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May 23. DUNHUANG (Gansu) "The Magao Grottos" We had been in Dunhaung three days already so it was really time to get on with seeing the famous Magao Caves.  The buses weren't running due to the low tourist season but we found a tour agency that arranged a minivan for us for less than the taxis were charging.

The caves were only about 40 minutes from town and took us past the entire length of the sand dunes to the backside where they tapered off into cliffs of rock.  There was nothing much else out there. The parking lot was empty except for  a few other drivers that were waiting for their passengers to see the caves and go back to town.  At Y80 per ticket the Magao Caves were one of the most expensive tourist sights we had encountered but we still paid the extra Y20 per person to get an English speaking guide, as LP recommended, and it was all money very well spent.

There are over 400 caves in the Magao Grottos but only a handful are open to the public and even fewer are available on a single tour.  They rotate the caves available for view to keep them from suffering any further degradation due to exposure.  Our guide was a researcher at the onsite institute so he knew the caves very well and good English.  We were the only English speakers that morning so we basically had a private tour.  We were able to see ten caves as part of the tour but Rob buttered up our guide with some Marlboro cigarettes and in the end he took us through an eleventh cave to see the second of the two enormous Buddhas that were carved into the rock cliff.

Cave 16: Tang Dynasty (848-906). It was a cave about 20'x20' in size that housed a Buddha and his disciples.  The statues were made of wood covered by clay and then painted. The walls were covered with 1000 small Buddhas from floor to ceiling.  The walls had been repainted after the Tang Dynasty but some of the Buddhas had suffered from paint oxidation and damage from vandalism.  A small hallway connected the large cave with a wooden entrance that had been constructed at a later date to protect the cave.  Along the hallway was the entrance to cave 17.  

Cave 17:  The interior of this cave wasn't as spectacular as the story behind it.  It was actually discovered in the early 1900s by a monk that maintained the caves.  He figured out that a the cave was hidden behind a wall and when it opened it revealed some 50,000 scriptures.  The contents dated back to the Qin and Song Dynasties.  The room now stood empty and the walls had a picture of Buddha with a bodhi tree and a guardian and nun.  Many of the scriptures were taken to Europe in the early 1900s and still remain there while the rest found their way to museums in China.  

Cave 427: Sui Dynasty (581-670). The wooden entrance structure was built in the Sung Dynasty (970).  The cave housed a statue trilogy of the past Buddha, present Buddha, and future Buddha.  It also had walls covered with 1000 smaller Buddhas.  Some of the faces of the small Buddhas still had remnants of the original gold paint while others had oxidized into a blackish color.  Some repainted had been done in the Song Dynasty.  Behind the statues was a pathway for practitioners to do a kora.  The walls also featured images of Absaras (Buddhist Angels). 

Cave 328:  Tang Dynasty (848-906). Housed statues of Buddha with his disciples and bodhisattvas. Some of the parts had broken off and you could see the wood, straw and clay layers of the statues.    

Cave 454:  Sung Dynasty (960-1127). Some Restoration in Qing Dynasty.  Originally a Guanyin Temple, the Goddess of Mercy, but no statues remained.  The importance of Guayin made it a popular prayer spot and practitioners burned incense which caused the ceiling to blacken.   The walls in front of the kora were totally redone in the Qing Dynasty and don't even reflect Buddhist images. The are typical Chinese painting of the time period - birds and landscape. 

Cave 257:  N. Wei Dynasty (386-543). This was the oldest cave open to the public.  It had Sakyamuni Buddha statue and 1000 Buddhas on the walls.  The images had features more typical of the Indian sub-continent, showing the Indian influences in art and teachings during that time period.  On the walls there were also images of musicians and dancing.  At the rear of the kora a story of Buddha from the scriptures was depicted. The story told of Buddha's past life as a deer and how even then he helped people which enabled him to achieve and better rebirth and ultimately Buddha hood. 

Cave 249:  W. Wei Dynasty (5th c.)  This cave also housed a statue of Buddha but the most interesting aspect of the cave was the representation of different religions in the artwork.  Most of the paintings were still original and the faces showed Indian features.  On one wall there was a Hindu mural depicting the god Ashula with four eyes, four arms, and standing up to his knees in the sea with the sun and moon in each hand.  Taoist gods were also represented.  There was the Queen of the West (Phoenix), the King of the East (Dragon), a flying god with multiple heads and a dragon body, a god with the body of a turtle and head of a serpent.  The last two were North and South but I am not sure which was which.  There were also scenes depicting the lives of the local people of the time including hunting gazelles, tigers, oxen, and boar.   

Cave 231:  Tang Dynasty (781-848).  Statues were rebuilt in Qing Dynasty but paint on walls was still original.  The walls had the 1000 images of Buddha as well as scenes from the sutras (scriptures).  On scene showed the Western Paradise with the Amitabha Buddha at its center.  Another scene showed Eastern Paradise with the Medicine Buddha at its center.  There was also an image of a sitar player playing the sitar behind her head.  This was significant because the town of Dunhaung had adopted this image for numerous statues around town. 

Cave 96:  Tang Dynasty (781-848).  This was the granddaddy of the caves, the enormous 35.5m high (9 story) Maitreya Buddha (Future Buddha) that had been carved directly into the stone side of the cliff with a clay cover.  It is the second largest Buddha of its kind in China, next to the Dafo in Leshan, Sichuan Province. It was in a sitting positing with its hands in a mudra position on its knees.  It took 10 years to build and was done in the same period as the Leshan Buddha.  Apparently the empress of the time saw herself as the Maitreya Buddha and commissioned numerous ones to be built.  (I found this Buddha more impressive because in its dry location it had survived with much less refurbishment than its Leshan counterpart that is totally exposed to a humid climate.)  This Buddha was repainted in the Qing Dynasty and had the large wooden structure built around it that still stands today.   In 1987 one had was restored as well.  A kora ran underneath and behind the huge statue, right into the stone.  Recently the originally scaffolding holes were discovered from when the statue was built.  Excavation has also revealed four layers of tiles at the feet of the Buddha, representing four different Dynasties.      

Cave 148:  High Tang Dynasty. The long narrow cave housed a 16 meter long reclining Sakyamuni Buddha (Present Buddha).  This is often called a sleeping Buddha but is actually meant to represent the Buddha in Nirvana.  It is the largest reclining Buddha at Magao and was carved directly into the rock and covered in clay. Its small entrance has kept the statue and cave paintings in very good condition.  Behind the statue stood a row of small statues depicting Buddha's disciples and they represented an array of ethnic people.  The statue was repainted in the Qing Dynasty but the wall paintings were still original.  On one end of the cave was a past Buddha and on the other a future Buddha, completing the Buddha trilogy.  Murals depicted the Western and Eastern paradises.  One image of a baby being born from a lotus representing purity.  1000 smaller Buddhas covered the rest of the walls.   

Cave 130:  High Tang Dynasty. This was our bonus cave; the second largest Buddha in the complex.  It was another Maitreya Buddha, 26m high, that had taken 29 years to complete.  Unlike the larger Buddha this one was encased within the rock.  They dug into the rock cliff in three places to hollow out the cave and then carved the Buddha into the rock which kept it protected from the elements. Consequently it was all original except for one had that was restored in the Sung Dynasty.  The mineral paints used to paint the Buddha were rare to find in China at the time of construction.  Three layers of murals have been uncovered on the walls of the cave; each from a different dynasty - Tang, Sung, and Western Shu.  A large bodhisattva on one wall was the only one of its size in the complex and the largest individual painting out of all of the caves.  The walls also depicted the popular flying angels.  The lotus bricks on the floor were from the W. Shu Dynasty.  From my point of view it was the most impressive cave we had seen all day.

Our guide informed us that these caves were generally created by individual families and sometimes with patronage from important officials.  These caves were where the families would go to pray so they were like private chapels and it is why there are so many of various sizes.

The museum attached to the Mugao exhibit was impressive as well. They had created a half dozen or more replicas of caves that were amazingly accurate, down to the cracks in the walls.  It looked as though they had carefully traced the image directly from the original and pasted the thin transparencies onto the replica walls.  

We spent about three and a half hours at the Mugao Grottos, returning to Dunhuang around 2pm for a late lunch at Charley's.  We read for the rest of the afternoon and took some rest back at the hotel before sorting out sightseeing for the next day with the tour agency that had taken us to Magao.  

We arrived at the night market just as the sun was setting and the stalls and hostesses were still getting set up.  Rob's kebab man nodded and smiled as we pulled up a couple of chairs next to his grill.  We ordered shish kebabs and Uyghur bread grilled with oil and spices. It was such a nice change from the Chinese food.  His wife was out that evening and he gestured that we looked a bit alike.  She had a scarf on her head but with her fair skin I could see what he meant.  It was a nice complement.  There were very few women with her complexion in Dunhuang, even within the Muslim community.  As we ate our food I noticed her leaning out from behind Rob's head to see me so she must have felt the resemblance as well. 

CLASSIC CHINA Beijing April 23 April 24 April 25 April 26 April 27 April 28 April 29-30 May 1-2 May 3-4 May 5 Pinyao, Shanxi May 6 May 7 Xian, Shaanxi May 8 May 9-10

TIBETAN PLATEAU Xining, Qinghai May 11 May 12 Tongren, Qinghai May 13 May 14 Xiahe, Gansu May 15 May 16-17

THE SILK ROAD Lanzhou, Gansu May 18 Dunhuang, Gansu May 19-20 May 21-22 May 23 May 24-25 Turpan, Xinjiang May 26 May 27 Kashgar, Xinjiang May 28-29 May 30 May 31 June 1-2 June 3-6 Hotan, Xinjiang June 7 June 8-9 June 10-11 June 12-13 June 14-16 June 17-19

A LAST LOOK Shanghai June 20-29 Beijing June 30