In the land of sand and Buddhas
The morning after the sandstorm in Jiāyùguān , we took a bus to head further West, to the oasis town of Dūnhuáng, the remote outpost of Gānsù, on the border of Xīnjiāng province. On that morning, the town of Jiāyùguān had a little bit the atmosphere of those apocaliptic movies Javier likes so much, with windows protected by plastic planes, a lot of dust in the air and streets all covered with sand. Even from the bus the view of the countryside was obstructed dunring the whole journey, as if everything was covered in a dusty mist. And unlike Chile, even though we were in the desert, it was freaking cold at daytime.
It seemed that the sandstorm had affected a quite large area, as arriving in Dūnhuáng the sky was still milky, the city covered in fine sand and people around sedulously swung their brooms to remove it. A specially designed car passed the streets slowly, spraying water at the trees all covered in dust.
Despite (or perhaps because) its remote location, it seems that Dūnhuáng has always maintained a distinctive position among Chinese cities throughout its more than 4000 years of history. In ancient China, it was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road, as it had a strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Route to Kashgar and the main road leading from India via Lhasa to Mongolia and Southern Siberia. It also lies on the Western entrance into the Hexi Corridor, leading straight towards the North Chinese plains and so into the heart of imperial China.
During the Tang Dynasty (618–907 AD) – which is generally regarded as a high point in Chinese civilization and the capital Chang’an (today’s Xi’an) was then the most populous city on earth – it was a major point of communication between ancient China and Central Asia and Dūnhuáng became the major hub of commerce of the Silk Road.
Modern Dūnhuáng hasn’t retained much of its authentic Silk Road charm, as the development of Wind Power plants in the area brought new wealth – actually, it is said to be among the highest in terms of per-capita income in whole China – and an early construction boom of typical quadratic, soul-less buildings, accompanied by increasing inflow of tourists to visit the famous Singing Sand Dunes and the Mogao Caves, at 25 km outside town.
The Mògāo kū, also known as The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (qiān fó dòng), form a system of 492 temples and are famous for some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years. The beginning of the caves’ construction dated around 366 AD and attributed to a Buddhist monk named Lè Zūn, who ad a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site, inspiring him to build a cave there. The caves initially served only as a place of meditation for hermit monks, but developed to serve the monasteries that sprang up nearby in the early periods, and by the Sui and Tang dynasties, Mogao Caves had become a place of worship and pilgrimage for the public.
The caves were cut into the side of a cliff which is close to two kilometers long. At its height, during the Tang Dynasty, there were more than a thousands caves, but over time many of the caves were lost, including the earliest caves. The caves serving for worship are painted with murals all over the walls. The paintings vary in colors, represented scenes and style according to the period when they were built. Due to their protection against entering sunlight, many mural paintings are very well preserved.
For non-research visitors, entry is highly restricted and only possible with a tour guide, who will show you around 10 of the most prominent caves per visit. As there were few foreign visitors around by the end of April, we were lucky to have a personal English speaking guide to our own. Her accent was quite difficult to understand, but she was obviously devoted to the cave art, as she would not get tired of explaining each tiny detail of the murals she showed us, detailing exactly which period they were from, what technique had been used to paint them, which mythical creatures appeared on it, which Buddhist writings they were inspired by, etc. Lacking any kind of background in history of Art and Buddhist theology, we didn’t understand a lot of it, but were still fascinated. Unfortunately, photography is forbidden inside the caves, so to give an impression of the paintings, we can merely show a recompilation of free pictures from the web.
The second famous sight in Dūnhuáng are the so-called Singing Sand Dunes, just at the city border. As the name says, singing sand produces sounds, caused by wind passing over dunes or by walking on the sand. The noise may be generated by friction between the grains or by the compression of air between them and occurs in about 35 desert locations around the world. The sound is similar to a loud, low-pitch, rumble and it accompanies a slumping or avalanching movement of the sand.
To admit it straight away: I didn’t notice any kind of particular sound when walking on the dunes, apart the whistling of the desert wind and the sighs of fellow tourists struggling with the tiring ascent to the dunes. But already the beautiful was worth the visit (and the exaggerated entrance fee) and could make you almost forget the place’s touristy character à la Chinese. A nice side effect of the touristiness was that camel rides around the dunes are a major attraction and so we had the opportunity to get a glimpse at the traditional Silk Road camel race, which looks quite different to the Indian version. First of all, it is a proper camel (with two bumps), not a dromedary. It is smaller, far more hairy and exists in several different colors – brown, beige, white, black.
Back to town, we made our way through the main road, stuffed with stands for the night market and food stalls. The closeness to Xīnjiāng, home of the turk folk of the Uighurs, was quite noticeable, as very much unlike Eastern China, bread, mutton stick barbecue and donkey meat dumplings played a major role in the food offer. We sat down at one of the outside tables for dinner, with a group of four Chinese guys in their 50s next to us. They were having mutton barbecue, too, accompanied by several bottles of the popular 50% rice whiskey – or whatever this high percentage poison may be classified. Looking at their faces it was obvious that they had already had quite some shots of it.
Back in town, we made our way through the main road, stuffed with stands for the night market and food stalls. The closeness to Xīnjiāng, home of the turk folk of the Uighurs, was quite noticeable, as very much unlike Eastern China, bread, mutton stick barbecue and donkey meat dumplings played a major role in the food offer. We sat down at one of the outside tables for dinner, with a group of four Chinese guys in their 50s next to us. They were having mutton barbecue, too, accompanied by several bottles of the popular 50% rice wiskey – or whatever this high percentage poison may be classified. Looking at their faces it was obvious that they had already had quite some shots of it. At first they looked at us a little shy, but some more shots from a newly bought bottle seem to wipe it away it quickly and when our food and tea was served, they approached us and said – obviously in Chinese, we were lucky a kind English speaking student from Hangzhou passed by and translated – they were from Inner Mongolia and in their culture it was an important gesture of hospitality to clink glasses with foreign visitors, so they wanted us to have a drink (of their 50% rice poison) with them. I was still having a cold from the snow in Lángmùsì, so Javier sacrificed himself to drink the doses of both of us – even though our hosts were being quite pushy in making me drink, too.
Soon we noticed that it was a good idea that at least one of us stay totally sober, as one drink was followed by another, and another, and another. After the first five or six, on translator was needed anymore for the men to understand each other and after the tenth, when they still continued filling our glasses again, we thought it would be a good idea to leave. The four Inner Mongolians insisted in paying our bill for the food an having a last drink with BOTH – and they wouldn’t let go before I hadn’t finished the whole glass.
They had got Javier pretty drunk and so when we reached our hotel it was even twice as comical to encounter, at 11 pm, a group of Chinese women dancing a choreography on Chinese pop music on the sidewalk. Group dancing in public spaces is quite common practice all over China, but the music, the place and the time in combination just made it hilarious.