Six Months in China Part Five

Once I arrived in Dun Huang, I had to figure out where to go, I only knew of the Dun Huang youth hostel, which was a good place, since I could connect with other budget conscious  travelers.

It seems that the only way to do any site seeing is by taking a tour. The first day, I took a trip to see the wild desert areas around Dun Huang.

Dun Huang is, geographically speaking, in Gansu Province, more than 1500 miles Northwest of Xiamen. It’s like going from, say, North Florida to Wyoming. The terrain reminded me of the Nevada desert, and the scenery is like Utah.

In fact, this area of China so famous for its part of The Silk Road, is so dry that camels are sometimes used.

China trip 2011 258One of the most popular tourist sites is Whistling Sands/ Crescent Moon Spring, an oasis in a valley formed by sand dunes.

It is a bit pricey to go there, about $22 to look around, and it costs extra money to take a camel ride.

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However, while at the hostel, I met a dreadlocked dude, named William, from Belgium, who seemed to know how to get around the strictures of normal society. We took a city bus, rather than a taxi, to the end of the line, and then hiked in, going around a chain link fence. We climbed up to the top of the sand dune and then down into the park for free.

Later, he came into Chiang Mai, and he told me that after we parted ways in China, he’d gone to Beijing and camped out on the Great Wall, and even lit a fire. All of course totally out of bounds. But we need free spirits like him, dontcha think?

I took a regular tour to some other sites, including the Yardan Landforms, very reminiscent of Utah and the Southwestern USA. China trip 2011 290

On this particular tour, which consisted of going on a bus and stopping for ten minutes to take pictures and leave, we saw an abandoned outpost that looked like little more than a pile of rocks, as well as the very far China trip 2011 271end of the Great Wall, little more than ruins at this time.

One of the best parts of this trip, was being out where the air is really clean and the sky is so blue. Most areas of China, notably Beijing have serious smog problems. Also, the air is much drier than I was used to in Xiamen and points South. So even though the temperature was getting quite cool, especially at night, compared with the temples I had stayed at, down to 36 degrees Fahrenheit by early morning, it was still a lot more comfortable than damp, raw 50 degrees at Lao Zu Si in late September.

Of course the highlight of the trip was the famous caves at Mogao, or Mogao Ku. As you enter the area of the caves, you will see the main building, which houses a 34.5 meter (about 110 feet) Maitreya Budda.

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Mogao Ku postcard 001

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At this point, you may be asking yourself, what is this huge artistic project doing out in the middle of nowhere. The basic story is that the Silk Road from central Asia to the Far East passed through this area. It is how the legendary Marco Polo made his way to China. At that time, starting around the year 300 CE, there was much trade going on, and Buddhism was one of the “imports” from India and Central Asia. China trip 2011 378

Many wealthy merchants were devout Buddhists, as were soldiers and other people. One way that they could express their devotion, was to go to the rock cliff sides, dig out a cave, perhaps even  sponsor a monk who would live in the cave, or simply build a temple, and decorate it with paintings and images of Buddhas, Bodhisattvas (Buddhas to be), Arhats (perfected beings who reached Nirvana), and various heavenly (or not so heavenly deities).

We are told that no photos could be taken in the caves, due to the damage that constant exposure to flashbulbs could cause. My personal opinion is that, having had so much of its cultural treasures stolen by people throughout the ages, particularly recently by Western collectors and opportunists, that they feel very protective of the sites.

Fortunately, however, there is a very fine museum, which not only explains the history of the caves, but even has a number of caves reproduced, and photos are permitted.

This picture taken in the museum shows how, over time, due to the type of pigment used, the painting became degraded. The right hand side shows what the painting originally looked like.

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Here is a classic sculpture of Maitreya, the Buddha to be in the next age.

China trip 2011 373This is a photo of the ceiling.


One of my favorite Dun Huang paintings is the story of the deer king. My sister, Jiru, had painted a reproduction of it that appears in the lobby of a hotel in Xiamen. Here is her painting.


I was fortunate to see the original at Dun Huang.

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These are some other pictures from the caves or postcards.

Avalokiteshvara a silk painting

Avalokitesvara, a silk painting found in a cave, along with hundreds of other paintings and manuscripts, including the Sutra of Hui Neng

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A Bodhisattva found in Cave 194

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A Flying Figure, cave 158

Following the trip to Mogau Ku, I still had a lot of time before my scheduled flight back. One evening, I just went wandering around Dun Huang City, and found that there are a fair number of shops selling silk or wool rugs, paintings, sculpture and so on. Prices look pretty good, but of course, you have to get there to bargain. But a full size silk rug can go for about $3000, much less, I think than at a shop in the US. While Dun Huang is clearly a tourist town, and there is an element of “tourist trap” about it, it is still a wonderful place to go, and many Chinese expressed their longing to visit there at some point in their lives.

The next day, I booked a taxi with some Chinese tourists to see some other caves.

These are similar to Mogao Ku but farther away. It cost 4 of us $20 each for a full 8 hour drive.

One of the places was a group of caves that was under a different jurisdiction from Mogao Ku, in a place called Anxi.

China trip 2011 402China trip 2011 392The site is quite remote, and stark. New walkways have been built, and the tour guide spoke pretty good English, however, it cost $50 and the cave paintings were in pretty

sorry shape.

The combination of weathering and vandalism, especially during the Cultural Revolution was quite evident.

However, we then went to the Yulin Grottos, which were quite reasonable in price, about $7 for a tour of 5 caves, and the quality of the pictures were very good. For an additional $15 I could have seen ONE other cave which was supposed to be a really fine specimen, however, I felt sort of pictured out for the day and didn’t take them up on the offer. My Chinese companions did, and I got the feeling that it was so-so.

The grottoes are cut out from the walls of the canyon, where a river flows through otherwise barren terrain. The style of artwork is similar to that at Mogao Ku.

Here is a large, 4 foot high incense bowl in front of one of the caves. China trip 2011 437

The Chinese Character on the front is “Buddha”, or “Fo”, as spoken in Mandarin Chinese.

China trip 2011 431This painting was on the outside of a doorway to the caves. It is quite weathered, faded and barely visible.

It appears to be that of a hermit, probably Bodhidharma, though I am not sure.

I had planned to stay for a week in Dun Huang, thinking that there would be a lot more to see, however, I realized that, although one could go back to Mogao Ku, or the other caves, there was not a lot more to see. One morning, I started to talk with a fellow I had met at Mogao Ku, and he told me how easy it would be to take a bus to the Provincial Capital, Jiayuguan. Which just happens to be my friend, Cheng Rong’s home town. It is also the last major station for the Great Wall, and since she had encouraged me to visit there, I cut my stay at Dun Huang short, and changed my train ticket, and took a bus to Jiayuguan.

When I got there, I had no idea where to go, and the bus left me off on a road side. As luck would have it, a group of young Chinese travelers were in the same situation. They did a considerable amount of haggling with a couple of taxi drives, and we proceeded to look for cheap hotels. Several hotels would not take foreigners, so my group visited several until we found one that would. Three men, including me, shared one room, and the women shared a second one. The price, once I split the cost with the other two guys was only about $8. However, there was a problem with the showers. We had no hot water. It turned out that there was hot water but you had to go upstairs to another hotel room. I didn’t understand that, but finally got my hot shower after 30 minutes of mutual misunderstanding with the hotel manager.

Before dinner, we all went looking around at the local market for dried fruits and nuts, which are very popular, and grown in that region. Almonds, walnuts, raisins apricots all delicious for a very reasonable price. And also directly benefiting the local economy. The next day, we arranged with the drivers to take us on a one day trip to the Jiayuguan Fort.

I’m told that when someone fell out of favor with the Emperor, he would banish them to this place. They’d be taken to the fort, and then told to leave. They may have been brought in this type of prison chariot. China trip 2011 451

And left off here, at the gorge beside the Fort.

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The fort was recreated to look the way it must have 500 hundred or so years ago, with many exhibits.

Here is a podium where the Generals would give orders to the troops.

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. Here a view of the outside walls of the Fortress.

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Here I am with my Chinese companions

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The Chinese have a very pleasant way of asking people not to pick or walk on the flowers.

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This is one of the entrances to the fort.

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Here is an exhibit of someone advising, a General, most likely.

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I guess if you were a rich merchant, you probably wore clothes like this in Ming Dynasty (500 to 700 years ago).

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There were quarters for the officers as well as rank and file soldiers, also quarters for family. Here, perhaps an officer’s wife in a room devoted to calligraphy. Amazing that nowadays I still see rooms like this.

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Outside the fortress lay the Great Wall of China, itself, which stretches from Beijing all the way to Jiayuguan, about 1000 miles. Mao Ze Dong himself has said that “Anyone who has not climbed the Great Wall is not a true man”. Well, I didn’t know about this quote at the time, but I had felt like climbing the Great Wall is something that I just HAD to do.

So I went outside the fort and started climbing. It is several hundred steep steps, I counted about 700.

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The Wall at that section is designed as a loop, so that you can climb up on one end and come down on another end. I thought we were a little short on time, so I had to hussle. But my Chinese friends told me to slow down. It didn’t matter, I love hiking and the vista was great once arriving at the top. Down below, I could even see a caravan walking along.

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Of course, once I reached the bottom again, I could see that it was not a real caravan, just an example, but you get the idea, anyway, it was fun.

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Also, when I reached the bottom of the Great Wall, there was a place where you could get a gold (not real) medallion, that had your name engraved on it. My English name didn’t fit, so I had her do one with my Chinese (Buddhist) name, in two short Chinese characters.   So now, having climbed the Great Wall,  I can say that I am a true man. I have arrived!

Here is one medallion, a large one, that says, “If we fail to reach the Great Wall, we are no heroes.”

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The next day, I met Ma Hai Ge, a friend of Cheng Rong, who has a small lingerie shop in the city of Jiayuguan. He graciously took me around to see some of the sites, as well as treating me to one of the local delicacies, barbequed goat meat. Followed by a heaping plate of thick Gansu province noodles. When he invited me for dinner after those two appetizers, I demurred. I was stuffed. He was too! He was showing the standard Chinese friendship and hospitality, which I have found so often in my travels. From Jiayuguan, I was set to go by train, first to Xi’An and then take a second train to Wuhan.


1 Comment

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One response to “Six Months in China Part Five

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