The main draw for Dunhuang and why the town gets any real attention is because of the Mogao Caves, a series of ancient grottoes that have been preserved by the desert with a brilliant collection of statuary and frescoes that put nearly all other ancient Chinese art into the amateur category.
The first caves date back almost 2,000 years with hundreds being carved and used in many dynasties thereafter until about 1,400 A.D. at the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty. Since that time the caves were largely forgotten except to the locals and some pilgrims and monks. It wasn’t until the twentieth century that the western world found out about the caves and brought them back into China’s consciousness. This, however, happened at a time when China couldn’t protect them and the West was on a crusade to collect ancient treasures from around the world.
This is precisely what happened resulting in priceless artifacts, scrolls and artwork, including frescoes right off the wall, being taken back to France, England and America. Many Chinese scholars and historians are still bitter about this as evidenced by the exhibitions in the museum. Some claim that it is good these antiquities were taken out of China so they couldn’t be destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.
Since their coming to light in the Chinese academic world during the Republic of China, the caves have been explored, researched and documented extensively. They have been preserved, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and can now can be enjoyed and appreciated by those who make the long journey to Dunhuang.
The caves are only accessible on a guided tour. We got there at the wrong time for the English tour and decided to tag along with a Chinese tour instead of waiting for the next English guide. We figured we could still appreciate the art and grandeur of the caves. We were partially right but I think I would wait for the tour next time that I can understand.
Anyway, the tour takes groups of about 25 people to more than ten different caves including the long-lost library cave and the big Buddha cave, which houses an amazing giant Buddha statue. Each cave is immaculately decorated – some with frescoes covering all of the walls and the ceiling. Each cave is different in motif, style of statuary and more.
After the caves themselves, Aaron and I went to the research center museum. This museum tells the story of the grottoes. It shares more information about their creation, their “discovery” and preservation. The most interesting part for me was the recreated caves that lined one wall of the museum. They had reconstructed the caves including statues and frescoes. Best of all, these were caves we hadn’t seen on the tour and we could take pictures of them (no photos allowed in the real caves).
Of course like any tourist site in China, there are many shops and vendors all around the property to get souvenirs and snacks. If you visit the caves, take your own powerful yet pocket-sized flashlight or torch since none of the caves are illuminated. The guides have them to point out what they are telling you about, but having your own is handy to admire the caves in greater detail.
Also, the caves are closer to the train station and airport than the town is so if you haggle with a taxi to take you after you arrive instead of going to town first, make sure you aren’t swindled and instead negotiate the price down a lot. With the meter it would probably be between 10 and 20 RMB. They may not settle for that low but don’t do it for much more than that.
The caves are a wonder to behold because of the collection of ancient art that has been preserved by the desert and seclusion. If you visit China make this a part of your itinerary. Honestly, Aaron and I are both surprised that these aren’t better known and more of a destination for people visiting China.