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.