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Mogao Caves (Dunhuang Caves)

Dunhuang, China

The caves or grottoes, known as cave of thousand Buddha’s, are located in Dunhuang although the Buddhist art originated in India and has many genres, such as solid carved art on walls, wall paintings, paintings of silk work, calligraphy work, woodblock printing, embroidery, literature, popular entertainment, dance and music. ‘Mogao’ means high up in the desert and construction started in the year 366. It has an amazing 735 caves and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The caves contain the largest collection of Buddhist art of more than a thousand pieces. The biggest among the sculptures is over 100 feet tall.

The public bus from the railway station in Dunhuang goes directly to the caves and is about RMB3. A cab is pricier but faster and more convenient. Tickets have to bought beforehand and guides are included in the price. Independent travel is not possible due to the sensitive nature of the cave environment. A dedicated Chinese website lets you book a month in advance and you can collect those tickets at the downtown or exhibition center booths (though you may purchase on the spot also), on presenting a valid id or passport. Visitors are limited to 6000 daily which runs out quick, especially during peak seasons.
Timings are 09:00 to 17:30 in off-season and 08:00 to 18:00 during high- season. From April-November the tickets are RMB258 for foreign visitors and from December-March they cost RMB160. These include the exhibition center, entry to the caves and shuttle bus between the two as well as interpretation services for global tourists.

For protection of this national treasure, viewing is only allowed with torches, which guides do bring along. You may bring one along as well for better visibility. Do not take your cameras because photography is not allowed inside.

Before you proceed to the caves, you are treated to two movies in an IMAX theater for a little bit of background. These are ‘A thousand years of Mogao caves’ & ‘Splendors of Buddha’s palace’. A shuttle bus then takes tourists to the caves, 15kms away, which are numbered, connected by paths and facing the East side so that the statues of the Buddha and his disciples will clasp the light of the rising sun.

Many fascinate with their large sizes where you can pray all together and the small ones where you can just sit arched over. There are caves with murals that make the visitor freeze in observation. The temples present in the caves are all man-made. The walls were made with a mixture of mud then finished with a smooth paste of lime. However, the dyes used in the paintings were mineral pigments. These works provide an abundance of vivid materials representing various parts of barbaric politics, economics, religion, ethnic relations, and daily dress in western China.

Cave 17 is dubbed the Library cave because within was a huge deposit of manuscripts belonging to the fifth all the way to the eleventh century. These contain an invaluable record of history.

Western Thousand-Buddha Caves

Western Thousand-Buddha Caves are an important part of Dunhuang religious art. According to international publication, Dunhuang Manuscript Records, the West Thousand Buddha cave was discovered earlier than the Dunhuang Mogao grottoes. This area was used as a stop along the Silk Road for travelers and traders. There are 16 caverns (but only ten are allowed to be seen by people because many others collapsed; some of them made in Tang Dynasty while others in Wei Dynasty), almost 34 painted clay statues and over 800 square meters of murals. A Chinese man named Xuanzang, moved by Buddhism, explored abroad and brought more Buddhist culture to China which inspired successive generations to build such grottoes and statues.

The cave is located in the Dunhuang Mogao Grottoes, about 35 km away from Dunhuang City, excavated in the cliffs on the riverbank. The entry ticket per person is under RMB40 while, free of cost for kids under 4.6 feet. The timings for the site are 08:30 to 17:30 during May – October and from November to April; 09:00 to 17:00. Tickets stop selling half an hour before closing time. To get to the Thousand Buddha caves, take a western line bus in front of Dunhuang Hotel on Mingshan Road. The fare of the bus is under RMB86. But since the attraction site is present inside the city, it is also convenient to hire a car or get a cab which will take 2 hours from downtown place.

The caves are numbered inside. Most remarkable murals are located in cave 15, which is not open to the casual visitors without payment of an additional fee. Objects inside this cave have suffered from a lot of damage such as destruction done by humans while others were ruined by natural sources like floods and storms, yet they still managed to keep them secure and intact.

Inside these caverns are the world’s most finest Buddhist art which includes some amazing fresco art work to describe the Buddhist culture and their stories: Dunhuang hunting fresco picture (showing traditional nomadic lifestyle with two hunters riding on horses), Prince Xu Dana fresco (giving an overview of the noble prince’s story; a king and a white elephant with six long ivories) and Zhang Yichao’s journey fresco painting of great historical value (an important large fresco with numerous troops and lively scenes describing the journey of Zhang Yichao).

Cave 4 has some enormous sculptures of Buddhas while the stunning blue colored muscular Bodhisattvas of the Northern Wei in cave 5 and Northern Zhou in cave 6 are in sharp contrast to the rest. In cave 7 is a vivid life-like painting of a famous God “Apsaras” known for singing and dancing. The rest of the place outside the cave is covered by lush greenery and a few willow trees that provides shade and cool air under the scorching summer sun in the Gobi Desert. This all takes about 2 hours max. Take an afternoon departure to witness a glorious sun setting in the desert.

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