutien and Turfan languages! Some were bilingual and were invalueable to research than historic and artistic values. These documents have been called the "Encyclopedia of the MIddle Ages". The library also held many lost Buddhist works, documents not collected in the Tripitaka. Also among the library treasures were documents of local monasteries, asset records, names of monks and nuns, speeches, record of religious activities.  Taoist classics and Chinese literary classics were also found in the library, Confusian writings, poems, novels and folk drama, most belonged to the Tang 7-9 centuries. Works of mathematics, astronomy, medicine, printing and paper-making were also found.
near the entrance and parking lot, the museum is the building seen in the distance
Even star maps! Truly a treasure trove from the 4-12th century. Now the punch line, seven years after the discovery of the Library Cave, adventurers from Britain, France, Japan and Russia came to Dunhuang, Aurel Stein, a British citizen of Hungarian origin (some call him a secret agent because of this) came and bought 24 boxes of manuscripts and five boxes of silk paintings and other objects from Wang. I suppose one can read his autobiography "Ruins of Desert Cathay" to read his story. A few years later, he came back and bought 570 more manuscripts. All told, more than 20000 objects were thus lost to the British Museum, British Library, the Library of Indian Affairs and the Indian National Museum.

Next came the Frenchman Paul Pelliot, who spoke and read Chinese. He came in 1908 and catalogued the caves, transcribed the inscriptions and took considerable photos of the murals (hmm, where are his photos now?).
The ticket office (next to the umbrella in the photo) of Mogao caves
He skimmed the remaining manuscripts and selected some other fine works - more than 10000 pieces! These are in the collection of Bibliotheque National de Franace Department of Oriental Manuscripts. Silk paintings went to Musee Guimet in Paris.

He went to Beijing in 1909 and brought some manuscripts to show some Chinese scholars. The Chinese scholars realized what has been happening and made official requests to seal off the caves and send  the remaining objects to Beijing. Can you believe Wang moved and hid many before sending them off? And local officals also plundered. Even when they arrived in Beijing, Beijing officials He Zhengyi, Li SHengduo and others not only stole more works, but tore some in two to pretend the number of documents were correct! So when finally delivered to Beijing Library, less than 10000 pieces were left!!!

You would think the story ended here, but no.
The dried river bed next to the Mogao caves
The Japanese Count Kozui Otani came next, his party took many photos, and even inscribed their names in cave #428 and 444. Wang sold them more than 400 pieces that he had hidden away. They are now in the collection of Ryukuku University and Otani University in Japan.

The Russian Sergi Oldenberg came in 1914, he made plans, oil sketches and photos. And he was able to buy more than 300 pieces from local residents. You can (maybe) see them in the St Petersburg Oriental Instutute of theRUssian Academy of Science, and the St Petersburg State Hermitage Museum.

The American Langdon Warner led a team from Harvard University, arriving in 1924, when the caves were already empty. Well, the walls were still there, so why not try to take the murals themselves? Affixing tapes of glue on the walls in caves 335, 321, 329, 323 aned 320, he attempted to peel off the murals.
The bridge over the river, leading to the main caves at Mogao
A dozen or so pieces were removed. A doner image in cave 328 can now be found in the Arther M Sackler Museum in Harvard University. Shame, shame, shame! When he returned again in 1925, the locals opposed him and he was not able to peel off more murals.

Even with all this plunder, there is still a lot to see even in the 10 caves that you can see on a visit now.  The caves were protected during Cultural Revolution, again by Chou En-Lai. I have to say he was definitely one of the good guys in the old communists government.

Mingshashan (singing or whistling sand hills) sand dunes right outside of Dunhuang city, at the bottom of one of the sand dunes is Crescent Moon Spring, the miracle spring in the desert, which had served crystal clear water to passing travelers for more than 2000 years.
The Mogao caves are right beyond the entrance!
I collected a small bottle of water from it, and it is cold and clear.

The sand dunes were very beautiful at sunrise and sunset, however, I visited it in the afternoon (entrance fee 120 RMB) after I returned from Mogao caves. I took a camel ride (60RMB) to the top and "surfed" down on a bamboo crate, for 15 RMB. I ran down the sand dune part way because that's how you were supposed to be able to hear the sand dune whistle or sing. Yup, it did, you have to try it!  It was an experience of a lifetime, the camels were nice too. I was able to pet the one behind me because his head was right next to my legs. The camel was a bit taken back when I raised my hand, but I approached him slowly and he seemed to enjoy  being petted after all.

I met Phil, Julia and Hannes in town after a bit of a mix-up on where to meet (again!)  and my plan to have dinner with them did not pan out because they wanted to go to the Mingshashan in time for sunset (which was about 8:30), and it would have taken at leat an hour to climb to the top.
Just outside the Mogao caves, cameras are not allowed inside the fenced area.
So I gave Julia my orange booties for walking in the sand and wished them luck. (It turned out they were not successful in sneaking around the fence and had to buy the tickets to get in anyway). I watched the sunset from the top of the hotel and then had dinner all by myself! The food in the hotel restaurant was really very good and priced reasonably too.
Join TravBuddy to leave comments, meet new friends and share travel tips!
On the way to Mogao Caves
On the way to Mogao Caves
from far away, the north big buddh…
from far away, the north big budd…
distance view of the caves (to the…
distance view of the caves (to th…
more distant view of caves at Moga…
more distant view of caves at Mog…
near the entrance and parking lot,…
near the entrance and parking lot…
The ticket office (next to the umb…
The ticket office (next to the um…
The dried river bed next to the Mo…
The dried river bed next to the M…
The bridge over the river, leading…
The bridge over the river, leadin…
The Mogao caves are right beyond t…
The Mogao caves are right beyond …
Just outside the Mogao caves, came…
Just outside the Mogao caves, cam…
Entrance to Mogao caves
Entrance to Mogao caves
caves along the hills
caves along the hills
entrance to cave 45 in Mogao caves
entrance to cave 45 in Mogao caves
view of caves beyond the fence
view of caves beyond the fence
murals on the outside of the caves…
murals on the outside of the cave…
multi-leveled caves at Mogao caves
multi-leveled caves at Mogao caves
more murals with a telephoto lens
more murals with a telephoto lens
caves at Mogao caves
caves at Mogao caves
Notice to visitors, specifying ope…
Notice to visitors, specifying op…
Outside murals
Outside murals
murals on the wall of the north bi…
murals on the wall of the north b…
the Big buddha cave, 35m tall insi…
the Big buddha cave, 35m tall ins…
The tall exterior facade for the 3…
The tall exterior facade for the …
view of the caves to the left
view of the caves to the left
more mural fragments on the outsid…
more mural fragments on the outsi…
view of the big north buddha cave
view of the big north buddha cave
straight on view of the north big …
straight on view of the north big…
the plaza in front of the north bi…
the plaza in front of the north b…
the plaza in front of the north bi…
the plaza in front of the north b…
the outside of the Dunhuang resear…
the outside of the Dunhuang resea…
interior of replica cave 275. I sa…
interior of replica cave 275. I s…
close-up of the dog in replica cav…
close-up of the dog in replica ca…
entrance to Mingshashan and Cresce…
entrance to Mingshashan and Cresc…
the camel team waiting just inside…
the camel team waiting just insid…
the camel lady leading me and a gu…
the camel lady leading me and a g…
my shadow on the camel
my shadow on the camel
camel feet
camel feet
camel foot prints in the sand
camel foot prints in the sand
top of Mingshashan with some wind …
top of Mingshashan with some wind…
another view, top of Mingshashan s…
another view, top of Mingshashan …
other people on camels coming down…
other people on camels coming dow…
top of the Mingshashan sand dune w…
top of the Mingshashan sand dune …
Me on top of Mingshashan. wearing …
Me on top of Mingshashan. wearing…
Me on the camel on Mingshashan and…
Me on the camel on Mingshashan an…
View of Crescent Moon Springs, the…
View of Crescent Moon Springs, th…
view of Dunhuang oasis from Mingsh…
view of Dunhuang oasis from Mings…
Nice camel?! it was very curious a…
Nice camel?! it was very curious …
panorama of the Singing Sand dunes…
panorama of the Singing Sand dune…
sunset time at the hotel rooftop c…
sunset time at the hotel rooftop …
sunset at Dunhung
sunset at Dunhung
Dunhuang Sights & Attractions review
Mogao thousand buddha caves or 莫高窟 Mogao grottos, a real treasure of art and history
At either 160 RMB for Chinese or 180 RMB for foreigners (the 20 extra is for foreign language interpreter), it's a little expensive to get in. However… read entire review
Dunhuang Sights & Attractions review
Singing sand dunes and eternal spring in the desert
Mingshashan (singing or whistling sand hills) and Crescent Moon Spring are at the same location just slightly outside of Dunhuang city center. The san… read entire review
Dunhuang
photo by: Deats