Wednesday the Mogao Caves

Keith did not do so well over night so passed on the Mogao Caves, so I sallied forth with the others to visit what is considered to be the best Buddhist art in China.

The caves are to be found a few kilometres outside of Dunhuang in the desert. At its peak, the site housed 18 monasteries and 1400 monks and nuns. It would seem that wealthy traders and important officials would fund the creating of the caves to pray or give thanks for a safe journey west or return on the Silk Road. The initial cutting of the caves started in circa 366 AD and was to continue for nearly a thousand years. Each cave was carved out of the rock. The larger figures were then carved out of the rock face, smaller ones were sculpted onto a wooden frame. Each cave originally had wooden doors to enclose it.

A guide is compulsory and ours was a pretty, young local Chinese girl who grew up in Dunhuang and learnt her excellent English at a local college and spoke with an American accent. She looked very smart in her black trouser suit, black gloves and large shades. She took us to our allotted temples. First two large Buddhas and then a reclining Buddha and then several lesser temples in terms of figures but special for the murals.

Some interesting facts that I found fascinating were that there was evidence of both Persian and Indian motives, that the colours used on the murals included lapis lazuli (not found in China but from Afghanistan) and the fact that there is evidence of the use of perspective in about 800 AD, far earlier than the Renaissance established the technique in the west.

Up until this point all was fine and dandy. Then we visited the library and another case of the English not covered in glory was revealed. It would appear that after the caves fell into disuse around 1200 AD they were not rediscovered until around 1900 when some foreign explorers came across them. Around about the same time the caretaker, one Abbot Wang Yuanlu – a Taoist priest – came across what is darkly known as Cave 17, The Library. In this cave were thousands of priceless ancient manuscripts. Apparently the Abbot Wang was a bit naive about their value and eventually agreed to sell some to one Sir Marc Stein, a British Hungarian. He took 24 crates of manuscripts for about £250.

These can now be found in the British Museum along with other contraband acquired under the guise of ‘we know best’. At least we weren’t alone – French, Japanese and Russian explorers also carried off some of the booty and an American took some of the murals off the walls of some of the caves….. A counter argument is they may not have survived the Cultural Revolution if the had stayed where they were.

It was an amazing place. Sadly photography was not allowed and the postcards did not cover the caves we visited but I think it will be a lasting memory of the trip.

On my return to the hotel, Keith had rallied although during the morning and adding to his miseries was the fact that at one stage the bathroom ceiling started raining water on him from floor above. It never rains but it pours!

As there was free time in the afternoon we decided to go and explore the market. It was down time for the majority of the stalls, but a nonetheless interesting stroll watching preparations being made for the evening trade. The market covers a wide area. The town of Dunhuang is very pleasant. Wide streets and wide pavements. It makes for very easy walking.

Our outing to see the acrobats, Dunhuang variety, did not depart until 8.00 so we went to Charley Johngs cafe next door to the hotel, where I had left a pile of laundry last night to see if the laundry was done and to see if anyone was about. It proved beneficial on both counts, the bag of laundry was ready and someone had tracked down a bottle of decent French wine! Nectar of the gods after nearly a month of Chinese beer! Keith made haste to buy another bottle (his decision not to have any alcohol today apparently did not include wine!) and we spent a happy hour chatting prior to the acrobats.

I really enjoyed the show, it was hysterically spectacular, with badly written English sub titles between each act to tell us what was going on. It was a bit too balletic for Keith. He much preferred the nerve racking feats of the Beijing performance. I was at least able to watch this without my hands over my eyes!

Supper was street food from the market which was a different place altogether after dark. It bubbled with activity although the karaoke left a lot to be desired!

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