29th September 2016
“A great art gallery in the desert”
Mildred Cable, at the Mogao Caves.
The overnight train left Xi’an on time, bound for Lanzhou, where it also arrived on the dot. Heden said Stein had snored all night, but what can one expect when two rival archeologists are sharing the same compartment? Ibn Battuta forwent his Muslim sensibilities and, with a bottle of hooch, started a party in one of our compartments. The Chinese label gave no indication of what the liqour might be, but the general consensus of opinion was plum wine; it had a slightly oily texture with the kick of a mule. Needless to say, the master of the caravan had an awful job waking everyone at 6.20 the following morning to disembark.
In Jaiyuguan we were greeted with a glorious dawn and the sight of the snow-capped Qilian Mountains. Richthofen pointed out, rather sadly, that they were once named after him – the Richthofen Range - after his travels here in 1868-72, (and his services to the Chinese Government in supplying invaluable geological reports) only to be renamed, like so many mountain ranges in Central Asia, to more local names. We thought it best to get him away from the mountains and where better than underground – in the Wei-Jin tombs.
Rather like the story of the farmers who stumbled upon the Terrraccota Army, here a shepherd was twiddling his stick in the ground (as a bored shepherd might well do) and the stick fell through the earth into a perfectly preserved tomb dating from the Wei (220-265 CE) and the Jin (265-420 CE) dynasties.
Excavations revealed over 1,000 tombs. Eighteen have been fully excavated and two (alternately) can be visited. The tomb chambers are lined with large bricks, all painted with animated scenes from daily life; ploughing, eating, hunting and scrubbing a very fat pig in preparation for cooking, to name but a few. The Nestorian monks in our party were very interested in the paintings of silkworm cocoons.
A chilly, drizzly day ensued, but did not dampen the sumptuous colours of the monks’ robes in Xiahe’s Labrang Monastery, home to the largest number of monks outside of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Founded in 1709, it was once one of the largest Buddhist monastic universities.
A young, smiling monk showed us around the various temples (not all of them) located within the complex; dark, mysterious cavernous halls filled with flags, fabrics, statues, scrolls. The smell of yak butter candles filled the air and made ones nostrils flare. One monk took me aside by the arm and walked alone with me; “Dalai Lama”, he kept saying. “China”, he hissed, punctuated by a sharp, slicing motion of his arm. There was anger in his voice, and a frustration that he was not making himself clear. Sadly, more Chinese Han are being ‘relocated’ to the area, undermining the Tibetan way of life.
In contrast, the Bingling caves (sometimes called grottos, although many are more niche-like) filled with Buddhist sculpture carved into natural caves and caverns are surprisingly well looked after given China’s seeming dislike of religion in any shape or form; perhaps because the caves are now bereft of holy men and, as a World Heritage Site, are very much in the public eye. Reached by a fantastic boat ride on the Yellow River we then proceeded along a manmade walkway suspended on a remote canyon wall where rocky mountains towered above us and wild flowers flourished on the grassy slopes below. A collective gasp ushered from us as we spotted Buddha; resplendent, calm, 27 metres tall. The caves were a work in progress for more than a thousand years; the first was begun around 420 CE at the end of the Western Qin kingdom. Despite earthquakes, erosion and looters, there are still 694 stone statues and 82 clay sculptures in 183 caves. Each cave is like a miniature temple filled with Buddhist imagery.
We continued our journey along the Silk Road to Dunhuang which was established as a frontier garrison outpost by the Han Dynasty Emperor Wudi in 111 BCE . The area is the natural convergence of routes along the Silk Road – twixt desert and mountain - and thus became an important religious, cultural and trading crossroads. Nearby are the stupendous Mogao Caves. The first caves were dug out in 366 CE as places of Buddhist meditation and worship; a Buddhist monk named Yuezun had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light, inspiring him to build a cave here. The caves initially served as a place of meditation for hermit monks, but developed to serve the monasteries that sprang up nearby and become a place of pilgrimage. As time went by, more and more were carved and, by the Tang Dynasty (7th-10th centuries), numbered over one thousand.
It was here that explorer & archaeologist Aurel Stein discovered an important cache of manuscripts in 1900 in what came to be called the ‘Library Cave’, which had been walled-up in the 11th century. The manuscripts included the earliest dated printed book, the Diamond Sutra from 868 CE. Stein negotiated with the guardian Abbott to allow him to remove a significant number of manuscripts for a paltry fee. The Chinese have never forgiven Stein. In fact they still talk about it and would like to have the manuscripts back, thank you very much. When our Mogoa Cave guide told us the story, Stein kept schtum which is unusual for him, being a rather jolly, chatty chap in our party.
Some of the statues of Buddha are small reliefs cut into the rock face, while others are enormous caverns containing carved statues of Buddha, Bodhisattva’s and not an inch of wall or ceiling is bereft of the most extraordinary frescos. Benign Buddha faces look at one from all directions while flying Apsaras seem to float off the walls, their gauzy robes and fabrics swirling about their bodies (like a modern-day Chinese gymnasts streamers). The caves epitomise extreme acts of dedication and devotion, and left us in awe of the sheer enormity of the task of creating them. These major caves were sponsored by patrons, such as important clergy, local rulers and foreign dignitaries, as well as Chinese emperors. Some of the smaller ones were paid for by passing merchants on the Silk Road, in thanks for a safe passage across the dangerous Taklamakan Desert wastelands, or as a plea for help for the impending ordeal.
We wondered what we should be doing to ease the next leg of our journey (for the Taklamakan Desert lay between us and Kashgar) along the Silk Road. We took a plane. Looking out of the window to the inhospitable landscape below, we wondered how all those merchants and travelers through the centuries on the Silk Road had managed to cross it. Of course, many fell by the wayside, despite having monks and other holy men in the caravans – a practice that was encouraged in the belief that their presence offered divine protection along the way. We have in our caravan three monks and a friar to be on the safe side!
Mildred, Francesca & Eva were undaunted by the sight. Looking out of the window Mildred said, “We …. spent long years in following trade-routes, tracing faint caravan tracks, searching out innumerable by-paths and exploring the most hidden oases. ... Five times we traversed the whole length of the desert, and in the process we had become part of its life."
A very strong wind blew from the desert as we approached Kashgar, making our little plane buck and dip to the extent that we were as glad to reach the famous Silk Road city as the camel caravans of previous centuries. Kashgar, unlike the eastern and more central parts of China still has that ‘wild west’ feel to it; a lack of huge developments and towering skyscrapers, the presence of two story, earth-coloured buildings, lanes and alleyways bustling with Uighur’s – distinguishable from the Han Chinese by their more rugged features, their long, wispy beards, embroidered hats and, in the case of women, colourful headscarves - selling fruits, vegetables, spices.
But China it is, still, and outside our centrally located caravanserai, a statue of Chairman Mao looks down on the busy main street. His arm is raised, he seems to be bidding us farewell to China – for tomorrow we cross the 3,050m Irkishtam Pass to enter Kyrgyzstan.