Buddha-Hopping in Gansu Province

Being interested in Chinese archaeology and history,  I always wanted to see the various   colossal Buddha statues in the Hexi corridor, which now corresponds more or less to Gansu province. Thus in October 2012 I flew into Xi’an from London and took the train to Tianshui, which is the first major city after crossing the border from Shaanxi province. As it turns out it is also close to three large Buddha statues namely:  the statues at Maiji Shan, the Buddha relief at Shuiliandong and the large statue of Sakyamuni in Gangu.

Dafo Temple

Tianshui

Having taken an early train from Xi’an I got to Tianshui – Beidao mid-morning. Beidao is the modern, commercial and industrial sprawl around Tianshui train station, as opposed to the old part of Tianshui which is called Qincheng. Of the two Qincheng, with its rickety old temples and its late night food markets, is by far the nice place to stay.  Getting  to Qincheng is not a problem as both parts of Tianshui are linked by a highway.

Having checked into my hotel, I went to hunt for some food and then proceeded to visit both the Fuxi Si and the Yuquan Si, both of which are located in Qincheng.  The Fuxi Temple, which was built during the Ming Dynasty is  dedicated to Fuxi, one of the demi-gods of the Chinese mythology. In the Chinese creation myth, Fuxi, who was born in the 29th century BCE,  together with his sister Nuwa created the first humans from clay.  In addition,  he is believed to have taught mankind how to hunt, fish, domesticate animals, and cook, and is even credited with developing the first Chinese writing system and establishing the institution of marriage. Once you are downtown, the Fuxi Temple is within walking distance of the downtown Central Square. 

The Taoist Yuquan Temple is the older of the two temples having been established in the Tang Dynasty. Initially its name was simply the “North Temple”, but during the Song Dynasty it became known as the Yuquan or “Jade Spring” Temple. The name was derived from a local spring, which supposedly sprouted water that was so clear and beautiful that it resembled lustrous jade. Tragically the original temple was almost completely destroyed during the collapse of the Song Dynasty, but it was restored to its former glory during the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) and underwent over 30 extensions from then until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). The Yuquan Temple is, in my eyes, the more beautiful of the two temples, since its shrines are dotted around cypress trees and bamboo groves which makes it really appealing to wander around.

Yuquan Temple
Fuxi Temple

One of the best places to eat in Qingcheng is probably the aptly named Snack Street (Xiaochijie) and Guangming Xian where there a plenty of small restaurants and food stalls to choose from. 

Water Curtain Caves (Shuiliandong)

Having spent a day in Tianshui I decided to go an see the “Water Curtain Caves” near the town of Luomen, which in theory should not have been overly difficult. My plan was to take a bus from Tianshui to Gangu, change buses in Gangu to go to Luomen and then catch a minibus for the last 15km to the  Water Curtain Caves. I managed to do the first part without any problems and then my plan fell apart since the minibus, I had caught in Tianshui, dropped me off in some small courtyard in an unspecified location in  Gangu. In broken Mandarin I told the people where I wanted to go, who then bundelled me into another minibus which dropped me off at some huge cross-roads close to the motorway. There, I stood for a while not sure what I was supposed to do, I guessed waiting for a bus. However, no bus arrived so having stood there for three quarters of an hour, I hailed the first taxi that came along.  The driver seemed pretty friendly and the price, after a little bit of haggling did not seem to be too exorbitant. I paid ¥70, which might have been slightly over the odds, for the return trip Gangu – Water Curtain Caves.  However, I believe it was money well spend since the both the “Water Curtain Caves” nd the surrounding scenery were quite stunning. 

The “Water Curtain Caves” are pretty unknown to tourists in general and myself and a small group of Chinese tourists were the only visitors to the side. Some of the Chinese visitors wanted to know how I ended up in the remote part or Eastern Gansu province and an elderly Chinese gentelman, having dicovered that I spoke a little bit of Mandarin, proceeded to give me a lesson – by scribbling into the sand with a wooden stick – which was very kind of him.  The caves themselves date to the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534)  and their colous look like they were painted yesterday!

Buddha Relief at Shuiliandong

On the return trip he also the driver also took me to see a giant statue of Sakyamuni, which I was unaware of, and which is located just a few kilometers outside of Gangu. The statue itself is about 23m tall and was constructed during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE).  The statue itself is indeed very special as it is one of the only representations of Buddha with a moustache in the whole of China. In order to get to the statue you have to climb a little temple-lined trail up  Daxiang Mountain (which is not very strenuous). You and a few pilgrims will be the only people hiking up the trail so it is a very peaceful little hike. After I returned from Daxiang Mountain, my taxi driver informed me that he had to go home to his wife and children, and that he had already arranged with another driver to take me to the Gangu bus station so I could get back to Tianshui. 

Apart from the statue of Sakyamuni there is not much to see in Gangu, which is a pretty dreary Chinese town.

Statue of Sakyamuni in Gangu

Maiji Shan

Getting to Maiji Shan is much simpler than visiting the Water Curtain Caves. Simply hop onto mininbus 34, which leaves frequently from in front of the Tianshui train station and takes about 40 minutes.  The last 2 or so km from the ticket office to the temple itself you can either walk or take the tour buggy.

Located only a few miles south of the main road between China and Central Asia, Maijishan became a center of cross-cultural pollination for hundreds of thousands of itinerants. Indians, Mongols, Huns, Sogdians, Tibetans, Chinese, and others passed through the temple, each of them leaving behind their own distinctive art.

The mountain’s 194 grottoes are a testament to their influence. They come in seven architectural variations, are home to over 7,000 statues, and are covered in more than 100 square meters of murals. Everything is dedicated to the pursuit of Buddhism, from the artworks depicting the birth of Siddhartha to bodhisattvas contorting themselves in meditation to the arrival of new devotees.

From historical records, it seems that the first Buddhist site at Maiji Shan dates back to the period of Yao Xing (393-416 AD) of the Later Qin (also called Yao Qin) kingdom (384-417 AD), one of the so-called Sixteen Kingdoms that dominated northern China during the Southern and Northern Dynasties Period. Maiji Shan is also known from a variety of ancient Buddhist records, particulary in relation to the famous monks Tanhong and Xuangao. “The Biographies of Eminent Monks (Liang Gao Seng Zhuan) of the Liang Dynasty , for example, reports that two eminent monks, Tanhong and Xuangao, used this place to meditate with more than three hundred disciples while Xuangao’s biography states that after studying with the famous monk Buddhabhadra in Chang’an, he moved to Maiji Shan (421-422 AD) in order to flee the invasion of the capital Chang’an by the Song army. It is here that he met more than one hundred Buddhist mediators including the famous recluse monk Tanhong. Over time their community grew to 300 members. Between 422 and 424 AD Xuangao travelled westward to Fuhan, the caputal of Qifochipan’s Southern Qin, in order to sudy under the meditation master Tanwupi. There he got involved in a political scandal caused by two other monks who accused him of intending to overthrow the prince. Expelled from the territory ofthe Southern Qin by the prince, he travelled to Bingling Si where he is reported to have composed the “Moral Code of the Bodhisattvas” (Fanwang Jing) with Daorong. 

 

Later on, he moved to the Nortern Liang Kingdom, where after the conquest of the Northen Liang by the Northen Wei (386-534 AD), he was killed in 444 AD during a brief phase of persecution of Buddhism under the reign of the emperor Taiwu Di (424-452 AD).  Tanhung also left Maijishan during this period and travelled south, to somewhere in Cochin China, when in approximately 455, he burned himself to death.

Apart from the brief interlude under emperor Taiwu Di, the Northern Wei were in general very supportive of Buddhism and the construction of the caves flourished during this period. Due to its closeness to the Northern Wei capital of Luoyang and its location on the “Silk Road” Maiji Shan was well known and received generous support from wealthy local patrons. As is the case with most Buddhist Cave sites along the Silk Road the construction of the individual caves was sponsored by wealthy patrons who had the financial means to do so, as is demonstrated by the many inscriptions that record the expansion of the caves. The earlist inscription dates to 502 AD and records the creation of what is now Cave 115**.

Construction continued undimished under the Western Wei (535 – 556 AD) and the Northern Zhou (557-581 AD) dynasties. Thereafter, activity at the Maiji Shan cave complex diminished but continued under the rule of the succeeding dynasties right up the Qing (1644-1911 AD) when not only some earlier caves were altered, restored and embellished with figures and murals but new ones were also added 4. Although, the cave complex was severely damaged, during the Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), by a violent earthquake in 734 AD, which destroyed the central part of Maiji Shan, it survived the persecution of Buddhism in 854 AD unscathed, mainly because, during that period, the region was under Tibetan control

Bingling Si

From Tianshui I took the train to Lanzhou and after arriving I spent a few hours arranging for a driver to take me to Bǐnglíng Si the next day. Bǐnglíng Sì, (炳灵寺 – Temple of Luminous Spirits), is a Buddhist stone cave temple located in southern Gansu in the Linxia Autonomous region. It is located some 100km southeast of Lanzhou, just north of where the Yellow River empties into the Liujiaxua Reservoir, on the western cliff of the Great Temple Gulch (Dasigou) of the Xiaojishi Mountain range. The next day the taxi picked me up very early morning. The journey to Bǐnglíng Sì from Lanzhou took about 4 hours. After nearly three hours the taxi driver dropped at the edge of Liujiaxia Lake, where I hired a speed boat to take me to the temple itself. The boat trip already was quite exciting since the landscape gets more and more beautiful the closer get to monastery itself. Finally, after another hour I arrived at the Bǐnglíng Sì  which is located in an absolutely stunning valley narrow valley. Unfortunately for me the monastery was being renovated when I visited so I only got to see the colossal Buddha statue covered in a green netting – a slight disappointment!!. However, the journel was still well worth all the effort.

There are a total of 184 caves and niches at Bǐnglíng Sì (40 caves and 144 niches) encompassing about 694 images, both large and small, 82 of which are in stucco. The others are carved from the fine grain sanstone of the native rock. In addition about 912 square meters of wall paintings, dating from various periods can be found at Bǐnglíng Sì. The colossal seated Buddha, which is 27 m high dates from the Tang dynasty although it was repaired at later stages.

The earliest literary evidence referring to the Bǐnglíng Sì grottoes is the Shuijingzhu 水經注 (Commentary on the Waterways), which was written by Li Daoyuan 酈道元 during the Northern Wei period (386-534 AD) and which mentions two large grottoes, called the Tangshu Grotto and the Shilang Grotto, that are carved into the cliffs beside the river. Further references to the founding of the Bǐnglíng Sì grottoes can be found in the Fayuan Zhulin 法苑珠林 (Forest of Gems in the Garden of the Dharma), a Buddhist encyclopedia, compiled in 668 AD by Dao Shi 道世. According to the Fayuan Zhulin Bǐnglíng Sì was founded during the early Jin dynasty which could either refer to the Western Jin (265-317 AD) or the Eastern Jin (317-420 AD). In addition, the text also mentions an inscription carved into a stone gate saying that this gate was founded in the year of Tai Shi 太始. There is no year of Tai Shi for either the Western or the Eastern Jin. However, there is a year of Tai Shi in the Former Liang, referring to the year 355 AD.Thus the Bǐnglíng Sì grottoes are among the ealiest significant Buddhist monuments in China. The caves, however, were a work in progress for more than a millenium and more grottoes were added during the Wei, Sui, Tang, Song, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. The earliest remains Bǐnglíng Sì appear to be the so-called Niche No.1 containing a standing monumental Buddha image; Cave 169 the largest cave at Bǐnglíng Sì and the one with extensive and important remains of early Chinese Buddhist sculptures and paintings as well as a number of inscritions and the cave of the Wild Pheasant Gulch. The earliest extant record at Bǐnglíng Sì ws found in cave 169 and dates to the year 420 AD, which would be consistent with the Fayuan Zhulin.

Wuwei

From Lanzhou I continued to Zhangye via Wuwei where I visited the Confucious Temple, the Haizang Temple and Leitai Si, where they found the ‘Flying Horse of Wuwei’. At Leitai Si, there is not too much, apart from the 2000-year old, empty tomb were they found the ‘Flying Horse’.  The Confucius Temple and the Leitai Si can be reached easily by foot from the Cultural Square while for the Haizang Temple it is best to take a taxi or a bus (No 3).

Confucius Temple

The Confucius Temple was originally built in 1439, during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), and has been extended several times throughout its history. Covering a surface area of around 1,500 square metres (16,145 sq. ft.), the Wuwei Confucian Temple boasts the reputation of being the largest Confucian school in Gansu province. It historically served as a place for scholars to study and pray to Confucius, and it remains an important site of worship to this day.  In addition, the temple houses the Wuwei Museum, which boasts an amazing collection of 36000 artefacts, comprising paintings, works of calligraphy, ancient books and scriptures. Arguably, one of it’s most important aertefacts is the Western Xia Tablet, which contains inscriptions in both Chinese and the extinct language of the mysterious Tangut people. It’s one of the very few remnants left of this enigmatic ethnic group and has been an invaluable tool for linguists in decoding the Tangut language. 

Haizang Si

The Haizang Temple is a facinating active monastery with a history that dates back to the Jin Dynasty (115-1234 CE) although the monastry was greatly expanded was greatly expanded during the Yuan, Ming and Qing dynasties. For many pilgrims its main attraction is  a minute pavilion to the right of the entrance containing a well  of ‘holy water’ which is said to connect by subterranean streams to a Holy Lake in the Potala Palace in Lhasa and able to cure a multitude of ailments.

Zhangye

Another train journey from Wuwei took me to Zhangye where another large Buddha statue was waiting for me, namely the 35m long sleeping Buddha at the Great Buddha Temple (Dafo Si).  After visiting the Great Buddha Temple I hired a taxi for the next day to take me to Zhangye Danxia National Park and to Mati Si, which cost me about 300¥ for the whole day.  Using buses I am not sure that both the Geopark and Mati Is can be visited in a day. I was also very lucky with my taxi driver who gave me plenty of time to visit both places, went with me for a short hike at Mati Si and being a very patient person helped me practice my Chinese.

Dafo Si

The Great Buddha Temple (Dafo Si) was built around the beginning of the 12th century, during the Western Xia  (1038–1227) period. In 1028, the Tibeto-Burman speaking Tangut people took over Zhangye (then known as Ganzhou) from the Ganzhou Uyhhur Kingdom. A few years later they founded the Western Xia and controlled the entirety of the Hexi Corridor. To strengthen their hold over the area, the Xia built temples and ordered the translation of the Buddhist scriptures. They were especially strong during the reign of the Emperor Chongzong of Western Xia (1086–1139), and the Dafo Si dates from this time. The history of the temple relates that in 1098, a monk called Sineng Weimie had seen numinous lights and heard heavenly sounds coming from a nearby hill at the foot of a mountain. Investigating the area, Sineng unearthed a hoard which included a reclining Buddha statue and set out to build a great temple in honour of the image, which he believed had been revealed by divine favour. 

The temple’s 35m long statue is made of clay on a wooden frame and depicts the Gautama Buddha’s  attainment of nirvana, with his ten disciples standing behind him. It is largely unaltered since the time of the Western Xia  (1038–1227). It is probably the largest reclining clay Buddha statue in China. The hall which contains the Buddha is 48 metres (157 ft) long and 24 metres (79 ft) wide, with a height of 33 metres (108 ft). It has a Qing Dynasty (1644–1911) mural and is one of the few wooden structures of its period which survive. The mural tells the story of Xuanzang  and his followers, showing Xuanzang riding on a horse and the monkey king Sun Wukong kneeling on the ground.

Zhangye Danxia National Geological Park

Danxia Landforms, named after Mount Danxia in Guangdong province, are stunning geological formations that are unique to China. They were formed when red sandstone and other minerals were deposited by rivers over a period of about 24 million years. These deposits settled into distinct layers and, after another 15 million years, faults in the earth created by tectonic plate movement caused them to become exposed. Over another few millions of years, they were moulded into strange shapes by weathering and erosion, resulting in the unusual landforms that we find today. Yet the ones near Zhangye are arguably the most spectacular as, rather than just being made up of fiery red sandstone, the hills are a flurry of vibrant colours that resemble a living watercolour painting. For this reason, they have earned the nickname the “Rainbow Mountains”.

Nowadays the Zhangye Danxia Landform Geological Park is the best place to get to grips with this alien terrain. It’s located at the northern foothills of the Qilian Mountains , which only serve to amplify the scenic quality of this magnificent place. The Linze Scenic Area just 30 kilometres (19 mi) west of Zhangye forms the core of the park and is the most popular area, exhibiting the famous “layer cake” hills whose perfect stripes of colour resemble a well-made trifle. Just don’t go trying to take a bite out of them! The Binggou Scenic Area is not quite as popular or as well developed for tourism, but rests on the northern bank of Liyuan River and offers unique, isolated views for those more adventurous hikers. From the shimmering lakes and bubbling brooks to the extraordinary shapes and colours of the rippling hills, the Zhangye Danxia Landform is a work of art that you can literally walk on.

Mati Si

The name “Mati” literally means “Horse’s Hoof” and the temple was so-named because it houses the hoof-prints of a celestial horse. According to legend, as this horse descended from heaven to the mortal world, it landed on a rock with such force that it imprinted its hoof-prints onto it. This mythical rock has been preserved to this day and can still be found within the sacred Mati Hall. The actual name of the complex is Puguang Temple, as it was renamed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), but the fabled hoof-prints are so integral to its reputation that most people still refer to it as Mati Si. It was first built during the Northern Liang Dynasty (397-460) and was originally designed as a quiet place for study and meditation, but its illustrious reputation soon resulted in flocks of monks descending on the site. In its heyday, it’s rumoured that hundreds of monks lived at the temple. It was so popular that grottoes continued to be constructed and renovated right up until the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912). 

The 70 caves that make up the complex were hand-carved into the cliff-face of Linsong Mountain, about 65 kilometres (40 mi) north of Zhangye, and can be separated into 7 grotto groups: Mati Temple, Shenguo Temple, Qianfo or “Thousand Buddha” Caves, Jinta or “Golden Tower” Temple, Upper Guanyin Cave, Middle Guanyin Cave, and Lower Guanyin Cave.

The main Mati Temple, sometimes referred to as the “Thirty-Three Layers of the Heavens”, is the most striking looking, as it features 21 grottoes arranged in 7 levels that were made to resemble the shape of a pagoda. The Bodhisattva Tara is enshrined inside this temple for visitors to worship. Stairwells, hidden passageways, and balconies lead to the many grottoes that were hand-carved from the cliff-face by diligent monks, providing stunning views from both the ground and the dizzying heights of the upper caves. Of these grottoes, the Hidden Buddha Grotto is the largest one of its kind in existence in China! The Thousand Buddha Caves are easy to navigate, since they are primarily in the form of a square. There are four main sites within these caves that together contain over 40 Buddhist statues and 300 square metres (3,230 sq. ft.) of stunning murals, which date back to the Northern Wei (386–535 AD), Western Wei (535–557), Yuan (1271-1368), and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.

As I mentioned above, I hired a taxi to visite both the Geological Park and Mati in a single day and I was probably on the road for about 12 hours. However, if you only want to visit the Geopark,  I believe that you can  take the bus from the Zhangye West Station to Sunan, but you have to get off at Nantaicun, and then walk to the National Geological Park. On the other hand if you you only plan to visit Mati Si,  you have two options.  Firstly, from May to September, there is a direct bus that leaves Zhangye’s South Bus Station ay 7.35am, 8.25 am and 9.15.am for Mati Si. Alternatively, buses leave the South Bust Station every 30 minutes for the village of Mati He from where you have to get a minibus or a taxi in order to get to the temple.

Jiayuguan

Jiayuguan itself is not a very attractive city as the skyline is dominated by belching smokestacks and cooling towers. My hotel was probably located 500 meters away from the entrance to power station which was not the best view I ever had from an hotel window. However, it is definitely worth a stopover because of the Jiayuguan Fort, which was built at the beginning of the Ming dynasty and marks the start/end of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall.

Jiayuguan Fortress

Established in 1372, the fortress of Jiayuguan served as the western door to China and marked the extent of Ming imperial power Beyond its gates was the realm of nomads and exiles who dwelled among the various oases scattered in the vast Gobi Desert. Initial construction began under the direction of General Feng, who not only extended the Great Wall, butut built the first garrison in the heavily invaded Hexi Corrdidor. Attacks by Mongols and Uyghuirs posed a continuous security risk for the Ming and the Hongwu Emperor was determined to put an end to these incursions. After quickly erecting modest defences, construction began on the present fortifications, which took 168 years to complete.

From the 14th century onwards, fantastic stories emerged regarding the fortress, only adding to Jiayuguan’s mystique as the most remote outpost of the Chinese Empire. They included tales of the citadel’s ingenious architect, wild legends of the mysterious inhabitants living beyond its gates, and the tragic chronicles of the castoffs sent into exile behind its mighty walls. These, coupled with the fortress’ celebrated impregnability gave Jiayuguan its legendary reputation in Chinese history.

Jiayuguan Fortress
Jiayuguan Fortress

Being located outside Jiayu City, the fortress can be easily reached by bus No 4 or 6. and the entrance fees vary between 100 Yuan and 120 Yuan depending on the season. In addition to visiting the Jiayuguan Fort, I booked at taxi to take me to the Overhanging Great and to the Wei Jin Tombs.  The Overhanging Great Wall (admission fee 21¥) originally dates from the Ming Dynasty,  however,  what you are seeing today is basically a 20th century reconstruction dating to 1987 and thus a bit of a disappointment. However, the hike up the wall is quite fun and at the end you can go and hike around the mountains for a little while, the views from which are quite good.

Scenery at the top of the Overhanging Wall.

 

Personally, I found the Wei Jin Tombs, which date from the Wei and the Western Jin dynasties (220AD-240AD) much more interesting, although at the time of my visit only one tomb was open for visiting and you were not allowed to take photographs inside the tomb. The tomb walls are constructed with painted bricks depicting scenes of daily life in Western Regions during the Wei and Jin Dynasties, such as farming, cooking, dancing, traveling, hunting, etc, giving an insight into the feudal society of ancient China. The entrance fee (~30 Yuan) also gives you access to a small museum which contains many more bricks and an ancient sarcophagus. The museum is the only place where taking pictures is allowed. 

The best place to eat, in Jiayu City,  I thought was the Fuqiang Market, which is located just north of the Xiongguan Lu and the Xinhua Beilu roundabout. It had a good selection of street stalls and served one of my favourites, namely Roujiamo.

Dunhuang

This was the last destination of my trip though Gansu Province an the first thing I did was to visit the Mogao Caves.  The day after I hired a driver for the day to take me to Yadan National Park, the Jade Gate Pass, bits of the Great Wall and the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, where again you are not allowed to take photoes.  This is a long day trip (10-12 hours ) from Dunhuang and cannot be done by public transport. If you hire a car make sure that the air-conditionning works because it gets pretty hot out there even in October.

While in Dunhuang I ate at the Night Market (Yangguan Donglu) mainly because there is a huge choice – noodles, dumplings, claypots, barbecues and one of my favorite snacks roujiamo- and because I love watching the food being prepared in front of you. As far as I am concerned the night markets are some of the best places to eat in China.

Mogao Ku

This is one of the most stunning sites I have ever seen and I would love to return one day. The frescoes inside the caves are absolutely stunning and some of them look like they have been painted yesterday. Unfortunately you are not allowed to take pictures inside the caves itself. In fact when I visited in 2012 I had to hand my camera in. In addition, you can not visit the caves on your own but you have to join a two-hour tour. Of the 500 or so caves only 20 are open and the tour only takes you to 10 of these. However, and I was not aware of this at the time, you can apparently visit more caves if you are prepared to pay extra, about ¥100 to ¥500 per cave, depending on which cave you want to see. In addition to the caves you also get to see two large Buddhas, both being 34m and 26m tall respectively. The entrance fee for the caves also includes the museum which contains three brightly lit replica caves. 

Dunhuang was established as a frontier garrison outpost by the Han Dynasty Emperor Wudi  to protect against the Xiongnu  in 111 BC. It also became an important gateway to the West, a centre of commerce along the Silk Road, as well as a meeting place of various people and religions such as Buddhism and Daoism.

The construction of the Mogao Caves near Dunhuang is generally taken to have begun sometime in the fourth century AD. According to a book written during the reign of Tang Empress Wu, Fokan Ji (佛龕記, An Account of Buddhist Shrines) by Li Junxiu (李君修), a Buddhist monk named Lè Zūn (樂尊, which may also be pronounced Yuezun) had a vision of a thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site in 366 AD, inspiring him to build a cave here. The story is also found in other sources, such as in inscriptions on a stele in cave 332; an earlier date of 353 however was given in another document, Shazhou Tujing (沙州土鏡, Geography of Shazhou). He was later joined by a second monk Faliang (法良), and the site gradually grew, by the time of the Northern Liang  a small community of monks had formed at the site. The caves initially served only as a place of meditation for hermit monks, but developed to serve the monasteries that sprang up nearby. Members of the ruling family of Northern Wei  and Northern Zhou constructed many caves here, and it flourished in the short-lived Sui Dynasty . By the Tang Dynasty, the number of caves had reached over a thousand.

Replica of a Cave at Mogao Ku

By the Sui and Tang dynasties, Mogao Caves had become a place of worship and pilgrimage for the public.  From the 4th until the 14th century, caves were constructed by monks to serve as shrines with funds from donors. These caves were elaborately painted, the cave paintings and architecture serving as aids to meditation, as visual representations of the quest for enlightenment  and as teaching tools to inform those illiterate about Buddhist beliefs and stories. The major caves were sponsored by patrons such as important clergy, local ruling elite, foreign dignitaries, as well as Chinese emperors. Other caves may have been funded by merchants, military officers, and other local people such as women’s groups.

During the Tang Dynasty, Dunhuang became the main hub of commerce of the Silk Road and a major religious centre. A large number of the caves were constructed at Mogao during this era, including the two large statues of Buddha at the site, the largest one constructed in 695 following an edict a year earlier by Tang Empress Wu Zetian to build giant statues across the country. The site escaped the persecution of Buddhism ordered by Emperor Wuzong in 845 as it was then under Tibetan  control. As a frontier town, Dunhuang had been occupied at various times by other non-Han Chinese people. After the Tang Dynasty, the site went into a gradual decline, and construction of new caves ceased entirely after the Yuan Dynasty . By then Islam had conquered much of Central Asia, and the Silk Road declined in importance when trading via sea-routes began to dominate Chinese trade with the outside world. During the Ming Dynasty, the Silk Road was finally officially abandoned, and Dunhuang slowly became depopulated and largely forgotten by the outside world. Most of the Mogao caves were abandoned; the site, however, was still a place of pilgrimage and was used as a place of worship by local people at the beginning of the twentieth century when there was renewed interest in the site.

Replica Frescoe at Mogao Ku

Getting to the Mogao Caves from Dunhuang is straightforward as you can either take a mininus or  taxi. The first minibus leaves Dunhuang at 8am and the last minibus returns to Dunhuang at 6pm.  A return trip by bus will cost about ¥20 while a return trip by taxi will be closer to ¥150 depending on your haggling skills.

Yumen Pass

For merchants or soldiers travelling west along the Silk route, the Yumen Pass or Jade Gate Pass was, alongside the Yang Pass further south, the last and westermost Chinese outpost they would encounter before entering the Western Region. Constructed by the Han Dynasty (206 BCE- 24 CE)  Emperor Wudi (187-156 BCE) it was once a key millitary fortification aimed at protecting China’s western flank from the invasion by the nomadic Xiongnu people. Until the Tang Dynasty all caravans leaving or entering China had to pass either through the Yumen Pass or the Yang Pass and as a consequence these fortifications became important trading posts where merchants traded in jade, silk, porcelain etc. The Yumen Pass was originally called the ‘Square City,’ but because the great jade caravans from Khotan entered through its portals, it became known as the Jade Gate Pass. 

The Small Fangpan Castle at Yumen Pass

Unfortunately, towards the end of the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the trade route through Yumen Pass was gradually supplanted by the northern route via Hami and the pass fell into disuse. Nowadays, all that is left of this venerable military gate and trading post are a smattering of ruins, which are located approximately 90 kilometres (56 mi) from the city of Dunhuang. At the grand old age of over 2,000 years, it was considered so integral to the country’s history that it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2014. The complex is entirely built of rammed earth and, due to years of neglect, all that remains today are the gatehouse, a beacon tower, and a small portion of the Han Dynasty Great Wall. In many ways, its desolation is part of its charm. 

The Han Dynasty Great Wall at Yumen Pass

Yadan National Park

The weird, eroded desert landscape of Yadan National Park is  located 180km northwest of Dunhuang, in the vast emptiness  of the Gobi Desert. The erosion of a former lake bed some 12,000 years ago resulted in the strange rock formations that  provided the backdrop to the last scenes of Zhang Yimou’s film Hero. In order to preserve the fragile ecosystem , you are not allowed to wander freely (at least when I visited)  around the stunning rock formations. Instead you are confined to group minibuses (with regular photo stops) but it is nevertheless worth the effort since  the desert landscape here is so dramatic that you will still feel like you’re at the end of the world.

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