Asia | China | North West | Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves – Dunhuang old and new
Dunhuang. The mystic name alone conjures up images of a bleak desert with broken pieces of the Great Wall, a solitary column of smoke rising into the navy sky studded with countless stars and a bright full moon, a melancholy poet turning back his head with each step and waving to friends sending him off from the last fort. This was the final frontier, a boundary between home and uncivilized and lonely place, and a barren land where millions of soldiers had been laid to rest while the western border of China stretched and shrank over the course of its history. For ages, Dunhuang had been, and continues to be the inspiration for a number of great works in Chinese literature and film.
Between the times when the tear-jerking phrases were written, Dunhuang had once been the throat of the Silk Road where caravans roamed and long bearded Persian merchants brought Islam into China. I had read and heard too much about his place to not be impressed. In fact, Dunhuang was the reason I included northwestern China in my itinerary.
When I woke up in the morning and looked out at the miles after miles of desert with a few occasional oases outside the train window, it was hard to believe that just a few days ago I was hiking in the lush alpine meadows of Langmusi.
Downtown Dunhuang looked just like Gejiu or Leshan. Modern store fronts and gleaming white brick buildings along the newly paved street are separated only by a couple turns from the small red brick houses and markets in the older neighborhoods. I was not the only one mesmerized by the ancient poems. Twenty years after it awoke to the calls of the new Silk Road pilgrims, the new Dunhuang now made its riches not from trading, but from hordes of tourists.