Asia | China | North West | Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves – Mogao Grottos and Yang Guan Pass
We set our spending record so far on this trip today at $80. Dunhuang is no place for travelers on a shoestring budget. The admission to Mogao Grottos was astounding high for Chinese standard, but it was place I had wished to visit for years, and the money into the preservation of the caves, so we lightened our wallet with a slight pinch in the heart.
The face of the cliff had been reinforced with gravel, and the caves sealed with thick metal security doors, giving this pinnacle of Buddhist art achievement an appearance of a prison. Inside, however, the murals in the back of the caves, with vibrant colors and intricate details, still told the stories from the day they were painted hundreds, or over a thousand years ago. The paintings near the entrance of the caves had darkened with age, but nothing could hide their grace. Even though we were only allowed to see ten caves, it wasnt hard to imagine the awe of walking from cave to cave along the walkway hanging off the cliff for days, overwhelmed by the atmosphere that the intense array of colors created. This must be what Dunhuang was like in its heydays, saturated with glamour and glory.
What I wanted to see in Dunhuang the most was Yang Guan, a once prosperous pass on the Silk Road that was reduced to the frontier after the Silk Road was replaced by the sea route between China and Persia. This was the melancholy image that I associated with Dunhuangs name, a forlorn beacon standing on a hill, surrounded by a patch of oasis in miles of desert. I stood under the ruin of the beacon and looked over the flat land underneath that used to be the town of Yang Guan, but was now no more than an antique beach where coins and broken pieces of porcelain could still be unearthed. Loulan Mountains seemed hazy far to the west, hiding yet another disappeared great civilization of Loulan City. The wind blew by, sobbing the legend of the bygone era. All the poems and stories I read had come alive: the lonely soldiers, the bloody battles, the cold moon that overlooked the cold sandy ground.
But I was not left to brood for long before the local herders trotted along with their horses and camels, trying to convince us to take a ride to the beginning of the pass. They avoided my questions about the duration of the ride, but kept following me and said that I could see part of the remaining base of the Great Wall. I was a bit tempted, after all one of my goal for the trip was to see the western end of the wall, and I gave in to their persistence after twenty minutes.
So Daniel and I squeezed between the two humps of the camel, and the weight of my torso landed on his crutch each time as the camel trotted away quickly and light-heartedly. Halfway through the ride, our guide told us that the remaining wall I had been anticipation with excitement was washed away by flood a few years ago. What remained from the same period were a few tombs that belonged to Han dynasty soldiers, respectfully restored every year by the locals on Memorial (Qingming) Day in the form of a simple sandy mound.