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...
Singing Dune Hills and Crescent Moon Lake (Ming2 Sha1 Shan1 and Yue4 Ya2 Quan2) admission 20 RMB (off-peak), usual price is 120 RMB (in non-freezing weather...!). Taking a ride on/photographing with a camel is 30 RMB per camel. The scenery was quite amazing, though we almost froze going there at 0730 trying to wait for the sunrise. Never do this in winter... brrrr! The Crescent Moon Lake was frozen and a bit underwhelming as well. There's a man-made lake closer to the dunes at the entrance, don't mistake THAT for the real thing. If you're afraid of heights, be careful when you climb the sand dunes.
World Heritage Site, 1 of the 3 major grottoes in China (the others are the Yungang Grottoes at Datong, Shanxi and Longmen Grottoes at Luoyang, Henan). Photos are prohibited in the grottoes. A tour is compulsory and included in the ticket price. 100 RMB for Chinese-speaking tour and 120 RMB for English-speaking tour; students get half price. In summer it's 160 RMB for English-speaking tour; I think Chinese-speaking tour is 120 RMB or so. Note that the grottoes are liable to be closed during rainy weather in order to protect them from moisture.
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?
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.
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
Painstakingly built over a span of 10 centuries (a 1,000 year long project!), the Mo Gao Grottoes are truly a feat of devotion and imagination. The grotto construction began in 366 AD. Legend has that it all started when a monk by the name of Yue Zun dreamt of 1000 golden Buddhas one night and decided to, quite literally, make his dream come true!
As it turns out, the Mo Gao Grottoes eventually housed 2000 Buddha statues and 45,000 murals-- looks like the monk overshot his dream a bit ;)
Of the 800+ original caves created, about 500 are still preserved to this very day thanks to the unusally dry and cold conditions in the region. If you want to take a walk through time and see how art has changes over 1,000 years, this is a great place to experience it!
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.
MingSha moutain means "Singing sand" hill in chinese. Because sometime in the evening when there is someone walking through the hill, the sand hill will give out some noices. It because the sharp temporature difference in the sand. I don't fully understand the why and wasn't lucky enough to hear it.
The moutain is pure pure sand dessert which is fun. We took a Camel ride all the way up to the sand moutain. There is some game call sand skiing on the moutain as well. The sand is so fine grained that if you drop your camera into the sand, it will be damaged permanently because sand sinking into the camera like water.
The famous cresent moon lake is at the same place. It should be a place full of legends because who can imagine there is a lake being there for hundreds and thousands of years in the deadly pure dessert? But the water in the lake is slowly sinking into the ground and the lake is smaller and smaller.
A spectacular point to see the Great Wall, not only because it marks the very western end of this world famous landmark but also because Jia Yu Guan has an uncommon double wall design. There's an outer wall and an inner wall; in fact, the entire complex is very well-maintained so you can walk all around and explore on your own, unlike certain parts of the Great Wall that are sealed off from the public.
Jia Yu Guan Pass was built in the Ming Dynasty (14th century) and its name was derived from the fact that it was located at the Jia Yu Highlands. Although this part of the wall was abandoned at a point, it was later rebuilt and reinforced in the 16th century.
For those interested in history, look out for a little building to the side of the wall-- that's the Jia Yu Guan Great Wall Museum.
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.
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.
The number of caves grew in number over the years, and the caves became a renowned centre of Buddhist art, with many painters and sculptors travelling long distances to add their work to the to the growing galleries in the pebbly cliff-face. The processes varied little over the years, with paper patterns, pricked with holes used to mark out the main features. Powder was blown through the pinholes creating a stencil effect, over which the artists - at least some of them - painted in colour. The religious grottoes became a focal point for Buddhist art and there was no shortage of benefactors to contribute money for new frescos, paintings and art. The monks created a library, later to become one of the most famous Buddhist and Central Asian libraries.
The caves are not natural, having been hollowed out by the monks, who used multiple layers of mud to create a smooth surface. Often mud was used to cover over older frescos to allow newer, better frescos to be created. This was not always done through choice, as over the centuries earthquakes damaged many of the caves: the newer frescos were often just done to patch up the spaces where part of the roof or wall had collapsed. The latest stage of Dunhuang art used very advanced forms of smooth surface for their age, utilising kaolin to create a white surface. The lack of space on the cliff at Dunhuang led to frequent reuse of caves at later points, although often the earlier structure (with a central supporting roof pillar) was kept rather than creating a bigger, open cave as was more common later. Sadly, the bigger caves have tended to weaken the entire cliff face, so exacerbating the situation.
Buddhism at Dunhuang was not initially affected by the Tang dynasty persecution - in fact a major earthquake was more likely to have been the beginning of the end for active construction - but the general retraction of Chinese influence in the west of China left the desert oases vulnerable to attack from Tibetans, from the Xi Xia kingdom and later on by the rapid spread of Islam. Slowly the monks dispersed and at some point - believed to be around the beginning of the 11th Century, possibly in 1004 - the huge collection of manuscripts were hidden behind a brick wall in one of the caves. Eventually there were no monks left and this stony ravine became quiet, until monks finally returned again to worship the frescos and art. But these returning monks, some of them Taoist rather than Buddhist, were no longer on a great trade route, but in a remote desert gorge where peace and quiet was a definite attraction.
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...