Dunes And Caves

9th & 10th September 2017

Dunes at sunsetIt’s 240 miles from Jiayaguan to our next destination of Dunhuang and the good news is that we don’t have the hassle and discomfort of an overnight train. The bad news is that we are on our coach and it is going to take us the best part of a day to get there. As we sit in our seats with headphones on and brains off, there is only the scenery to distract us – though, as we’re passing through the Gobi Desert there isn’t much to see other than occasional clusters or roadside stalls. The monotony is broken when we pass a huge field of wind turbines that just stretches on and on.

Market stall by the side of the roadWe don’t mind though. Dunhuang has two of the sights that we have been most looking forward to. For me, with memories of the Sossusvlei sand dunes in Namibia, and the lead photo on Wild Frontier’s itinerary for this trip it’s the pavilion and oasis of Crescent Moon Lake. Janet read about the temples and statues in the Mogao Caves some years ago and has wanted to visit ever since. Well, now we’re going to get our chance – though, as this is China we’ve been told to expect both places to be very busy. The town of Dunhuang has a permanent population of 30,000 residents – but gets around 8m tourists very year.

Avoiding the crowds at Crescent Moon LakePavillion in the oasisFrom previous experience, we should have known that it wouldn’t quite be like the pristine photo in the itinerary; or match up with the bright orange sand of Sossusvlei; or be quiet and undeveloped like the oasis where we went dune buggy riding in Peru. Nope, this is China and there are a zillion Chinese here. The first clue (other than the crowds) is when we get past the visitor centre and we have the choice of buggy, camel or microlight (or walk) to get us the mile or so from the entrance to the oasis and the dunes. Whilst it was tempting to walk, we suspect that we have enough of that coming up and so jump on a buggy.

Follow the ants and the orange boots up the duneUnusually, Wikipedia is quiet as to the history and function of the lake and the buildings. The lake is fed by underground streams and was presumably a much-needed watering hole in the Gobi Desert. Once at the oasis, we try to avoid the crush around the pavilion and the other buildings and head around the side of the lake to see if we can get some shots that in any way match up with the one in the itinerary. We’re not helped by the section of dune that was clearly used as the vantage point for that shot being roped off (and patrolled by park officers). The only thing for it then, is to man up and get creative with the pictures and, actually, I think we didn’t do too badly. (Just ignore the fluorescent orange plastic over-boots that the Chinese seem to think were worth hiring – and worse, wearing!)

Not Namibia, but they are big dunesThen there is nothing else for it but to climb one of the huge dunes that surround the oasis. Whilst sections are cordoned off, there is still plenty of choice as to where to climb with the suggested routes set out with a wire rope ladder laid along the top of the sand. After experiencing sinking and backsliding in the soft dry sand then we quickly learn why the rope ladder is a good idea and join the ant-like queue of people working their way up the side of the dunes – and trying to ignore the burning in our legs as the climb goes on and on.

Phone based contemplationWe get to the top just before sunset but the gods of light aren’t kind to us and the sky just goes paler and greyer rather than lighting up in reds and oranges as we’d hoped. Still, the views are pretty good – though mostly of more dunes and the oasis below. After a while we realise that there is more fun to be had in people watching – both those climbing up the hill and particularly those at the top. What is it about waving a red headscarf in the air? And thanks to the monk for posing with his phone so conveniently. At least getting down was easier & quicker than climbing up. But, as we walk back along the path to our coach, disaster strikes and Janet’s camera falls out of my daypack and onto the tarmac. Although it looked undamaged, it would no longer switch on and so we’re down to one camera for the rest of our trip.

Our first sight of the Mogao caves complexWhatever disappointment we felt about Crescent Moon Lake vanished the next morning as we went to visit the Mogao caves. On the way to the Visitor Centre, our guide explained that these were one of the top attractions in China and made more exclusive by there being only 6,000 entrance tickets issued each day. Not easy to get hold of and more so for foreigners as there are only 2 guided tours in English each day. We can understand why Laura and our guide are very keen that we do not miss our scheduled arrival time.

Nine story pagoda - home to a 35m BuddhaThe Visitor Centre is very modern (and busy). Before we can head out to the caves we are ushered into a theatre to see 2 films covering the history of the caves and a taster for some of the things we shall see when we get there. In summary, there are 735 caves in the complex with the earliest dating back to the 4th Century (but most surviving caves are from the Tang dynasty 618 – 907AD). After the caves were constructed homes were built with the entire town being sited vertically up the face of a cliff wall. Within the caves are carved (Buddhist) statues and 45,000sq m of intricately painted murals and frescoes.

Incredible detail in the muralsSurprisingly, not only is it a coach trip from the Visitor Centre to the caves themselves, it is a full 15 – 20-minute drive. As we get close, we start to get our first inkling as to what all of the fuss is about as we see rows of windows and arches cut into the face of a cliff. First though is another wait as we join up with another group, are equipped with radio earpieces and introduced to our guide from the Mogao Research Institute (yes, it’s that significant).

The scale of some of the rooms is impressiveWe clearly can’t visit all 735 caves (and in any case many are ‘just’ living quarters). Indeed only a handful are open to the public at any one time and we visit perhaps half a dozen on our tour. As we go round, we get a lot of background and explanation of the history of Buddhism as well as the symbolism of the art. I’m not bothered about the Buddhist tosh and the art isn’t particularly to my taste but as a feat of engineering it’s astounding. The scale of the grottoes and the depth and height of the rooms that have been carved out of solid rock are impressive – and then the walls were covered in adobe and elaborately painted. The art may not to be what I would choose, but the different styles of painting, the colours and the techniques such as perspective used are just staggering.

There is a story in these paintingsThe Library Cave was built in c. 860 for a monk and is so known as it was filled with 10s of thousands of documents before it was sealed off. It was then rediscovered in 1900 and what follows is a sad and depressingly familiar story as the bulk of the documents were given away or were sold – the usual cast of villains including the Brits, the French and Americans. At least some of the documents are now on show in the British Museum as well as in Paris and in Beijing.

The sun sets on a good couple of days in DunhuangWe weren’t allowed to take photographs inside the caves but a quick perusal of the internet turned up the pictures that I have used here – and we were sufficiently impressed to buy a book on the caves at the tourist shop. [Normally, our “you buy it, you carry it” rule deters both of us from buying anything]. Overall, we far preferred Dunhuang and particularly the Mogao Caves to the Terracotta Warriors. Although we were led around like sheep, it was less busy (because of the ticket restrictions) and you could get closer to the artwork. Also, what was on display was much more impressive (at least for me). So, definitely one of the highlights of the trip and certainly the case that we could have spent a lot more time here before heading for a late lunch and then the afternoon train onwards to Turpan.

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