The plan is to set out earlier in the morning than usual, about 8:30am, to make the drive to Dunhuang by early afternoon. That will allow us plenty of time to see the Mogao Caves on the way into town.
Our driver will leave the morning of the 28th to make the 1000 km drive to Urumqi, via Turpan; we will stay in Dunhuang until we take the plane at 4:00pm on the 29th for Urumqi. The driver will pick us up at the airport, assuming he is able to get there in time.
We made it in plenty of time, because the roads were excellent, to spend the entire afternoon at Mogao Ku, the Mogao Caves., China’s richest treasure house of ancient Buddhist murals and sculpture.
Actually, Mogao Ku doesn’t look like a treasure house, but instead a treasure apartment building, laid on its side! Its caves honeycomb the cliff-face of the Mingsha Hills, the result of over seven hundred years of construction, beginning in the 4th century A.D. By the end of the eleventh century, there was no more room for new caves, so the merchants and tradesmen who sponsored much of the construction took to redoing the existing, older caves. The end result is a virtual academy of Chinese religious art, with every painting and sculptural style over fifteen hundred years represented.
Because of the ongoing efforts to preserve the caves, which began in earnest about fifty years ago, visitors must be accompanied by a guide, and are limited to seeing about ten caves per visit (there are more than five hundred caves in reasonably good condition remaining after the ravages of earthquakes and looting by Western European and American adventurers, from what was probably more than sixteen hundred caves originally). Our tour with an English-speaking guide took about two and a half hours…I could have easily stayed there for twice the time!
Once our visit to the Caves had (unfortunately) ended, we drove back into town to have an early dinner. After dinner and freshening up in the hotel, at about 9:30pm, we decided to take a stroll in the cooler evening air. The town was incredibly lively and crowded, even at that hour, I think because the temperatures had finally dropped a bit. The big night market was full of craftsmen selling identical-looking goods – name stamps, flat carved pictures, beads, dried fruit and nuts, jade cups, etc. We stopped at a large square with a singer where lots of small vendors were offering beer and snacks. After having a Tsing Tao beer each and munching on skewered eggplant, potatoes, and pita bread baked on an open fire, we made our way back to the hotel.