8/22/2007 to 8/28/2007 | China , Gansu

Xining to Dunhuang: a taste of the Silk Road

Upon reaching the provincial capital of Xining from Xiahe, I decided to head out along the Hexi corridor, a valley between the Tibtan plateau on the south and the mountains of the Gobi desert on the north.  The geography forms a natural channel leading out of China to the west and central Asia for this reason it was an import route along the old Silk Road.   My destination was the town of Dunhuang and the impressive Mogao Buddhist grottos.  In route I fist stopped along the way at the city of Zhangye.  The city is most famous for its original old wooden temple, chronicled by Marco Polo, containing the largest reclining Buddha in China which dates from the 11th century.  A rarity in a country where despite its ancient history has relatively few old temples containing the original icons, as nearly every temple in China was completely gutted during the Cultural Revolution.  They are now doing there best to save what’s left from flash-toting Chinese tourists, at least that is the excuse for the prohibition of photography.  Personally I think it is an attempt to increase postcard and souvenir book revenue.  In addition to the famed reclining Buddha temple I happened to come across some sort of ceremony in a smaller temple which I think may have been the tail end of funeral.  The Chinese family and monks were very friendly and allowed me to take a few photographs and offered me some steamed bread (which, incidentally, wasn’t very good but, it’s the thought that counts).

From Zhangye I headed to Jiayuguan site of the famous fort at the end of the great wall from which “enemies of the state” would be banished from the kingdom and cast out in to the desert beyond.  The fort is a fairly impressive sight even if it is full of Chinese tourists these days and heavily, some might say poorly, restored.  After an afternoon at the fort the next day I followed the path of the outcasts and silk caravans in to the Gobi desert to the oasis town of Dunhuang.  Dunhuang is the staging point for visiting the most spectacular and best preserved Buddhist cave art in China.  I visited two sites the most famous and extremely touristy Mogao caves as well as the less visited and smaller Yulin caves.  Built by wealthy families who grew rich off the silk trade, the bulk of cave temples date from around the 5th century to the about the 13th with restorations as late as the Qing dynasty in 19th century.  They are famous for their frescoes which are amazingly well preserved and for the huge cache of rare documents, books, and paintings that were found sealed away in one of the caves during the early 20th century.  The documents and paintings were then sold to French and British Archeologists who carted them back to their respective countries and now are part of the Chinese collections in the Louver and British museums.  The grottos were very impressive although the entry fee was extremely steep at about $24 (based on an average Chinese salary that is like an equivalent of charging ~$300 in the US) and you had to visit the caves with a guide and there was no photography allowed.  However after the tour it was possible to go to other caves on other tours which I did for a while with a British art historian that I met until I was “caved out.”

Leave a Reply

You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>