More History of the Mogaokou - Part I
The Thousand Buddha Caves started life as one simple cave, with one unknown artist painting an image of Buddha on the wall in AD366, during the Northern Wei dynasty. Legend has it that a monk set off to walk between Minshashan and Sanweishan, and on his walk the setting sun seemed to create golden rays like tiny Buddhas; he deemed this auspicious and he started the first cave in the gorge to the east of Minshashan, 25km south-east of Dunhuang. The 20 metre cliff sits above a seasonal river, the Danquan, which issues out onto the gravel plain here. Above the cliff, the great sand dunes hover dangerously, steeply banked up above the precipice. Along the dry river bed, tamarisk, poplars and willows grew, then as now. To the south and east, the stark, bare hills rise silently and ominously: this is not a friendly landscape.
A second monk, known to have been called FaLiang, built a second cave and after he constructed and decorated his cave, he and the first monk founded a temple, known later as the Xiankongsi.
The large oasis of Dunhuang, known as Mogao then Shazhou (The Sand Town) much later, before finally taking its current name had been settled for many hundreds of years, but it was the flourishing of trade between China and tribute states to the west that brought vigour and the outside world to this and a hundred other oases in Central Asia. Dunhuang was a minor stop on the Silk Road, with Anxi, several days travel east a more substantial desert port. It was at Anxi where the Silk Road split, with the northern route heading off towards Hami with the southern route pushing across to Dunhuang, across the fierce Kumtag Shamo desert and along the southern fringes of the Taklimakan, keeping the Altun Shan in sight even further south.
Mogaokou - Practicalities
At any one time, around 50 caves are open to the general public, and access is only possible as part of a guided tour. Although the guide will have a flashlight, it is advisable to bring your own, but be prudent with its use - the frescos and pigments are damaged by light.
If you are referring to one of the specialist guide books, note that the cave numbering system has changed, which makes it all a little confusing.
The highlight for many fast-paced fleet-footed tour groups are the northern and southern Big Buddha caves, which, artistically are among the least interesting, so if you let your guide know that you are willing to skip these, you will have a lot more time to see some of the more interesting caves. Forget about seeing the caves depicting scenes of tantric sex: these are off-limits to all but the most serious of researchers. Cameras are not allowed in the caves; they have to be deposited at a locker-room near the ticket office, and this explains why there are none shown on these pages.
Further reviews cover the history of the caves in more detail, the Western explorers and Abbot Wang
Mogaokou - The Mogao Caves - Part III
Do not expect the same experience as Aurel Stein, visiting the Mogaokou. 600,000 visitors require a lot of car parking spaces, restaurants, parks, cafes, toilets, tour guides and souvenir shops. It's all here. In large quantities. Despite all this, Mogaokou remains a highlight. Not many of the caves are open to the public and all visitors are shown around by a guide, usually someone who speaks your language. They are well trained and informative. The tour follows no set route, but it is not entirely haphazard: the flow management is designed to reduce the numbers in the main caves, so everyone gets to see the main attractions and then almost random lesser caves representative of different eras. Don't expect spirituality though; this is an art gallery now, like The Louvre or the National Gallery in London. Also, don't expect much space for reflection and observation of the art, especially during the peak season.
I have not visited the Mogaokou Museum which has been built at the site, but it is highly recommended by those who have been there.
Many visitors comment on the rather heavy concrete appearance of the Mogaokou, but this is a practical safety measure. The cliff is structurally very weak, being a pebbly, riverine conglomerate lying in an area prone to occasional serious earthquakes - the Qilianshan is basically the furthest northernmost fold of the tectonically active Himalayan range. One crack in particular, known as Crack 13, has put the caves at particular risk. If it wasn't for the concrete facing and the bolts, the place would - like Maijishan - be extremely dangerous. Walk up the ravine a few kilometres and look at the state of the unprotected cliff. A more pressing concern today is the ominous sand dunes sitting right above the cliff face. Although special sand-nets have been erected above the cliff face, the dunes are, like the ground below, very active. The prevailing westerly winds are pushing the dunes inexorably eastwards.
Mogaokou - The Mogao Caves - Part II
In 1907, fate brought Aurel Stein, the Anglo-Hungarian explorer and archaeologist. Stein had arrived in the area for the purpose of exploring the Han Great Wall as it stretched out into the Kumtag Shamo. He arrived at the caves as a curious visitor, but instantly recognised the enormous value of the manuscripts shown him by Wang. He bought a large quantity of them and had them shipped back to London. News spread fast in Europe, and he was followed by other explorers including Baron le Coq (who could have been the first European to see the manuscripts had it not been for a fateful telegram from his boss, summoning him to a meeting in Kashgar), the great French Sinologist Paul Pelliot, and the American Langdon Warner. Today, the bile is reserved for Aurel Stein, yet he was simply acting as any explorer did in the colonial days of the early 20th Century; his books suggest he genuinely wanted to save the manuscripts.
By the dawn of the 21st Century, the Mogaokou has become one of the star tourist attractions of China's western provinces, and a major heritage research institution. The Chinese make much of the phrase "Dunhuangology" as a term used for the study of the Dunhuang art and manuscripts; it is a curious arrogance given that there is little specifically unique about the treasures of the Mogaokou - the parallel drawn with "Egyptology" is irrelevant, as Ancient Egypt formed an entire, distinct and unique culture. Dunhuang is a set of Buddhist caves, albeit caves that have yielded an incredible hoard of manuscripts and a legacy of six centuries of sublime art. The reverence now paid to Dunhuang is matched for its intensity only by the generosity of foreign donors, including Silk Road tour operators, many of whom believe, erroneously, that Dunhuang is short of cash. If you want to see "short of cash", travel to one of the many other cave complexes in Gansu or Xinjiang - at Anxi, Matisi, Kezier, Kucha or Maijishan.
Mogaokou - The Mogao Caves - Part I
Also known as the Qianfodong or Thousand Buddha Caves, the Mogaokou at Dunhuang is one of the world's great art galleries, and was, once, long ago, a place of pilgrimage. Today, 600,000 visitors make the spiritual side sadly lacking, as tourism and heritage management have taken over the religious caretakers of an earlier age. The legends and the hype have it that the Thousand Buddha Caves were a great milestone on the Silk Road: they weren't and never were. Dunhuang was an oasis halt on the southern route of the Silk Road, the last stop before the Kumtag Shamo and then the great vast emptiness of the Taklimakan Desert. Long ago, all around the Taklimakan and the Tianshan lay thirty-six kingdoms, and most were influenced by the spread of Buddhism as disciples, monks and the faithful came north through the Hindu Kush, the Karakoram and the Pamirs, the great ranges of Central Asia.
The first frescos in the caves were created in AD366, during the Northern Wei dynasty, and over the next 600 years more than 500 caves were cut and decorated. The Mogaokou were not unique, not even in the vicinity of Dunhuang. However, the Mogaokou managed to remain largely untouched by strife and aggression down the centuries, and their well hidden location some distance from the town protected them from destruction by marauding warriors and bandits. The Mogaokou, though, is more famous for what is not here - one of the most significant archaeological discoveries of the modern world: the Dunhuang Library. This huge collection of manuscripts, many of them still unstudied today, were found by a Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu, the self-appointed caretaker of the caves at the turn of the 20th Century. Abbot Wang was dedicated to restoring the caves, which was an expensive task.
Jade Gate Pass
10 RMB admission, collected way before you see the gate, at the start of the tarred road leading towards Jade Gate Pass and Yardang Geological Park. There's no way to evade this if you're only going to see Yardang Geological Park... but it's minimal anyway. If you're in a hired car, the driver doesn't need to buy a ticket. Say that you're on a tour from a tour agency, otherwise you do need to pay for a ticket for the driver.
The structure itself is now fenced up, and it's not very interesting/impressive if you don't have any background info before you go, it can be quite underwhelming. (It was underwhelming enough for us, who already read up beforehand on relevant history and literature.)
Our driver told us that there was once a Japanese chap who rented a jeep for 1200 RMB to go out there. Once he reached it, he immediately got down on his knees and cried. Wonder why?
- Historical Travel
If you go there in the summer, you can take a sled and slide down the dunes-- they make loud booming sounds as you do. :) If, like you, you visit in the winter, revel in the ephemeral beauty of seeing snow-covered sand dunes. They really are quite something.
- Adventure Travel
DUNHUANG : MOGAO CAVES
The VERY IMPRESSIVE caves are decorated entirely with murals and beautifully painted sculptures of Buddha, Bodhisattvas or other disciples. They date from various Wei, Zhou, Sui, Tang dynasties, etc...
With the excellently-preserved cave art and rich, diverse styles, it is certainly well worth it to pay a visit to the caves.
A pity several ‘rectangles’ of wall-art had been removed by Western collectors. Only certain caves are open to tourists and all must visit with guides.
You need to pay Y20 extra to engage an English guide, which runs less regularly. But do be warned that their English leave a lot to be desired. It is a risk as it really depends which guide you end up with.
DUNHUANG : MINGSHA SHAN & CRESCENT-MOON LAKE
The entrance fee to visit the Mingsha Shan (Singing Sand Mountains) and Yueya Quan (Crescent Moon Lake) is now Y50. If you feel it is worth it, by all means, go the legitimate way.
If not, there are ways to walk around the farm-lands and cross onto the sand dunes FOR FREE. To hike up the incredible sand dunes is tough work but the view from the top where you can see the crescent-shaped lake in a depression between the dunes is well worth it. You will have a much better view than someone who paid Y50 and made a camel ride to the lake.
Go in time for sun-set. But at this time, it also means there is no bus back to Dunhuang.
Hey, it is just 6km away. Walk back (though I admit, it is VERY DARK) and enjoy the stars along the way.
Crescent Moon Lake
Near the dunes, you can find this peculiar lake, shaped as a Crescent Moon (obviously!).
It's kind of an oasis, all the sand around, some trees and plants and the water, just the ideal picture U have of a desert oasis...
- Mountain Climbing
- Hiking and Walking
These world famous buddhist caves carved on the rock are undoubtely the main tourist attraction in Dunhuang.
Inside the little caves you can find wonderful wall paintings, and some painted sculptures, all with religious motifs.
There are many caves, we needed 3 visits to see them well, as you have to walk a lot between 1 cave and the other...
- Historical Travel
- Arts and Culture
The "Barn" at the river bank. some 11km away from Yumen gate, as storage of military suppliers and food.
- Family Travel
The ruin of an ancient fortress, once the most developed city in the area with highly matured infrastructures. Today you don't see much left.
- Family Travel
Grottoes in an giant earth valley, where Yulin river is flowing through. It is smaller than Mogao Caves but contains some of the oldest frescoes.
- Family Travel
Moon Cresent Lake
This is an interesting oasis in the middle of the Minsha Hills sand dunes. Very popular place to visit.