Sunday, October 23, 2005

Doon The Dunes

One good thing about the desert, and some may that it's its defining feature, is that it doesn't rain much. Which is a welcome change to the rest of China where the grey skies hurt my (hack) photographer's sensibilities. Here the wide open spaces, azure skies and stark landscape sent me into a minor photographic frenzy.

The oasis town of Dunhuang, apart from being a cozy little place with a lively market, is well situated close to several worthy sights. Indisputably top of the list are the Mogao Grottoes where, starting more than 1500 years ago, Buddhist artists carved niches and caves containing thousands of statues and religious frescoes into the sedimentary cliffs. As the oldest examples of Buddhist art in China (Buddhism arrived from the Indian subcontinent via the Silk Road) they show an intriguing blend of Chinese and Indian influences that is not found anywhere else. And although you only get to see a handful of the more than 700 grottoes the impression you're left with is still inspiring. And although the caves should be world famous for the statues and paintings alone, they have become notorious for cave number 17, also known as the library cave. About 1000 years ago the monks of the area, fearful for some reason or another, hid away a treasure trove of 50,000 scrolls and books in a secret cave which they then sealed up. The scrolls contained writings in a multitude of languages: Chinese, Tibetan, Persian, Uighur and several that are still unknown. It wasn't until 1900 that a local monk, whilst cleaning the cave, found the sealed up entrance. Such a momentous archaeological find couldn't remain secret for long and soon archaeologists from all over the world were beating a path to Dunhuang. The first to make it were the Brits, followed by the French, the Japanese, the Russians and the Americans. By the time the Yank expedition made it there the entire hoard had already been carted off abroad (apart from a few thousand pieces that the Chinese had managed to keep) and so they had to make do with removing entire chunks of wall paintings instead. Of course there is a case to be made for such actions as it is likely that they actually helped preserve the artifacts and allowed them to be studied. Nevertheless cave 17 has become something of a cause celebre here in China, much like the Elgin Marbles in Greece.

About 100km west of town are the remains of several forts and stretches of the initial, 2000 year-old, Great Wall. Despite being made of mud bricks and straw and abandoned 1000 years ago, the ruins are still in pretty good shape. Their remoteness, or perhaps the fact that they have neither been touched up or restored, makes the ruins feel as if they are removed from time altogether, existing in some sort of time stasis. I was also lucky enough to be accompanied by a Taiwanese guy called Steven who not only had a digital camera, but a laptop as well; a fact I utilised mercilessly by borrowing a great many of his pictures and adding them to my own photo album.

I had met Steven the previous day whilst traipsing around the singing sand dunes close to Dunhuang. There's a little lake hidden away in amongst the dunes and some cheeky little bugger has decided to charge $10 to have a look at it. The fact that fencing off an entire desert is impossible means that it is very easy to slip in for free, although the busloads of local tourists haven't cottoned on to that fact yet. I had a whale of a time clambering to the top of the massive dunes (not at all easy I can tell you) and then bounding down them in great leaps. It was great fun, but next time I wander off into the desert I really ought to take some water as well.

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