Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Jul 29 - Dunhuang

Just a few words about clothing. Carol has seen some dresses she would buy off the backs of passers-by: wonderful shaped seams ans fitted clothes. There is also the close -your-eyes approach: pattern doesn't matter.

Back to the narrative... Got an early start - 6 am wakeup call (even though we are going west and the sun is now close to 2 hours past meridian - i.e., the sun is due south at 2 pm), we are still on Beijing time, sort of like being in Denver on New York time. This was the second breakfast at the "terrific food" hotel. Every kind of vegetable, fruit, and composed dish you could imagine. Also a big pot of soy milk to flavor as you wished.

The bus pulled out at 7:30 am, and after two rest stops, and 5 hours of travel on modern roads, first 4 lane interstate standard, then wide 2 lane, we pulled into Dunhuang. First for lunch at our hotel, the Sun Village Hotel, on the outskirts near the new railroad station. (For years, visitors to Dunhuang had to take the train to Liuyang, and then take a grueling (to be explained) 130 km bus ride to Dunhuang. Now plenty of trains go directly to Dunhuang.)

After lunch, we went to the Mogao Caves World Heritage Site. There are apx 735 caves, each containing a Buddha, and most containing original paintings and other statuary. They date from 4th century through the 11th century. Most were built by wealthy patrons who wanted to thank Buddha for granting them safe passage across the Silk Route from China to Venice. Some are quite elaborate. Some have been substantially damaged over time, by an 11th century earthquake, by Muslim visitors, by years of weathering, by tourists, by some 1921 White Russian soldiers imprisoned in the caves, some by modern Sinologists who felt that they should remove some of the statues and paintings from the walls and try to carry them back to Europe.

The entrance is among the most expensive in the world - 180 RMB for foreigners in high season ($27 USD). By comparison, in 2006, Petra was 21 Dinar or $31 USD.

For this price, you get a guided tour to 10 of the 735 caves, open on a rotating basis. The whole tour generally lasts 2 - 3 hours. Our group got Kathleen, this fantastic guide who had worked at and studied at the caves for 15 years. Her English was excellent, and attracted hangers on to our group. We saw the three caves with the huge indoor Buddhas, one reclining. The tallest of these (35 m) is the third largest indoor Buddha in the world.

We saw the library cave, number 17. This cave, sealed off of cave 16, was hidden until 1900, when it was auspiciously discovered by the curator, who opened it. When he opened it, he discovered that is contained a 50000 document library used by the Buddhists active when the caves were active. Fortunately or unfortunately (depending on your point of view), Aurel Stein came by in 1907 and for a pittance, carted off 20000 of these documents. Another 10000 were carted off a year later by Paul Pelliot. Assorted other groups got into the act. Zhou Enlai protected the caves during the Cultural Revolution. These documents are now scattered over the libraries and museums of the known world, and there are efforts now to scan them all on a centralized database, and perhaps bring them back to China.

These caves are so much better preserved than the painted caves we have seen elsewhere, such as Cappadocia or Jordan. These caves sometimes have thousands of painted Buddhas on the walls and ceilings. They also have so many other images, including the Buddhist flying angel, the apsara, and so many others. One image of the smiling Buddha had the feel of Mona Lisa. Another Buddha was in a Christ-like pose. It appears that each cave was painted and sculpted by a different master, and the guide said that artesans were brought in from other countries and around the known world to create these caves. Since cameras were not allowed inside the caves, we contented ourselves with buying postcards.

It was a very rich tour, and the place is worth traveling around the world to see.

Then, at 5:30 pm back to the Sun Village Hotel to check in. At 7:30 to dinner at the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel, a 5 star Hong Kong based hotel. Then to the Sun Village. On the way back, some members of our group got off the bus in downtown Dunhuang to see an acrobatic show, and others stayed to see the night market. We were tired. Carol went to sleep, but Mike had to send e-mail.

1 comment:

phyllisb said...

I'm glad that "Mike had to send e-mail." I'm enjoying your narrative, not to mention envious! Thanks! Hope your trip continues to be as fascinating as it has already been. Phyllis Bazinet