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.

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