Dunes, Donkey Meat and Daring-Do in Dunhuang


Dunhuang is for many the archetype of all the Silk Road oasis towns that make up the links in the lonely chain across the vast wasteland tracts of the Gobi and Taklamakan deserts.  Evocative of long lost ages and the confluence of the persistent optimism of human endeavour against the indifferent and pitiless power of nature in its extreme, it is easy to see why Dunhuang retains its exotic flavour.  Its name means “blazing beacon” but perhaps its older name of Shazhou is more appropriate – the “land of the sands”.


The sand meets the oasis...

The Gobi sands meet the oasis of Dunhuang


Dunhuang was an important waypoint because it is situated at the junction of the two main arteries of the Silk Road – the northern arms leads off to Hami, the Turpan Depression and Urumqi, while the lonelier southern arm skirts the empty sands of the southern rim of the great Tarim Basin, passed lost cities now buried under the sand, until it staggers its way out of the Taklamakan desert to the frontier towns of Hetian and finally Kashgar in the far western corner of China. 


For merchants and travellers passing through Dunhuang, it was a place to give thanks for a journey safely accomplished (for those arriving), or to submit prayers and offerings to various gods and spirits before setting out into the haunting arms of the Taklamakan – a cruel mistress whose embrace would often prove fatal if things went badly.  “Taklamakan” means “you go in, you don’t come out” which sets a cheery sort of a tone for any caravan intending to make the journey. 


I’ve already described my own particular experience of reaching Dunhuang.  No doubt through my inexperience I made it all a little more dramatic than it needed to be as I’d allowed myself to become quite dehydrated in the final 50km to the town.  But I couldn’t conceal the relief (primarily) and later delight at making it across the pale burning emptiness of the desert from Anxi to arrive amongst the green trees, irrigation channels, vineyards and fruit orchards that spread out up to about 15km from the town itself.  And finally the cool shade and refreshing drinks and food of the litter of stalls that runs north to south through the heart of the town in the ancient Shazhou market. 


Shazhou Market, Dunhuang - a very welcome sight

Comfy chairs and tourist trap restaurants, Shazhou Market, Dunhuang


Dunhuang’s economy is based on a few things – its fruit, especially grapes and melons (apparently legendary but sadly out of season), cotton and more recently oil.  Amazingly, the Dunhuang oasis is booming, so long after its Silk Road heyday trailed into the sands.  In a smaller sister town about 20km to the south, called Qili, oil production has taken over, bringing with it enterprising Han people from the east, and all that follows the nouveaux riches.  Big isolated shining hotels, conference centres and ambitious plans for developing new carefully landscaped centres of tourism filled with restaurants, bars and the attendant “souvenir-tat” stalls that never miss an opportunity to follow the money.  I heard from one of the owners of the Oasis Café (who showed me great kindness) that the mayor of Dunhuang is nothing if not a “man with a plan”.  Often rising stars in the Communist elite are despatched to the more far-flung provinces to cut their teeth in administration and prove their worth before being welcomed back into the bosom of power nearer to the northern capital.  This mayor is just such a one and will no doubt do himself and hopefully the locality much good. 


(Incidentally the Oasis Café is a definite must for any weary traveller in need of some conversation and the best milkshake in western China – found at No. 99, Shazhou Market.  A few numbers north of this, you’ll also be able to try the local speciality – lurou mian – donkey meat noodles.  I suppose it wouldn’t do to become too enthusiastic about this so as not to upset those of a more sensitive nature than me.  But it does taste rather good.  Having said this, I think there’s probably good reason why chicken and lamb and beef and pork are eaten the world over, and donkey meat is not.)


So anyway, Dunhuang certainly has a future but what of its past?


In the early days of the Silk Road (c. 2nd century BC), the Chinese victory over their long-standing rivals in the west, the Xiongnu, won them control over Dunhuang and they set about fortifying it as the western-most outpost of the Chinese empire at the time.  At times the Great Wall was extended to include Dunhuang though traces of that seem to have long since faded.  But the city grew as a supply point for both military and commercial purposes, with a population numbering more than 75,000 by around the 2nd century AD.  As I mentioned, the apparent ultimacy of the place lent itself to great religious fervour, which in this part of the world at that time meant Buddhism. 


About 25km south-east of the main town, along the bluffs of a cliff-face that rises out of a small tree-lined river valley, Buddhist monks began carving out small grottoes and adorning them with a remarkable array of Buddhist frescoes, paintings and sculpture.  The first of these caves, known as the Mogao Caves, date from the early 4th century AD, but these quickly proliferated into dozens and eventually hundreds of similar caves, each of which would be characterised by the artistic style and themes of its day.  As such, the Mogao Caves are recognised as an almost peerless preserve of the most exquisite and varied Buddhist art, including manuscripts, paintings and statuary spanning from the 4th to 14th century AD. 


The cliff-face at the MoGao Caves

The cliff-face at the MoGao Caves, near Dunhuang


The story goes that in in 336AD, a monk called Lie Zun came upon the cliff which was already somewhat riddled with a honeycomb of caves, and had a vision of a thousand golden rays of light shining upon him like as many Buddhas.  The monk then asked a pilgrim to have one of the caves painted and consecrated as a shrine to ensure the safety of his onward journey.  So began a trend that continued for over a thousand years, elaborating to quite stunning proportions.  The caves therefore consist of both man-made and naturally-formed caves that range from very small and simple holes in the rock, to massive temples hewn out of the cliff-face housing two of the biggest statues of the Buddha in the whole of China, one standing to the height of 35m, and another of similar length reclining.  Today there are nearly 500 caves still existing in good condition with over 45,000 murals and 2,000 stucco figures, which, because of the aridity of the surrounding desert, have been preserved for these past 15 centuries or more.


All this of course makes for an interesting archaeological site in and of itself.  But over the centuries the Mogao Caves became an important centre for all kinds of cultural exchange and a significant repository of information about much of Central Asia.  In one of the caves was kept a massive library of manuscripts, simply stacked up in pile upon pile of documents, parchments, scrolls and every other form of written recording.  This cave had been sealed up in the 11th century by the caretaker monks of the time and was only rediscovered by the self-styled abbot of the caves, a Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu in 1900.  The collection contained a bewildering array of texts including one of the world’s oldest known printed books – the so-called Diamond Sutra elaborating the Tantrayana form of Buddhism; other religious texts like a Nestorian version of the Gospel of St John, and other Islamic texts, stories, letters, official documents, accounts, bills of fare, poetry, musical texts, paintings, and drawings from all over Central Asia.  Almost any kind of written recording you could think of had been sealed up and stored away for over 8 centuries, written in Chinese, Uighur, Sogdian, Tibetan, Sanskrit, Runic-Turkic and several unknown languages. 


As fortune would have it, at the time of their rediscovery, western China appeared to be crawling with the kind of pioneering European (and American) archaeologists of whom Indiana Jones would be proud.  What they may have lacked in Fedora hats and bullwhips, they more than made up for in their exciting facial hair and romantic-sounding names – the “Englishman” (although of Hungarian blood) Sir Aurel Stein, the German Albert von Le Coq, the Frenchman Paul Pelliot, the Swede Sven Hedin, the Russian Count Nikolai Przewalski, the American Langdon Warner. 


Sir Aurel Stein.jpg

Sir Aurel Stein - English/Hungarian adventurer archaeologist


These men – and perhaps some others – are those described in Peter Hopkirk’s wonderful book, Foreign Devils on the Silk Road who are now remembered in dire ignominy (at least by the Chinese tourist board) as the thieves and “rapists” who pillaged a good deal of the ancient art and manuscripts from China’s western regions.  Very many of the little information plaques in the Mogao Caves (and other archaeological sites I have visited) end with a “tip of the cap” to these episodes and the rapacious tendencies of western adventurers.


Essentially what happened was that several of these men were in the area (meaning broadly western China) when word got out of the discovery of this treasure-trove of manuscripts in “Cave 17” at Mogao.  The Swede Hedin was occupied with his discoveries of several “lost cities” in the southern area of the Tarim Basin and so delayed; in 1905, the German von Le Coq, hearing the news in nearby Hami, was similarly divided between certain other sites lying to the west, so he flipped a coin and Dunhuang happened to lose – and so he lost out on one of the greatest archaeological finds of the 20th century. 


It was left to Sir Aurel Stein, two years later, to be the first “foreign devil” to arrive at the caves to investigate the library cave and catalogue what it contained.  He was astonished by what he found.  Evidently an expert he at once recognised the value of what was stored there.  Depending on your viewpoint, his next move certainly preserved the documents, but essentially deprived China of an incredibly rich piece of its history.  He set about building a friendship with the abbot Wang Yuanlu, and gradually introduced the idea that he might purchase at least a proportion of the manuscripts from the abbot and take them away with him back to India and then to England for further inspection and scholarship. 


Stein Documents.bmp

Some of the manuscripts which Stein removed from the Library Cave at Mogao Ku, Dunhuang


To be fair to Stein, his intentions, gleaned from his journals and letters, appear to have been in the interests of posterity.  A genuine scholar, he had no confidence whatsoever that leaving such a rich and important find in the precarious hands of this monk, and during a period of political meltdown in China as the empire was in its death throes and China was entering a period of major upheaval as the new-born Republic tried to assert itself, would ensure the manuscripts’ preservation.  He may well have been correct in this view, since one can still see the damage caused during the Cultural Revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, with murals defaced and huge chunks of Buddhist artistry gouged out of the walls, the result of this unfortunate glut of cultural vandalism. 


In the end, after gaining the abbot’s confidence, Stein made off with over 10,000 manuscripts and wall paintings, crated up and taken away, which have now ended up mostly in the British Museum or the National Museum in New Delhi.  A priceless treasure, all for the princely sum of £120 – which even in those days was essentially nothing. 


Not long after him, in 1908, the Frenchman Paul Pelliot arrived, who selected the rarest and most valuable of those that remained, handed over a mere £90, and transported them back to France, where they are now housed in the Musée Guimet in Paris.  At this point, the authorities in Beijing caught wind of what was going on and immediately ordered an embargo on the removal of any more of these manuscripts.  However, this didn’t appear to stop at least three others from as many countries continuing to remove material from Dunhuang.


The Japanese Zuicho Tachibana in 1911, and then the Russian Sergei Oldenburg in 1914 managed to take away yet more artefacts, the latter’s troops leaving graffiti and causing considerable desecration to many of the caves in the process.  And then finally the American Langdon Warner was last to the honeypot in 1923.  Seeing the rapid deterioration of the site, he too saw it as an honourable duty to “break [his] neck to rescue anything and everything” that he could, which in the end meant a few wall paintings and statues from two of the caves.


It is an interesting episode in archaeological history as it of course raises some quite barbed questions about the very nature of foreign intervention in another country’s artefacts and historical legacy.  Should these men be castigated as piratical treasure-hunters, or celebrated as determined scholars with the selfless interests of a universal human posterity at heart?  Of course books could be written in response to this question.  What’s sure is that these days this could never happen. 


But the episode also gives an almost comical snapshot of the fortunes of the various empires of these western powers.  The British and French were in the right place at the right time and fared well, the Germans went the wrong way, the Swedes weren’t interested and found something better to do, the Russians smashed everything up, and the Americans arrived late with pious intentions but are remembered as thieves.  That – in a nutshell – could sum up the imperial history of the Great Powers of the 19th and 20th centuries if you ask me.


I won’t dwell on my experience at the caves since it was not a successful one.  On the vague chance that anyone reading this should one day find themselves at the caves, I will limit myself to advising you to avoid going wrong as I did.  In the interests of preserving what remains of the caves (which is still an awful lot), each cave is sealed with a specially fitted metal door.  A very small number of doors are left open on any given day, and unless you are attached to a guided group you will not get into any other of the caves to see inside.  You may follow a Chinese group into a cave and remain there for as long as they do, but you will be none the wiser as to what you are seeing or anything interesting about it, unless you are with a guide you completely understand.  Although the guidebook said English guides are available all day, in fact this has now changed, as the English groups only go three times in the day.  I missed the last of these.  My suggestion is if you want to have a meaningful visit – don’t you do the same. (And don’t forget to bring your own flashlight – there is no lighting in the caves.)


I was confined to quick peeks within at the admittedly elaborate artwork, but I quickly became bored without any kind of explanation of what I was looking at.  Nor is one allowed to take any photos.  I did attempt to take one with my phone and the external façade of the temples, but I was quickly approached by three guards and made to delete it.  (Which I pretended to do.  Unfortunately the authorities got the last laugh since the photo file appears to be corrupted.)


Mogao Caves.bmp

The facade of the MoGao Caves - not my photo but similar shot


Objectively I could see this was a remarkable archaeological site, but subjectively for me the visit was frustrating and almost a waste of time.  Still – I don’t expect everything to go perfectly according to plan.


So much for a bit of the history of Dunhuang.  There is only one other thing to mention of my time there.


This is the quite disarming beauty of the Mingshan dunes that encroach the quiet tranquillity of the oasis greenland to the south of the town.  About 5km beyond the edge of town, these awesome natural sculptures rise up into the pale sky with elegant swirls of sand – a fabulous tableau of shadows and light which, when you first catch sight of them, quite take your breath away.


Getting closer...

Mingshan Dunes, south of Dunhuang


I had signed up for a camel ride into these dunes, which involved a two hour ride from the nearest village up to the edge of the dunes and then about another 30 mins riding up into them, to a secluded little hollow – out of the wind as far as possible – where the camel train guide sets up a camp and cooks you dinner.  Meanwhile, he sets you off to go climb up to the summit of one of the bigger dunes and watch the sunset.


Let the photos speak for themselves.


By good fortune, I was joined on this particular little trek by an American couple – Louis and Lisa – who were great company.  The two hours of rather uncomfortable lumbering of the camel flew by with conversation with these two and it was a pleasure to hang out with them and hear about their experiences of China.  Both were teachers in Lanzhou, though Louis was separately employed with the US Peace Corps.  But they were both coming to the end of their time in China, returning home in July after two years (for him) and a year (for Lisa).  Although it was by no means a warm evening (despite the heat of a few days’ before), we were lucky as the clouds did clear for us after sunset, and we sat chatting by a very tiny fire looking up at the stars for as long as the conversation lasted. 


The following morning everyone was up very early – which almost came as a relief since sleep was hard to come by with the flapping of the tent in the wind.  I was reminded (again!) to find a pair of stupid ear plugs (which I now have).


The ride back passed quickly too, and I was happy to get back to my hotel for a shower and a proper sleep by around 10am.  Followed by a momentary pause of reflection to consider whether three or four hours rocking back and forward on a camel had been the best kind of repose for my already tender bottom.  Perhaps not…

The land of the sands...


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