Just before leaving Perth I was given the book Journeys on the Silk Road by Joyce Morgan and Conrad Walters. A fabulous book, I enjoyed it immensely. It tells the story of Aurel Stein's travels to Dunhuang and, some would say, plundering of the ancient Mogao Grottoes. I was excited to realize Dunhuang is in Gansu, the province we’re living in and visiting the caves has been a priority since we arrived. I was beginning to think we wouldn’t make it, but we finally got there a few weeks ago.
Stein was an amazingly prolific diary writer and left a wonderful account of his travels. They were written of course from the Western perspective, but this didn’t detract from the enjoyment of the account – in fact it was enhanced by the contrast with the Chinese perspective. The Chinese see him as a villain who through bribery and deception stole the priceless treasures.
At Dunhuang there are 700 odd caves carved into a cliff-face between the 4th and 14th centuries. Of these 492 caves contain murals and statues. They include one with a 34.5m high Buddha, another containing a reclining Buddha, and the library cave, which was sealed in the 11th century and rediscovered in 1900. It contained thousands of manuscripts including the oldest known printed book, The Diamond Sutra, dated 868.
Begun by Buddhist monks in 366AD, they became memorial caves commissioned by local officials and wealthy families.
I could go on (and on) but instead check out the Dunhuang Academy website http://enweb.dha.ac.cn/index.htm
We’d planned a four-day break but the trains were heavily booked so we could only manage two days there. We had hard sleepers in both directions, though I think they are actually just as comfortable as the soft sleepers – just in open-ended bays rather than compartments. We had the bottom bunks this time, which were easier to access, although they carry the disadvantage of people who have the middle and upper bunks sitting on our beds until bedtime. On the way there we had a card game going on at one point and Owen also had a long chat with a guy who was into reading Song Dynasty poetry. That tested the vocabulary - "rhyming couplets" really taxed the digital Chinese dictionary he carries with him everywhere. On the return journey we ate in the dining car, which was incidentally quite good unlike our previous experience with railway dining cars. There, we were joined for a long and interesting conversation by a Chinese American retired academic and his wife. They’d come on an organised trip to Tibet only to find it closed to foreigners so had had to go elsewhere.
I like train journeys, I like to watch the scenery going by. Lanzhou to Dunhuang passed through a great variety from farms and villages to desert, in fact some very like the Nullabor in Australia with its little grey shrubs. There were huge wind farms stretching for miles and miles; massive parallel constructions beside the track, either a second rail line or highway, hard to tell which. All out in the middle of nowhere.
Two days in Dunhuang proved to be enough although it was a bit disappointing that on the second day we had a steady drizzle of rain all day. Dunhuang itself is a smallish town, with a large night market where we ate and could have bought all sorts of stuff. Here’s a huge sand dune area on the outskirts, which is beautiful and fascinating. Owen climbed to the top but it defeated me and I wandered around the lake and oasis nestled in the bottom. It is quite a tourist attraction, with toboggans, camel rides, dune buggies, even micro-gliders. We decided we’d better do the tourist thing and went for a camel ride – I don’t know why, we’d done it before and there’s nothing much to recommend it. It was nice and peaceful though as the camels went round behind the dunes and away from the general bustle.
We could have stayed longer, but I’m just glad we got there.