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Dunhuang, City of a Thousand Buddhas

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Boulders scattered across the track make life difficult for the saloon car we’re riding in through the Sanwei Mountain Scenic Area. The road is uneven and stony. Eventually we have to abandon the air-conditioned vehicle and go out on foot, walking in the arid desert heat beneath cloudless, deep blue skies. There is little shade and no other people in sight. The silence is unnerving. Our march through rocky ravines and narrow passes recalls the journey of the droids on planet Tatoonie in the original Star Wars film. Our only company is some flightless birds foraging for who knows what, since there is little life here, but a few hardy desert plants sucking-up water from deep underground.

Sanwei Mountain is hardly Dunhuang’s principle tourist pull. Much of Sanwei’s religious heritage has been lost to history, or reconstructed by the Dunhuang Sun Tourist Group. But it is worthy of the pilgrimage past a spattering of shrines to the remote Giant Buddha statue and Nanshan Temple, which remain sacred sites to this day. This is because the fabled story of Dunhuang begins here when in 366AD a monk named Yuezun had a vision of a thousand Buddhas. Yuezun went on to found the Mogao Grottos in the cliff face located just opposite Sanwei. 

The Mogao Grottos

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Today these fresco adorned caves are what draw tourists in ever increasing numbers to this far-flung northwest corner of China. They are literally hundreds of them, though only around 40 are open to tourism (and a pass will only win you access to eight).

Following Yuezun's early prayer cells, faithful monks created 45, 000m2 of cave paintings over a millennium. By the Sui Dynasty in the sixth century the grottos had evolved from obscure places of worship into becoming masterworks deemed exemplarily of Chinese imperial power. Through the Mogao caves we can see the influence Tibet, India and Central Asia had on the Middle Kingdom. And by the High Tang, regarded by many as China’s cultural high point, caves were adorned with works of immaculate sophistication, enhanced by vignettes of life in capital Chang’an. Even Empress Wu Zetian sponsored a cave replete with a giant Buddha effigy, as she saw herself to be a living carnation of the Buddha of the Future. To this end, Mogao might be regarded as a brilliant and beautiful illustrated history of China itself, documenting its fables and fads within the depictions of the Buddhist sutras.

Around Dunhuang

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The reason so many Buddhists pilgrims passed through Dunhuang, praying and painting in the caves, is due to its strategic location. Situated at the top the Hexi corridor, a natural throughway that runs through the modern day Gansu Province, it has the last real water source before the paths of the Silk Road fanned out into the hostile Gobi Desert from where Buddhism, and later Islam, entered China. It was thus established as a strategic garrison town by Han rulers, evident in the wind battered remains of the Han Great Wall which can still be distinguished in the surrounding wastes today.

The Jade and Sun Gates, now tourist attractions, are the remnants of ancient passport offices, where traders leaving or entering China would have their documents checked. 

The former is largely in ruins, but offers great insight into the reach and sophistication of Han bureaucracy. The small Fangpan Castle still looks out at the lands occupied by the infamous nomads, the Xiongnu that periodically attacked China. There’s also an ancient granary where food was stored for soldiers guarding China’s edge.

The latter has been reconstructed, replete with a museum illuminating the history of outpost life, including the epic tale of Zhang Qian, who toured the far West, documenting and establishing trade links with distant societies. Beyond the museum is a gatehouse from which people would have entered and exited China in ancient times. Tourists can re-enact setting out on an epic voyage by dressing-up in dynastic robes and getting a bamboo passport stamped with the imperial seal, which is marked with your name and the date you “departed” China. The ancient passport makes a great souvenir at RMB100.

The City

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Dunhuang sees little rainfall and were it not for the life-giving Dang River fed by glacial melt in Qinghai, all life would be limited to the few oases that dot the desert. The river is now a centrepiece of place reinvigorated by the tourist dollars pouring on the city, which has transformed itself into a pleasant, medium-sized town devoid of the industry that scars much of China’s urban landscape. It’s also a great place to sample the Hui food as the Muslim community dominates the food & beverage scene.

Beyond historic sites, there’s plenty of outward bound activities to occupy visitors too. Those looking for a break from museums and caves invariably head to The Mingsha Hill Scenic Area where camel trekking, dune surfing and even helicopter rides are on offer. But it is not devoid of charm as the scenic area is also home to the Crescent Lake, a stunning desert oasis in the shape of a half moon. After a long days sightseeing, it’s the must-see sunset scene.

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About the author

Thomas grew up beneath heavy clouds in the South Wales suburbs. After reading too many books, he decided to see for himself what this weird world had on offer. Now an itinerant traveler, writer and photographer usually lost somewhere in East Asia, he prints his musings in a number of notable publications and has contributed to several guidebooks including Rough Guides China and Dunhuang: A City on the Silk Road. When he's not wandering, he can sometimes be found practising mandolin in Beijing.

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