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October 24, 2011

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Journey to the breathtaking West

I began my journey in China's mythical western region on an overnight train that traveled 1,333 kilometers from Lanzhou, capital city of Gansu Province, through plains, dunes and endless rugged desert where battles were fought, hermetic monks created cave art, and caravans headed to the Mediterranean.

I looked out of the window at a stark, passing landscape and also read Japanese writer Inoue Yashushi's riveting historical fiction "Tonkou" ("Dunhuang") published in the 1950s. It's an epic tale of incessant turmoil and chaos in ancient China's western border wars between the ruler of the central plains and other powers in the Song Dynasty (960-1279).

I could imagine the ancient towns and sandy winds from the Silk Road, blowing 5,000 years ago, much as they do now. The gritty winds could even be worse today because of desertification and increased erosion.

The overnight train took around 14 hours and I greeted a brisk morning in high spirits when we reached Dunhuang's new railway station, completed in 2006 and located less than 5 kilometers from the city proper.

Dunhuang, a county-level city with a population of 130,000, lies in Gansu in the region where it borders Qinghai Province and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The area itself was originally named Shazhou or Sandbank and the name has connotations of grandeur and prosperity.

Dunhuang, once an oasis on the Silk Road, was a crucial hub for flourishing East-West trade (it was named for Chinese silk that was traded westward) and cultural contacts between ancient China and nations of Central Asia and Europe.

The Silk Road, opened up during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), started in Chang'an (now Xi'an, capital city of Shaanxi Province) and extended through what is now Gansu and Xinjiang, through Central Asia to Europe and parts of North and East Africa.

Buddhism also was introduced to China from India through the Silk route.

As soon as I arrived in Dunhuang, I went on a nonstop pilgrimage to the Mogao Grottoes, the Buddhist art treasures listed in 1987 as China's first UNESCO World Heritage Site. It lies just 16 kilometers southeast of the center of Dunhuang.

The grottoes, also known as the Caves of 1,000 Buddhas, contain more than 730 caves and a system of 492 temples extending more than 1.6km in length, carved into the eastern cliffs of Mingsha Mountain.

The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years; the first caves were dug in AD 366 as places of meditation and worship.

The Mogao Grottoes or Mogao Caves are the best-known Chinese Buddhist art and are one of the three famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites in the country, including the Longmen Grottoes near Luoyan in Henan Province and the Yungang Grottoes near Datong in Shanxi Province.

The southern part of the Mogao Grottoes contains 45,000 square meters of delicate frescoes inspired by classical Buddhist sutras and 2,415 lifelike painted Buddhist clay sculptures that represent a high level of aesthetics and craftsmanship.

Some faces contain glazed eyeballs and are draped in resplendent gold-plated robes. The caves in the northern area are closed to the public; they were the quarters of the monks and other craftsmen who led an insolated life but pooled their talents to create masterpieces.

A basic "full-fare" ticket costing 160 yuan (US$25) includes eight to 10 important grottoes; there's one guide for every 10 tourists. Some guides speak English and tours can be arranged. Visiting additional grottoes with a higher artistic value will cost extra.

Standing in grottoes, one is surrounded by figures of Buddha and Buddhist saints, the frescoed walls also depict Buddha, Bodhisattvas, flying apsaras, dancers and musicians. The experience is breathtaking and cannot be recreated by a museum.

The finest art in the grottoes was mostly created in the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907), and includes China's third-largest sitting Buddha, 35 meters in height, contained in Mogao's landmark nine-story pagoda.

Over the years, considerable amounts of art have been looted by archeologists and raiders, defaced by vandals and anti-religious zealots.

Tourism has boomed in recent years, raising concerns about damage to the delicate frescoes and statues. The grotto was temporarily closed to visitors in June to protect murals after torrential rains raised humidity and damaged roads in the site.

A camel ride is recommended at sunset at Mingsha Mountain, or the Mountain of Singing Sands, so named because the grains of sand make a sighing sound when gusts of wind sweep through the area. Listening to the singing sands and jingling camel bells, one feels as if he or she embarked on an ancient odyssey.

As the sun sets, the camel train trudges along to the Crescent Lake, once a desert marvel. Today the size and depth are shrinking dramatically due to a drop in the water table because of increased water use for development and agriculture. A recovery project is under way to increase the depth to 2 meters.

Dunhuang is threatened by the encroachment of desert sand dunes but so far it has been protected by a forest belt, wetland and lakes fed by two major rivers. China plans to invest more than 4.7 billion yuan over 10 years to improve the natural environment.

The next day I set out before sunrise and looked up in amazement at the canopy of moon and brilliant stars that hung low in the sky. The air was clear and the stars shimmered; I felt that I could reach out and touch them. Never before had I felt so close to the sky.

I headed by car to the Yadan National Geological Park to watch the sunrise over bizarre rock formations, lifted from a seabed millions of years ago and then eroded by the wind. Strange noises, like weird cries, can be heard as the powerful wind whistles through pebbles and piles of clay and rock.

Yadan Devil City is so named because of the disturbing sounds and landform shaped by gales into sphinxes, peacocks, lions, ships, and various real and grotesque creatures.

At the northern and southern ends of the Dunhuang area there are narrow strategic passes built in the Western Han Dynasty to protect the trading area and guard against foreign invaders.

There's also a crumbling section of the Great Wall in this far-off and desolate place, reminding one of the poetic laments of those throughout the ages who left their homes on a journey to the west.


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