Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Silk Road Day 7 – Mogao Caves, Dunhuang Night Market, Acrobatic Show

We interrupt our regular program for a Mid-Way Recap…
Okay, let’s just go back and recap a little of where we had been and where we were going, since we’d hit about mid-way of the trip, and frankly, who isn't lost?

Here’s a map of the Silk Road courtesy of ChinaTravelGuide:

We started off in Xi’an (which on this map looks like the eastern point of China, but Xi’an is actually near the middle) – on to Tianshui (memorable train trip, phew) – next to Lanzhou (a largish city) – then to Xining (watch out for the direct sellers!) – to Qinghai Lake and Zhangye (in a looonngg bumpy trip) – on to Jiayuguan (rich, rich town) – then to Jiuquan (nice place, but not on the map) – and to Dunhuang (where we were on Day 7).

It’s a mouthful even to say it, but imagine sitting on a jolting bus, traveling 400-500km a day, everyday. By Day 7, we had covered about 2000km. It’s actually more than that, because we took a lot of side-roads to see the sites. Difficult to grasp in the head, but believe you me, my butt felt it.

So, back to the regular program...

Mogao Caves

There are 492 caves in Mogao, but of course, you can’t see all of them. Actually, you can only see 8 caves, and 2 big buddhas. They try to limit the number of people going in, because the wall paintings are not in a good state, and all the carbon dioxide and pollutants that hordes of visitors bring in are just making things worse.

The caves are kept dark, no light at all. When you go in, you have to follow a guide, who will explain interesting features of the wall art while illuminating them briefly with a torch.

Which means, you can’t see much really. But listening to the guide is very interesting. The 1000 year history of the place is incredible. Knowing that hundreds of people from various centuries and countries have come here to meditate, pray and study is truly awe-inspiring.

And you can buy a DVD home to watch, and see the caves at the height of their beauty (before the art were looted, destroyed, or faded). And think what a pity it is that they are no longer serving their original purpose, as a site for religious introspection and study.

They are going to digitize all the wall paintings and put them up somewhere so everyone can appreciate them. I guess that’s the best that can be done for Mogao to preserve its history and beauty.

A couple of interesting items:
Back playing sitar player: The sitar is hung on the player’s back, and somehow his arms reach back to pluck the strings. A true depiction of sitar players past?

Feitian (Flying Apsaras): Probably one of the most famous depictions of Dunhuang art – the flying goddess, with body arched gracefully in the air, while silk ribbons flow in long trails behind her. The actual thing in the grotto, is tiny. It’s probably just the size of my hand. *laugh* It has inspired lots of bigger art though.

Lost Tang Dynasty Art: There used to be a lot of Tang Dynasty art on the walls, depicting its people, dress and customs. Then some Ching Dynasty people came around and painted over a lot of the stuff. The guide said that Tang Dynasty art is more life-like, emotion invoking and interesting; while Ching Dynasty art can be quite dead. Pity.

Dunhuang Night Market

After Mogao, we went back to Dunhuang for dinner, then had a walk around Dunhuang’s famous night market. K immediately latched onto a stall selling nuts of all kinds. He is a nuts and berries man, lurves the raisins. I swear he was a hamster in his past life. I am of course the quintessential lazy cat. Wonder how the two of us hooked up?

Acrobatic Show
Our tireless tour guide started selling a Dunhuang Show, which he says is the best in the town. Well, we gotto see that!

I erroneously thought it would be a thousand-hand-kwanyin show, which is really famous and based on Dunhuang scenery. I had always wanted to see it, and thought where better than the place of its origin? Well, it wasn't that show.

It was in fact an acrobatic show. You know, where performers bend themselves into pretzel-like shapes that no amount of Yoga will ever make me capable of? Balancing of plates on sticks, people stacking up on each other, flying around on metal wires.

Now, I have to say, this was a good acrobatic show. The costumes were excellent, they did some interesting twists with the acrobatics that I’d never seen before, and the show had requisite climaxes and soft moments.

But… I didn’t enjoy it that much. I guess after years and years (and I’m talking since childhood here) of watching acrobatics on TV, I’ve stopped being interested in it. It’s too much a known factor. The highlight for me was the Arabian Nights skit, rather than the acrobatics.

We asked the other tour members whether they liked it, and they were of the same opinion. Man, we pesky tourists are hard to please. The locals seemed to love the show though.

Next: the sand dunes of Ming Sha and entering Xinjiang.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Silk Road - Day 7 - Dunhuang, Mogao Caves

Day 7
Day 7 came along, and we were getting a little disoriented.

K: Where are we going today?
G: Dunhuang…I think.
K: Where were we yesterday?
G: …uhm… Xining?
K: What day is today? Wednesday?
G: …er… no idea.

With so many cities, towns, sites and days stuffed into one trip, I guess disorientation is normal. Everything was all mixed up together.

But we were in fact headed for Dunhuang, to see the uber famous Mogao Caves!

Dunhuang, Mogao Caves
Intro from wikipedia

The Mogao Caves, or Mogao Grottoes (also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas and Dunhuang Caves) form a system of 492 temples 25km (15.5 miles) southeast of the center of Dunhuang. The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years. Construction of the Buddhist cave shrines began in 366 CE as places to store scriptures and art. The Mogao Caves are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, are one of the three famous ancient sculptural sites of China. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

More detailed intro (if you’re interested), see:

History of Looting
The caves are locked up tighter than a bank vault, to stop looters from extending their abominable, thieving, destroying-priceless-artifacts hands in. Unfortunately, most of the looting had already been done in the 1900’s as described in iht:

A century ago, a Taoist abbot named Wang Yuanlu (Grand Priceless National Treasures Auctioneer) stumbled into a secret storeroom in a manmade cave in northwest China that he used for meditation. Hidden behind a rock, he discovered a cache of more than 50,000 books, scrolls, sutras, silk paintings and temple banners, all dating to before 1004.

Wang's discovery was to prove priceless. Books and manuscripts secreted in the chamber — written in Chinese, Tibetan and various Central Asian languages — offered invaluable information about the monks who had carved out the cave, along with hundreds of neighboring grottoes, beginning in 366. Among them was the world's oldest dated printed book — the Diamond Sutra — the record of a debate between Buddha and a disciple over the sentience of all living things.

China was near chaos at the time of his discovery, the Ching Dynasty government watching impotently as foreigners carved up its territory and feasted on the spoils of the once proud empire. Though news of the long-buried cache spread, the government was too preoccupied to act.

So, when the British archaeologist and explorer Aurel Stein (High Priest of Looting # 1) reached the area in 1907, he was able to convince the guileless Wang to sell him enough priceless manuscripts, paintings, embroideries and other artworks to fill 29 large crates — all in exchange for "four horseshoes of silver" worth about £130.

A year later, the French sinologist Paul Pelliot (High Priest of Looting # 2) arrived and purchased thousands more manuscripts and artworks, also for a pittance. Japanese and Russian explorers followed, picking from among the leftovers. When Langdon Warner (Grand Art Destroyer), an American from Harvard University, showed up in 1924, so little was left that he actually removed frescoes from the walls of the caves and transported them back to Boston.

By the time Wang's garage sale was over, close to 80 percent of the paintings, books and manuscripts he had discovered had been removed from China. The Diamond Sutra is in the holdings of the British Museum — 13,300 catalogued items from Dunhuang are in Britain — and the Book of Heaven is in the French National Library in Paris, where approximately 6,000 catalogued items from the grottoes are kept.

It’s so sad. But at least the artifacts are well kept in the museums, even though they should rightfully be returned to China. There’s on-going debate about whether national treasures and artifacts should be returned to the countries of their origin. Like all the Egyptian mummies, Greek sculptures, all the Ming china, and various artifacts from ancient civilizations. I think they should. Why go to England to see Egyptian mummies, when you can go to Egypt and also immerse in the culture and people?

Even Worse Looting
A worse story of looting is that of Bezeklik in Turfan, Xinjiang:

The Hermitage Museum in Russia could have sections of the frescoes removed from the Bezeklik temple site at the beginning of the 1900s by German archaeologist Albert Von Le Coq (Highest Priest of Looting). Von Le Coq rediscovered these caves near Turfan in Xinjiang province and took 24 tons of their contents back to Europe in three trips. Later, British archaeologist Aural Stein (remember, High Priest of Looting #1) also removed antiquities from Bezelik, these treasures are now in the stores of National Museum in Delhi, leaving almost nothing at the site.

24 TONS of artifacts taken back to Germany! They sawed and carved off murals and paintings from the walls of the caves, packed them up into crates and shipped them off. And do you know what happened to the artifacts in Germany? They were housed in a museum that was bombed in World War II! Nothing survived except for 1 piece that was taken to Russia.

Artifacts that had survived for 1000 years peacefully and solemnly in their desert home. And all that’s left of them now are… pictures.

History can be kinda depressing.

More on Mogao Caves next.