The Power of Turning of Your Camera: Exploring the Mo Gao Grottos

Mo gao grottos

It continually shocks me how much I do not know about China.  It is like a mountain.  However, many ridges you scale there is always at least one more.  I am not sure that I had even heard of the Mo Gao Grottos before we started planning this trip.  Or if I had heard of them I immediately forgot their names.  I won’t again.  The Mo Gao Caves were truly one of the most overwhelming and awe inspiring places that I have ever visited.

There are six criteria for becoming a UNESCO World Heritage cultural site.  A site must meet at least one of them to be selected.

“Human creative genius,  Interchange of values, Testimony to cultural tradition, Significance in human history, Traditional human settlement, and Heritage associated with events of universal significance.”

There are only two places in the world (so far) that have met all 6 of the criteria.  The canals of Venice and the Mo Gao Caves.

The MoGao Caves or Grottos are caves that were dug and enlarged and then decorated with Buddhist art.  The art is a combination of wall murals along with statues.  Figures and paintings were added to the caves over the period of a thousand years.  There are examples of silk painting, textiles, and printed images in addition to the murals and sculptures. 

Chinese Buddha

It is interesting that the Buddha’s were all the skinny south Asian kind rather than the jolly fat Chinese Buddha.  They are both representations of “future Buddha” (or at least the ones in the cave and the fat Buhai are) rather than of the historical Buddha. But for some reason “jolly” and enlightenment don’t go together in my head.  The Buddhas in the grottos look as if they are contemplating something rather than as if they are about to laugh at you.

Fragile Art

We had to go around with a tour guide.  Everyone does.  I think that is how they ensure that people aren’t touching the walls or the statues constantly.  There are thousands of visitors here a year and keeping the grottos inside the caves pristine is a lot of work.  Even the light from the open door is damaging and the caves that are open to the public are rotated to limit the light exposure.

The advantages of speaking English

I finally found an advantage of speaking truly horrific Mandarin. (I am super exaggerating when I say peak I mean I have some stock phrases that I am getting me through life here.  Yes, I am ashamed) At the Mo Gao caves we were put into a separate “not Chinese” line where we waited for a guide who spoke English.  We had arranged our tickets ahead of time and coupled with this we were saved more than a two hour wait in line.  Another bonus was the fact that our group was only 20 people as opposed to 100.  Score.

And yet somehow this was forgotten.  China seems to have periods in its history where they decide to completely overlook something huge right outside their backdoor.  The Silk Road was abandoned in the Ming Dynasty (about 700 years ago) and the world forgot about the caves until 1900.

Friggin’ Colonialist thieves

Much like the history of the rest of the world the rediscovery of the caves went something like this:

1. Chinese man rediscovers caves and INSANE amounts of documents.

2. Wiley Englishman dupes Chinese man out documents and “discovers” the cave

3. Documents somehow find their way to the British Museum.

4. Chinese Government pissed.

Putting Down the camera

There are some places that photographs or the the most vivid description cannot communicate. I am glad that you can’t take photos in the caves.  Sometimes when you aren’t thinking about how you are going to document a moment you actually experience it.  I noticed the exact shade of blue, and red, and yellow used. I marveled at how even after 700 or sometimes 2000 years the colors almost seemed to glow when you shined a flashlight on them. 

It is so easy to focus on taking the picture.  We all do it sometimes.  We are looking for the pretty image and forgetting to really see what is in front of us.  When you put away the camera there is a part of your brain that seems to come awake.  “Oh, my God , people we are going to have to remember this!  She put the camera in her bag.  This is not a drill!  Repeat: this is not a drill!” I found myself taking more time to look at the patterns on the walls, the individualized faces of each Buddha, the paintings on the ceilings.

*I apologies for my lamo explanations of Buddha.  I am SO not an expert.  Do NOT cite me as a source. Seriously, I know nothing.

The Hills are Alive with the Sound of Sand Singing


So I had this idea, despite all evidence from the trip to the contrary, that the dunes in Dunhuang were going to be peaceful. You know, sitting one a sand dune looking across at the vast emptiness contemplating the mysteries of the Silk Road.  What stories have these sands witnessed?

For me travel is all about imagination.  You go somewhere new and every time it is an opportunity to think about that history of a place, the possibilities of a place, the backstories of the people you meet, and to put yourself in another’s shoes.  Sometimes it takes a bit more imagination than others to see a places past.

To start with there was a traffic jam.  Dunhuang is not a large city and with the masses of tourists that were visiting because of Golden Week the streets quickly clogged up.  We ended up walking the last couple of kilometers and I think that that saved us a lot of time.

Once we went through the gates there was still about a kilometer of shops to walk by.  There was a large space dedicated to bright orange shoe guards.  They were like huge socks with weighted soles that go over your shoes and tie up at the knees. This to prevent your shoes from getting dirty or sand in them. 

You could take a 12 person golf cart to the oasis in the middle of the Dunes.  Crescent Lake.  It was natural up until the 1990’s when the Chinese government noticed it drying up and build underwater pumps to maintain it.  You can also just hike up the dunes.  Hiking up sand mountains looks deceptively easy.  I always forget until I am doing it again how sink in sank up to your ankles slows you down.  Every step brings you about an inch and a half higher.  From afar the procession of people walking up the dune reminded me a bit of ants.  It is easier to walk where someone has just been so the line looks pretty single fine.

There was an endless line of camels marching by.  They weren’t walking up the dunes but more around them.  I don’t actually think this line ever stops.  I am fairly certain the camels walk to the lake in the middle of the dunes drop off their passenger, pick up another,  lather, rinse, and repeat all day.

Adding to the ambiance every two and a half minutes we were buzzed by a helicopter as it landed to pick up another load of tourists.  I wonder what you see if you shell out the money for that ride? 

All the tourists are concentrated in one small section of the dunes.  Is that purposeful?  I didn’t get to the edge of the crowd but I couldn’t see any fences.  It makes me feel a little better.  Not all the dunes are as tamed at these.

These are also called the Singing Sand Mountains.  You can hear it when you walk on the sand and when the wind blows through the sand.  The sound has to do with the shape and the size of the sand, the humidity, and what it is made of.

And yet for all of the commercialism and attempts to make the dunes into a theme park their grandeur was undiminished. There is something majestic about them.  When the wind is blowing right they might be singing right to you.

A Night at the Theater among the Dunhuang Sand Dunes

Dunhuang hotel on the dunes

Looking at my ticket wouldn’t communicate the scope.  What I can read: “Dunhuang Festival: the largest desert-subject live performance in the world.  Flying hand in hand, carry me back to Dunhuang.”  There is no hint of what was to come.

How do I describe “shows” in China?  If you have ever been to one you know that there is no such thing as chill when it comes to stage craft.  As per usual when I am at one of these shows I spent the evening asking myself, “What the actual hell is going on?”   There were supposed to be English subtitles but after the first minute or so of the show there were none.  I am not sure if having them would have helped.

Photo: MaryJo Rawleigh- she has the good camera and the patience to get the shot!

Photo: MaryJo Rawleigh- she has the good camera and the patience to get the shot!

Theater in China

Going to theatrical events in China is a bit different than what you might be used to.  First you have to wrestle your way through the crowd.  This show was sold out so the users were ruthless in getting people to their assigned seats.  Unfortunately, for me that mean an incredible tall Chinese man was sitting in front of me.  The show was outside and we had been given plastic rain ponchos when we presented out tickets despite the fact that there was no sign at all of rain.  Even stranger was the fact that about half the audience put theirs on, hoods up.  It wasn’t super warm so all I can think of is they were trying to get warm. 



What is going on?

What I pieced together:  I think that this was the story of how the singing dunes started singing.  There is a beautiful princess who is being married off to some guy but really wants the lowly trader who saved her in the desert.  Interspersed with all kinds of insanity. One section was, I swear, a romanization of a woman washing a man’s feet. 50 lavishly costumed women were sitting at the feet of 50 costumed men washing their feet in perfect stylized unison.  Then there were the men who were throwing fireworks.  They had there shovels and then they sort of whipped them at the ground and boom, fireworks.  But from the ground.  It was insane.  And now, I imagine safe. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people involved.  There were live camels, horses, a lantern show, several battles, and constantly thwarted true love.

Turn it up to eleven!



But wait! There’s more!  The stands frickin’ rotated. Not little stands.  Huge stands hold probably a thousand people rotated every ten minutes or so to point us at another section of the show.  We ended up turned completely around and inside a building where there were 50 or so aerial silk artists lowered from the ceiling to go their thing.

All the while there was singing happening in Chinese (I assume advancing the story but I can’t be sure) and occasionally bad overdubbed lines of dialogue.  The finally had a lazer show and the optical illusion of sand storms carrying our intrepid couple up to heaven (I presume.)

It was spectacular and I think I want to go again…