Dunhuang & Magao Caves

Part 4 of the Silk Road journey

Posted 18th May 2017 by David McGuinness

Dunhuang, sat on the fringes of the Gobi desert and at the Western end of the famous Hexi Corridor, is a desert town whose fortunes were made as a result of being sat on a Silk Road junction. Travellers heading west would need to decide here whether to go north or south of the mighty Taklamakan desert, and choose their road out of Dunhuang accordingly. Today this desert outpost is a surprisingly clean town. My guide, Ming Su, explained how this had been achieved. The town’s ambitious mayor wanted the town to stand out and so decided to declare a war on litter, recruiting an army of otherwise unoccupied grannies to badger those who were seen to spit, jettison a cigarette butt or drop a wrapper. He followed this up by compulsory TV interviews of litterbugs, in a ‘name and shame’ type exercise. It clearly worked, as Dunhuang is certainly the cleanest town I have come across in China.

The main reason to visit Dunhuang is not its sparkling streets however. The Dunhuang museum is certainly worth a visit for some regional Great Wall and Silk Road history, but the star is the nearby Magao Caves, a UNESCO heritage site and a repository of Buddhist art par excellence.  After an impressive 25-minute video on the history of Magao and an even more impressive 20-minute 3D Imax-style “visit” of some not currently accessible caves, we were let into the site to see some of the caves. The first cave we visited (number 6) contained a 35.5-metre-high Buddha, which while imposing, also looks rather feminine, due to the fact that it was constructed during the reign of a Tang empress. A huge reclining Buddha, as he was reaching enlightenment, awaited us in the next cave. The original was made during the Tang dynasty and the cave walls are still painted with wonderful original Tang era murals. The cave itself, fittingly, is in the shape of a coffin. But the poor Qin got confused and gave him 72 disciples when they patched him up, not realising this was a Confucian number of disciples and unrelated to Buddhism. Whoops!

Further caves showed even older art, from the Sui and Northern Wei dynasties, including a famous Buddha whose smile comes and goes according to the angle of the light, inevitably drawing the moniker “Mona Lisa of the East”, though of course this Buddha is substantially older. Compared with other painted grottoes in China these caves have aged much better and their colours survived much more intact due to the dry desert air. 

Our final stop was the controversial library cave. The cave itself is tiny and was sealed up, only uncovered by a Taoist abbot in 1900. Western archaeologists, explorers and Sinologists appeared like flies, managing to make away with the majority of the manuscripts for a pittance while the attention of the Qin dynasty, in its final throes, lay elsewhere. Beijing did eventually come calling for what remained but today there are more manuscripts in London and Paris than there are in China. Why the manuscripts were hidden in the first place is still debated, perhaps in fear of a Wei attack, or more sombrely that they were outdated and no longer useful but could not be burned or otherwise disposed of as they were holy texts.

This blog is part of an Off-The-Beaten-Track Travel Diary. Click on the links below to navigate through this journey.

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