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
May 8th, 2008 – by: portia
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.
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.
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?).
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 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.
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 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.
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Dunhuang Sights & Attractions review
Mogao thousand buddha caves or 莫高窟 Mogao grottos, a real treasure of art and historyAt 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