China # 7 – Gashun Gobi Desert to Dunhuang’s famous Mogao Caves – September 2014

June 8, 2018

Leaving the oasis of Turpan, we were back on the seemingly endless and quite boring toll highway along the northern edge of the Taklamakan desert. It felt like driving across Nevada. By late afternoon I was falling asleep. Then we saw it, an actual break in the fences and guardrails into the black rock desert of the southern Gashun Gobi Desert. An area, 1,295,000 km2, (500,000 mi²), it is the fifth-largest desert in the world, stretching over 1,600 km (1,000 mi) from southwest to northeast and 800 km (500 mi) from north to south. Once an ancient inland sea, water now is almost nonexistent. Most of the topsoil has been blown away by the prevailing northwestern winds, leaving rocky mountains and stony plains devoid of vegetation.

Gashun Gobi Desert

This part of the treacherous Gashun Gobi Desert was one of our most memorable camps in China. Photo by Zhang Zhi Qiong aka Green

Seeing this break in the fence, we switched from highway to “off road” and drove about half a mile onto a flat plain of clean black gravel. We could see the curvature of the earth. Wild camping doesn’t get any better than this. It was magical. Green set up her cozy MSR tent and we prepared a great dinner. No sound of any kind and no light except for the stars and nearly a full Harvest moon. Green broke out some very special “moon cakes” to celebrate the beginning of the Chinese Moon Festival.

With an early start in the morning—we really could have stayed longer—we headed back on the endless highway and made a quick fuel stop. There were no “four star tourist toilets”, so we were introduced to the normal road stop commodes, always a bit shocking; basically filthy pits and holes in a cement floor if travelers made it that far. Even Green was a little disgusted.

Dunhuang, Gansu Province

By evening we had maneuvered into the pretty oasis city of Dunhuang, for centuries an important commercial center along the Silk Road and today, famous for its night market. After getting Green settled in a hotel where we could park for the night, we headed for the market which had a great food court. The market itself, geared mostly to Chinese tourists, was fun to wander through and we couldn’t resist buying a tiny souvenir.

Mogao Caves – Caves of the Thousand Buddhas

The main temple of the Mogao caves was beautifully restored and a great photo op.

The main temple of the Mogao caves was beautifully restored and a great photo op.

In the morning, we slipped out of the city to visited the famous Mogao Caves, also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. Carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, they comprise the largest, most richly endowed, and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world. They were first constructed in 366 AD and represent the greatest achievement of Buddhist art from the 4th to the 14th century. Situated at a strategic point along the Silk Route, at the crossroads of trade as well as religious, cultural and intellectual influences, the 492 cells and cave sanctuaries in Mogao are famous for their statues and wall paintings, spanning 1,000 years of Buddhist art. They have become one of the three most famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China.

Taoist Abbot Wang Yuanlu discovered the Library Cave at the Mogao Caves Buddhist Center. Photo 1900 (open source)

Taoist Abbot Wang Yuanlu discovered the Library Cave at the Mogao Caves Buddhist Center.
Photo 1900 (open source)

In 1900, the Taoist Abbot Wang Yuyanlu discovered a sealed cave (11th century) with up to 50,000 manuscripts in several ancient languages, now known as the Library Cave. The contents of the library were subsequently dispersed around the world and the largest collections are now found in Beijing, London, Paris and Berlin, and the International Dunhuang Project. It is one of the greatest treasure troves of ancient documents ever found. While early 20th century European explorers acquired many manuscripts, wall murals and other treasures for researchers, collectors and museums much to the chagrin of today’s China government but thanks to them, these precious historical documents were also saved as at that time, China showed no interest. Luckily, Mogao escaped any damage during the Cultural Revolution.

Not being Buddhist ourselves, we could only marvel at the caves and sculptures and the massive effort it has taken to restore them. Now we were looking forward to our next stop, the western end of The Great Wall of China.

3 Responses to “China # 7 – Gashun Gobi Desert to Dunhuang’s famous Mogao Caves – September 2014”

  1. Always enjoy reading your posts. You must have written good notes to be able
    to recall so much information!

    Love to you!

  2. I certainly recognize what foreign devils did to China during the era of foreign legations but after reading what the Boxers did to libraries, I would think that present day Chinese would be glad someone saw the value in those treasures.
    On a different note though, I’ll bet that after Gary Dun Huang out over those filthy night soil pits he welcomed the modernity of the up-graded community of Dunhuang! Ted
    BTW: If I get one of those advanced math questions will you grant me amnesty? Ted

  3. Thanks Alice: Pictures bring back many memories.

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