Kizil Caves

13th September 2017

Detail of the paintingWith the time difference between Beijing and local times, we have a leisurely start to the day and are still one of the first to breakfast. As we leave the hotel to start our day’s sightseeing I still cannot get used to the airport screening at the hotel entrance and police standing on every street corner. Nor the razor wire surrounding all important buildings including petrol stations, hotels and schools. Dave keeps saying that it reminds him of Belfast during the height of the Troubles – but somehow more oppressive.

View of the cavesThe question today is will the Kizil Thousand Buddha caves be better than Dunhuang or Binglingshi? These caves date back to the 5th and 6th Centuries and are the largest cave art site in Xingiang and said to be the earliest major Buddhist caves in China. We head out into the desert and then into the rugged mountain range giving us time to again reflect that it would have been impossible to do this trip on our own. This Wild Frontiers trip ticked the boxes of the places we wanted to visit and also many more place that we had not even heard of.

Weigan River and sightseerOver the mountains and down the other side we see green trees and grass surrounding the Weigan River which wends its way through the vista. We head on foot through the gates along a path and around the corner where we are faced with steps leading up the mountainside to caves dug out of the rock. This is what we have come to see. Bizarrely we have to put our water, cameras and bags into lockers, but we are allowed to keep out our mobile phones and use these to take photos inside the caves!

Where has all the gold gone?There were originally some 235 caves but now only 135 remain intact, of which we enter about half a dozen. Each is unlocked in turn for us to enter and marvel at the paintings. All the reclining Buddhas have been removed/ looted over the years. The Buddhas painted on the ceilings have had their robes removed as these would have been painted in gold and therefore valuable.

Cave roofIt was also sad to see the destruction of such amazing artwork which over the years has been either destroyed or were cut from the wall and are now in museums across the world. We were told many stories about the paintings and the depicted Buddha and other characters. Who know what is true and what has been hypothesised by archaeologists.

Buddha statueTo answer my earlier question, I do not have a favourite and we are glad that we have visited all the caves in this tour, as each set has been distinctive in its own right. I cannot think of any caves we have visited outside China which are as impressive. As we reflect on this, Dave and I spotted a statue under a covered walkway. We headed to investigate and detoured to find a row of statues without any explanation but with our only camera rescued from the locker we are able to add to our photo count.

Thats the way to do itWe were the only people having lunch, with a much needed beer, at the on site restaurant. As usual a spread of dishes arrived and this set us up for the four hour drive to Aksu, which we are told means white river. The journey, as ever, is made longer by the need for all traffic to leave the motorway at every service station to queue and pass through a security check point before returning to the motorway to continue on our way. Our route has already been forwarded to the Authorities so any deviation from route would need to be explained. It was late by the time we arrived at our hotel and tucked into the mediocre hotel buffet, so it was lucky we had stocked up at lunch.

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