Dunhuang, oasis town

We arrived in Dunhuang to clear blue skies. We were quite far north, so it was very cold, but the sun was shining and as the station was situated a few kilometres from the town with the desert stretching out around us, it really felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. The station forecourt was full of taxis and buses ready to ferry people into town, but we decided to purchase tickets for our onward journey to Chengdu first. The ticket hall was empty, and we bought our tickets with no problems, although the second leg of the journey had no sleeper berths left, so we had to get hard seats. Feeling rather pleased with ourselves at how easy it had been, we left the station about ten minutes later, only to find that all the people, taxis and buses had gone! Being a rather distant outpost, Dunhuang doesn’t have many scheduled trains, so they don’t hand around long!

We were beginning to think we might be waiting a very long time for transport to arrive, when the attendant from our carriage walked by. She did a double take when she saw us, and gave us a look which implied, ‘what are you still doing here you fools?!’ She organised for a man who was heading into town on his bike to get a taxi for us and we plonked our bags down and waited by the road. Shortly after, a small group of staff emerged from the station wheeling out a speaker, put on some music and began to line dance. From a distance, puffed out in our many warm layers, we copied their actions and joined in, much to the amusement of the few people who wandered by. This passed the time nicely until our taxi arrived!

We showed our driver the address of our accommodation and he drove to the location, an area out of town and very close to the dunes, which in the high season would be a bustling tourist spot. However, it was very much the low season, and the places we passed all looked suspiciously devoid of life. After much backing and forthing, we eventually located our hostel, which had a deserted feel. We knocked on the door – no answer. The taxi driver phoned the number on the sign – no reply. There was no note on the door and no one around to ask. We had reserved the room on booking.com, and decided there must have been a mistake. We rang all the hostels and hotels in our guidebook and found that all were either closed, or could not accept foreigners. The taxi driver, phoned a few more places and eventually found one in the town centre that could take us! It was a four star hotel, but very heavily discounted due to the time of year, so it actually seemed a real bargain. The room was very nice, but we found that hot water was sporadic or non-existent depending on the time of day, and it was very difficult to understand any attempted explanations as to why or when the best time to shower would be! Despite all this, we were pleased to have found a place to stay!

By this point in our travels we were really running short on clean clothes and were desperate to get some laundry done. We asked at the reception desk if they had a laundry service and were told that they did. We went to collect our dirty linen bag and a very sweet girl who spoke a small amount of English walked us down the road to what looked more like a dry cleaners. The woman at the counter then proceeded to take out each grubby item of clothing one by one to count them all, holding them with the tips of her fingers as you might toxic waste. Every pair of trousers or leggings, every shirt, each pair of knickers and underpants and grubby socks – all were laid out in piles before us, whilst the girl from the hotel and the other ladies in the shop watched. It was pretty embarrassing! After she had itemised everything, she announced that it would cost us 200 yuan, the equivalent of £20! We could have bought a new wardrobe for that in China! All we wanted to do was bundle it into a washing machine. We didn’t want our underwear pressed, we didn’t care if our shirts were crinkly! So we cringingly had to decline, saying it was too expensive (she wasn’t going to budge on price) and pack our laundry back into the bag, hoping that the girl from reception wouldn’t notice when some of the clothes made an appearance over the next few days! It is possible to wash a few items of clothing in a hotel room sink – underwear is easy – but you can’t really do much more than that as there is nowhere to hang things. Luckily, when it’s below zero, you don’t sweat much!

I think the girl, whose name was Lin, felt a bit sorry for us, so when we asked her for a recommendation for a place to eat, she walked us into town herself as she was on a break. There was a fantastic market area full of ornately carved traditional wooden stalls selling spices, nuts, fruit and veg and tourist knick knacks and in a covered area there were dozens of cabin-sized cafés. We chose one of these and had the local beef noodles, Chinese bread (which was like a dense, flat muffin) and beer. Lin left to go home for her lunch, but turned up again just before we finished and paid for our meals – she wouldn’t take no for an answer! We hadn’t been expecting it at all, or we wouldn’t have ordered the extras! She then took us to a bus stop from where we could get the bus to the sand dunes, waved us off and before we knew it, we were in the desert. We hadn’t planned the trip at all.

The entry to the dunes was quite expensive, and there was much hype surrounding the famous crescent moon lake, which is fed by a natural spring and sheltered by a horseshoe of sand dunes. Due to its location, sand blown off the dunes bypasses the lake, which is why it has been able to survive here in this arid environment for thousands of years. I can imagine it would have been a very welcome and emotional sight for the exhausted Silk Road merchants who had traversed the Gobi Desert. However, the water table has lowered significantly in the last 30 years and the lake has shrunk in size as a result. As there was a risk of it disappearing altogether, the government has begun to refill it. I think in summer it would be more impressive as the banks would be surrounded by flowers and greenery, and it would look like a true oasis, but when we were there it was more of a fenced in puddle, that curved around a small temple complex.

The area is a little like a desert theme park, and in high season would be packed with tourists doing camel treks, surfing the dunes and quad bike racing, but it was fairly quiet in winter. We saw a couple of camel trips heading off through the dunes and one or two quad bikes, but most people had come to climb the dunes and see the view of the desert from the top. For this purpose, they had rented fluorescent orange plastic bags, which they tied over their shoes to keep the sand out. Being seasoned dune climbers already, we went without – part of the fun is getting sand in your shoes anyway, isn’t it?

The sand dune we climbed in Mongolia was probably the hardest walk I have ever done, so I had some trepidation about repeating the experience! However, with the regular tourist traffic, the sand along the route was well compacted and so the two steps forward, one step back rule didn’t really apply and we were at the top pretty quickly. There were lovely views of the soft crests of sand, although as we were still on the edge of civilisation, it didn’t feel quite as otherworldly as in Mongolia. It was strange seeing a scattering of snow on the dunes – something you don’t expect to see in the desert! We lay flat on our backs at the top enjoying the whiffling of the wind and the silence, before heading back down towards the temple and the lake.

As we were walking back through town that evening, we passed an elderly man playing a Chinese bamboo flute. We gave him a few yuan and I told him that I also had a bamboo flute. He was very jolly and we had a photo taken together. I resolved to return the next day with my Chinese flute to see if he could teach me some tunes. As I was talking to him, a young man walking past did a double take. ‘Hey, don’t I know you from somewhere?’ Luke and I looked at each other, and then he realised – ‘Pingyao!’ We had met Lu and two friends back in October thousands of miles away in a karaoke bar in the ancient town of Pingyao. They had told us that they were tour guides for the Mogao caves in Dunhuang, but at the time had no plans to go there and had completely forgotten about the encounter. It really is a small world! Of all the millions and millions of people in China, to bump into the same person again seems an extraordinary thing! We made an arrangement to meet later that evening for a drink.

We went to a small kebab bar for dinner, where you paid by the stick. The meat was grilled with a delicious combination of spices and we ate it with Chinese bread and Chinese style naan. When we had eaten our fill, we headed to the bar to meet Lu. It was a lovely place, with a traditional Dunhuang design. Quaint and cosy with embroidered cloths and cushions and a kang bed to sit on in one room. As we entered, we were greeted by a very happy, friendly dog, who seemed to say, ‘follow me!’ and took us through a series of doors to the bar. Lu had brought Wu along, a girl we had also met in Pingyao, so it was a quite a reunion! Lu was one of the English speaking tour guides, but Wu took Chinese tourists only, so her English was limited. We were all delighted by the coincidental meeting! We passed a pleasant few hours catching up, asking questions about each other’s culture, drinking beer and munching on gwadzerr (sunflower seeds). We planned to visit the Mogao caves the following day, but unfortunately it was Lu’s day off so he couldn’t be our guide. Wu said that if she had time, she could meet us after our English tour and show us some extra caves if we liked as she had the keys, so we took her phone number.

The following morning, we took a taxi to the Mogao Caves visitor centre, where we watched two introductory films. The first was a high budget, epic adventure film telling the story of the Silk Road and the building of the Mogao grottoes, with hundreds of extras in period costume, camels laden with wares, galloping horsemen, the odd battle and a sandstorm. It told of how Le Zun, a Buddhist monk who journeyed along the Silk Road through the Gobi desert had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site. This impelled him to make his dreams a reality and he is believed to have built the first of many grottoes. As an oasis town, Dunhuang was an extremely important stop along the Silk Road and a melting pot of cultures. The film conveyed this feeling perfectly. The voiceover was in Chinese, but Luke and I had been given an English audio guide each. At one point, the Aussie man we were listening to snorted with laughter for no apparent reason. Luke and I both fell into giggles at a rather inappropriate point in the film, much to bemusement of all the Chinese tourists. I bet the staff wonder why English speaking tourists always find that part of the film so funny!

The second film was in a huge dome-shaped theatre, and gave you a virtual tour of some of the caves, which had been scanned in 3d. I was mesmerised and found it exciting to be swooping down through the entrance of the caves and able to peer around at the artwork on the virtual walls. I thought it incredibly clever, and at the end, I turned to Luke enthusiastically and asked him what he thought of it. ‘They should have got me to help with their rendering,’ he declared. I should have known that a computer graphics programmer would be hard to impress!

After the movies, we piled into the shuttle bus, which took us on a journey past beautiful sand dune scenery to the caves themselves. We hopped down and crossed over a bridge and there before us, cut into the sandstone cliff face of Mingsha Mountain, were hundreds of caves on two and sometimes three levels, stretching 1600m from south to north. The entrances had all been fitted with doors to protect them from the light and to regulate the numbers of visitors. In summer the caves see up to 20,000 people in a day, so they have to be very careful the high volume of traffic does not lead to deterioration of the paintwork inside. Some caves can only be visited by special appointment, and every visitor must be accompanied by a guide. The usual trip takes in a selection of around 10 caves chosen by your guide. As the only foreigners there, we had a guide all to ourselves, which was wonderful, as all the others were traipsing round in big groups. I think this is definitely a place to visit in winter! Our guide was a middle-aged woman, who at first seemed rather stern, but seemed to warm to us as we showed our interest by asking lots of questions. She was very patient and clearly loved the grottoes. They really were extraordinary and if you are thinking of visiting China (you should, it’s brilliant!), then this should be on your itinerary!

We entered cave after cave and inside each the walls and ceilings were covered with the most exquisite murals. They varied in age from the Northern Wei dynasty in the 4th century to the early Ming dynasty in the 14th century and the designs ranged from maps of a palace complex, to intricate patterns, to stories from the sutras that ran like a comic strip. Caves could be commissioned by a rich individual, a family or an entire village. Some were vast and others modest in size, and some occupied only the porch area of a larger cave. There were grottoes whose designs had been near perfectly preserved and others where lead in the paint had oxidised, turning the white areas black. In some, there were blank patches where paintings had been lifted from the walls by over-zealous foreign archaeologists. Many of the caves contained sculptures set about a central altar. The older sculptures were beautifully executed, but the later versions (which had sometimes been installed to replace those that were stolen), were quite comical, with their garish pink flesh and ill proportioned limbs. The Tang dynasty was a peaceful, wealthy period in Chinese history and so many of the most detailed works dated from then.

Cave painting would have been a lucrative business – many skilled workers were needed to complete one cave. First of all the hollow had to be hewn from the rock, then the walls had to be prepared so that they were perfectly smooth, and then the artists would start their work. There often would have been one person who had the vision of the general design and then a series of lesser artists who would have worked under guidance to produce the finished mural. We spent around two hours wandering through 10 caves, but there were many, many more that we did not see. The volume of artwork there was staggering. One cave contained a large reclining Buddha surrounded by a crowd of disciples, all of whom had different expressions upon their faces, which told you how close each was to achieving enlightenment.

Roughly in the centre of the row of caves, there was a temple-like structure built against the wall. As we entered through the doors, we found ourselves looking at the feet of an enormous seated Buddha (this is becoming a bit of a recurrent theme!). At around 35m tall, we had to tip our heads back to see his face; he was a rather impressive fellow! He fitted snugly into the space and the outer structures gave no hint as to what was inside.

Probably the most famous grotto is the Library Cave, discovered by a Taoist priest called Wang Yuanlu in 1900. It is a small alcove set into the wall at the entrance to a larger and more impressive cave. Sandstorms had obscured the entrance to the main cave and Wang Yuanlu was clearing the site when he came upon a walled up area. Behind this were stacked a huge quantity of priceless documents and paintings; most were Buddhist scriptures, but some were from other religions too. Unfortunately he did not realise their value, and sold off the best part of the stash to foreign collectors for a pitiful sum of money. Now the documents are dispersed around the world; there are even some in the British Museum. The Chinese feel the loss very keenly, and lament that there are so few left in China. Museums are full of items that don’t ‘belong’ there. Some have been purchased, some may have been stolen. It does make you feel sad when you see the effects of looting in situ. Although, however uncomfortable we may feel about this, if the artefacts find their way into a public collection, it does provide a way for us to learn about other cultures and allows people who are unable to travel to get a glimpse of world history. I think I would draw the line at peeling a section out of a painting or chopping the head off a statue though!

We were unable to locate Wu that day as she was so busy with Chinese tour groups, but we had seen plenty to satisfy our curiosity. After the Silk Road fell into disuse during the Ming dynasty, Dunhuang dwindled in size and the caves were largely forgotten. The final part of the visit was a trip to the museum which had excellent displays explaining about the rediscovery of the caves in the late 19th century and also told of the artists who later came from all over China to learn from and copy the paintings. Some of these reproductions were then exhibited in the cities, which helped to spread the fame of the Mogao grottoes. We also learnt a little about how the renovation and preservation work is carried out. There were replicas of a few of the caves, which were quite amazing. As well as being near perfect duplicates in terms of artwork, the artists had painstakingly recreated every crack, every worn surface and each peeling layer of paint.

By the time we returned to town, we were ready to pass out from lack of food, so immediately sought out the market place and steaming bowls of noodles and dumplings. On our way, we passed the old man playing his flute again and stopped for a brief mimed chat.

The next morning, we found there was no hot water at all in the hotel – the taps ran dry. As we had a couple of nights on a train ahead of us, we were eager to have a wash first, so had to boil the kettle and wash in the sink. There was no way I was going to shower; the cold taps are glacial in northern China! We spent the day in a café, writing and programming (Luke, not me, ha ha!) and just before we left for the train station, I found the flute playing man once more and fished my Chinese flute out of my bag. He was really pleased to see us and taught me a tune which we played together. He was just so happy and smiley, you couldn’t help but feel cheerful in his presence! It was a lovely way to end our stay in Dunhuang, and we waved goodbye to him as our taxi pulled away.

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