Day 6 began with a traditional Chinese breakfast: rice porridge, steamed buns, pickled vegetables, stewed tofu, and roasted peanuts. Toast, jam, and “butter” were also served, but the butter was disconcerting to look at. It was neon yellow. Out of sheer curiosity, I pinched a bit off to taste: like really powdery, margarine. Jam wasn’t much better: a cross between jello and plastic. On the other hand, the pickled vegetables were savory and crisp (and oily), and the rice porridge was actually delicious. My mom and I had a few bowls each of porridge (or congee, “粥” [zhou]). It was sticky like glutinous rice, very smooth and creamy, and a nice departure from all the fat, oil, and grease of the other dishes.
Our 15 hour train ride came to an end at around 10am. Finally! Time to stretch my legs; it was so hard going from exercising 4-6 days a week to doing…nothing. Sitting on the plane, sitting on the bus, sitting on the train. So I was anxious to get moving. Our purpose in Dunhuang was to visit the famous Buddhist art caves of MoGaoKu “莫高窟” and the desert oasis, Crescent Moon Bay “月牙泉” (yue ya chuan). MoGaoKu, or the Mogao Grottoes, is a pilgrimage and worship site for many Buddhists: the caves are some of the finest examples of Buddhist art and dug out for Buddhist meditation and worship.
There were originally over a thousand caves, but only several hundred remain now. And though some caves date as far back as 366AD, they’re amazingly well-preserved. No cameras are allowed once you pass security, to preserve the paintings on the walls. Most of the color in paintings we saw were faded due to erosion, heavy tourism, vandalism, and exposure to light. But they were nonetheless beautiful.
All of the artwork at MogaoKu is entirely voluntary and not created by “professional” artists. None of MogaoKu’s contributers had any artistic training, background or career. It is strictly a tribute to Buddhism by monks and followers of Buddhism. So when I saw the 113ft tall Buddha–one of the most famous at Mogao–housed in a 9-storied structure, it really blew my mind how devoted these people were. The Buddha sculpture is so masterfully done, too: this formidable clay (not stone or marble) carving, with the softest palms and kindest face, came from a simple Buddhist monk. Every fold in Buddha’s clothes, every wrinkle in his knuckles, every callus on the foot was captured. Breath-taking. Like I said, cameras aren’t allowed anymore, so I can only provide Google Images.
These are the stats I managed to take down: 492 caves open to the public, 2400 sculptures, 45000 (490,000 sq. ft) square meters of murals that would cover 30 kilometers if joined together. Statues are constructed on a wooden frame, modeled in clay stucco, and finished in paint–but the big ones, like the 113ft Buddha, do have a stone core. The most precious item from MoGaoKu, however, isn’t even at MoGaoKu; it’s now scattered across the globe. A treasure trove of 50,000 manuscripts was pillaged, removed, and sold by a Hungarian archaeologist paid by the British/Indian governments. These Dunhuang manuscripts are primarily religious but also range from history to mathematics to song and dance. They date as far back as the 5th century and are written in Chinese, Tibetan, Pali, Sogdian, and Khotanese. You’ll probably see more of the Dunhuang Manuscripts at the British Library or in France than in China.
While I’m a-religious, after spending 2 hours with the most stunning, millennium-old murals and statues made me realize that going to the MoGao Caves isn’t about religion. It’s appreciating history, art, a different culture. So if you have the resources, I say: see them before they disappear! So much has been lost to climate change and tourism already. I highly recommend this place as a must-see for travelers.