While looking for places to visit around Urumqi for last minute China travel deals, the place that struck me most was the Mogao caves near Dunhuang. Although mentioned as a 2 to 3 day trip, I figured if we go by the overnight train we should have the good part of one day enough to be able to see the caves. One image of a 9 tiered pagoda embedded in a cliff was enough to make me want to go there.
We reached Liu yuan at 7 am, the station seemed small and the weather outside was cool. After 'Unexpected Urumqi', I'd almost forgotten why I'd booked these tickets-to come all the way here. Looking at the available options for a ride to Dunhuang, we took the most inexpensive and fast option, a minibus.
So, after a five hour plane journey across China the previous day, an overnight train, a two and half hour minibus ride to Dunhuang (the main destination for Silk Road tour ) and from there, another half an hour to the caves! As we left the dusty transit town of Liu Yuan, I hoped with everything I had, that these caves we were going to see, are REALLY worth it.
Dad with his usual, 'enjoy the journey and don't worry about the destination', brought my attention to the loud, screeching voices of the group of Chinese women sitting behind us. We were in the desert. The straight road we were on, cut across the nothingness. The desert changed intensities. The scrawny bushes changed into ones that had a lovely crimson glow about them. Dad called it a 'blush in the bush'. It made me think of the red cheeks of the people living in the mountains. It was almost like somebody had used a giant brush to touch up the bushes with a bit of crimson paint. We kept moving on that straight road, the chattering of the women, the occasional grunt of the driver and the smooth sound of the bus took a rhythmic quality. As dad and I crunched away on peanuts.
Soon the desert turned into an oasis, complete with poplar trees, we reached Dunhuang, a small city with extensive facilities. They have one of those typical Chinese night markets and English sign boards swarming the city. It seems like all possible efforts were being made to make it attractive for foreign tourists. After a brief look around, we got onto yet another mini bus for the last leg of our journey to the caves.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site to make a contricution to China tourism
, the Magao Caves seem to have gained a lot of popularity in the recent years. The Chinese Government has yet again left no stone unturned to make this beautiful relic accessible to hordes of tourists. As we left the highway and turned towards the caves, we could see the caves far away like termite homes. The golden sand of the desert, had sandstone cliffs hidden in it and these cliffs when revealed had been dug into to make caves. This place was home to some 1400 Buddhist monks for many many years. The tourist centre is big and the exhibition/museum is a very carefully designed building. Its entrance embedded in a man-made sandstone cliff similar to the caves is impressive. It reminded me of the Egyptian temples we drew at university.
Unlike the caves I'd seen from the road, the 'public' caves have been renovated completely. Made suitable for groups of about 20 Chinese tourists to visit conveniently, the caves look nothing like they used to. I have to say I was quite disappointed with what I saw. Despite the slight breeze and the poplar trees swaying with it, I was slowly losing the last bit of hope I had left for these caves. Everything was paved, there was no evidence of what these caves looked like in the older times. The eves were all new, a whole new facade seemed to have been pasted on the original caves. Fences, staircases, walkways, ventilators, doors, all so obviously new.
We waited about half an hour for the English China tour guide to arrive. A French couple also came in the meantime and the five of us were ready for the tour. By this time I was aching for something to make all this effort pay off. And finally, finally it did.
As we went from cave to cave, our surprisingly articulate guide, Nancy(her English name) did a brilliant job of revealing the magical world of the Magao cave paintings. She talked of the nuances of the statues, whether they had ever been renovated or were original, the differences that helped figure out which century they were made in, the expressions of the Buddha and the changes that were made to his appearance and why.
The Indian influence on the paintings. The bodhisattvas and how slowly they took a departure from the way they were portrayed in India to their Chinese counterparts. The apsaras and their swirly garments floating like clouds above Buddha. The colors, that were natural pigments and their sensitivity to atmospheric gases and fumes. Slowly i started forgiving one by one the various decisions taken to make the caves what they are today. The doors and ventilators that were necessary to avoid as much as possible the increase in carbon dioxide which has a negative impact on the paintings. The eves and frames made outside the caves to cast a shadow on the doorway itself to minimize the damage to the paintings there. She showed us how certain caves had been damaged beyond hope because of the forces of nature. I began to see why they had to do the things they did to protect these cultural wonders which, are no doubt an extremely rich source of history. I still don't agree with the extent of the intervention, but at the time I was truly engrossed in the beauty and wonder of this art work and was just happy I came.
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