Stories from the Old Silk Road - CHINA Part 2
Dateline: August/September 2018
On the edge of the Gobi Desert at the foot of Mount Mingsha, carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, south-east of the city of Dunhuang in western China, lies a series of caves that contain the richest, largest and longest used treasure trove of Buddhist art in the whole world.
The earliest printed book was also discovered here - the Diamond Sutra- amongst a cache of 50,000 ancient scrolls that were written in Chinese, Sanskrit, Sogdian, Tibetan, old Turkic and even ancient Hebrew, with those well-preserved scrolls dating back to at least the 4th Century AD - 1700 years ago. They are considered some of the greatest treasures of the ancient Silk Road, of Central Asia and China!
The Mogao Caves, as they are officially known today, are also known as 'The Cave Temples of Dunhuang', or the 'Caves of the Thousand Buddhas', none of which do justice to this incredible place. You may not have heard of them - we hadn't until planning our latest trip along the Silk Road - but they are unbelievable! Along with places such as Petra in Jordon, the pyramids of Egypt, and Machu Picchu in Peru they should be on everyone's bucket list!
The caves consist of 735 hand-hewn chambers that form a system of 492 Buddhist temples, containing murals, wall to wall and ceiling to floor art, and over 2,415 carved and painted statues. The first caves were carved in 366AD and quickly became the cultural and religious centre of Buddhism on the Silk Road from the 4th to the 14th Century. Once the Silk Road fell into disuse in the 14th Century the caves were abandoned and the shifting sands of the Gobi filled the caverns and blocked up the entrances. They were soon forgotten.
In the 1890s a Daoist monk name Wang Yuanlu, appointed himself guardian of the caves, opening them up and discovering their many hidden treasures.
In 1900 he discovered one of the greatest collections of ancient documents ever found. He was soon feted by adventurous archaeologists from Europe, Russia and even Japan. China, at first took little notice of the strange man who came out of the desert offering scrolls to anyone of importance who would buy them.
Aurel Stein, an extraordinary adventurer, explorer and archaeologist, originally hailed from Hungry but had studied and later became and worked for the British. He first came to the caves in 1907 on his second Central Asia expedition and convinced ol' Wang that the scrolls would be better off in his hands. The French explorer Paul Pelliot followed closely on Stein's heels and again bought thousands of scrolls from the monk. Other expeditions followed with the result that the cave's treasures are spread around the globe, with much of the material to be found in London, Delhi, Paris, Saint Petersburg, Berlin and Beijing.
The caves and their painted walls and sculptured Buddhas were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. Their study and preservation are overseen by an International watchdog group led by the British Museum and the Getty Conservation Institute, as well as the Dunhuang Research Academy (http://en.dha.ac.cn/).
Visitors today are first taken to an all-encompassing surround movie theatre (very impressive!) and display area, before being bussed to the site where a guide meets you and you are taken to a number of the caves. We didn't think we'd get to see the best of them but we got to visit some of the major ones, including the cave of the Giant Buddha, which is some 35 metres tall, and the cave of the Reclining Buddha, which is no less impressive with its incredible art work.
From there we headed to the 'Crescent Lake', which is a small lake with a Buddhist pagoda and surrounded by the tall sand hills of the 'Singing Sand Dunes'. But the dunes have stopped singing because of air pollution ... and you couldn't or wouldn't be able to hear them if they did sing, because of the sheer number of tourists that now come to this place on the edge of the sand sea of the Gobi Desert.
North of here and situated on the northern edge of the desolate and intimidating Taklimakan Desert (also known as the 'Place of Ruins' or the 'Sea of Death') are another similar set of caves which we also visited.
These caves - the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves near the ancient Silk Road city of Turpan - date from the 5th Century, but sadly they have been looted, and badly damaged by warring Mongols, thieves, Islam extremists, plundering archaeologists, White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks during the 1920s and finally by Chinese soldiers of the 1960s Cultural Revolution.
Realising that, maybe it was lucky Stein and those that followed him, took the scrolls and paintings for the great museums of the western world! (For a great read of the discovery and recovery of these priceless works of art, read, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, by Peter Hopkins.)
Copyright Ron & Viv Moon