The Silk Road

Nicholas Quirke was deeply immersed in yet another aspect, period, dynasty of Chinese history on 29 September 2020 when the day started with a visit to the Dunhaung’s prime tourist spot, ‘The Mogao Caves’. It was an easy drive to the heritage site and once tickets were purchased they were herded into a cinema where they watched a film about the history of the Silk Road and the founding of the historical spiritual centre they were visiting. The film was in Chinese but he was provided with headphones which gave an English translation. Dunhuang from the Han Dynasty onwards was a significant centre of commerce on the Silk Road route from Xi’an to Cairo. The caves themselves are a system of 500 temples located at a this religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road. The first cave was  dug out in during the Six Dynasty period in AD 366 by a monk named Lè Zūn who had an inspiring vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site. He  was later joined by a second monk Faliang and the site gradually grew. Initially a place of meditation for hermit monks by the Tang Dynasty the number of caves had reached over a thousand and it had become a place of worship and pilgrimage for the public. The grotto’s  are elaborately painted aids to meditation and act as a visual representations of the quest for enlightenment and as teaching tools to inform the illiterate about Buddhist beliefs and stories. When the fascinating lesson was over, they were taken into another cinema with a 360 screen, which was an interesting experience, where they were further informed about the actual paintings and statues. Once they were through they were taken on a bus to actual site. They were assigned a tour guide where they had a breathtaking look at these preserved paintings, some over 1500 years old. Many of the statues had been retouched during the Qing Dynasty but with little skill and looked garish, but the exquisite wall paintings had been left unharmed by human hand and the colour and the images had very little degradation. The only desecration being where parts of an image had been removed by American adventurers and were now pictures hanging in museums in the USA. He felt it was an outrageous act of sacrilege and could not excuse the pillaging of these or other artefacts, such as the Elgin Marbles. They were unable to take photographs or video and he was going to have to rely on his memory and existing picture postcards. Inspired by the centuries old art they returned to the city and sought out a lunch of local delicacies, Sha Cong, a tasty vegetable of the garlic family and some yellow rice noodles, (made from millet). The ticket they bought too the desert scenic spot allowed them 2 visits in a three day period and the had decided that they would see the sunset across the desert from the top of Mount Mingsha (singing sand) which, they had climbed the day before. There was a queue of people climbing the rope ladder which a barefoot Nicholas joined whilst Peng, making a time lapse video, struggled up without any aid. As China only has one time zone, despite crossing several the Sunset was not till 7.30pm and it was worth the effort as it was a dazzling, celebratory event. The city and hotels were full of teams from over China competing in the Gobi desert challenge which, appeared to be a triathlon with the opening event was being held at the Singing Sand Dunes and Crescent lake resort. The sight and sound of the teams was like witnessing a rally as they waved flags and cheered each competing team. It had been a long day and feeling tired they went back to the hotel. They ordered a take away, rather than find somewhere else to eat. It was meant to be an early night but Nicholas was struggling with the WiFi and spent too long trying to update his blog and make his film and consequently did not get to sleep till 1am.

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