The Silk Road Chronicles, Day 3 (part 1)
By 8:30, we were in our black VW Santana 2000 – one of the most popular models in the mainland, roughly corresponding to a Corolla or a Civic in specs. The first stop was the Western Thousand Buddha Caves. Five minutes after leaving the not very big town, we caught our first sight of desert sand dunes off to the left. We drove parallel to them along the two lane highway, past the “Dunhuang Hollywood” studio, a faux castle created for the purpose of shooting movies, forty of which have been created to date. Either side of the road stretched blank expanses of yellow-brown sand and dust, a lovely blue sky uninterrupted overhead. Suddenly, after about half an hour of following the arrow-straight highway into nowhere, we took an abrupt left turn onto the ground by the road, and started driving away from it. Looking out, I could see no discernible road or path that we were following. Rather, at times it seemed as if we were following a set of tire tracks, but at other times it seemed as if there may be several such “trails” on either side of us. We bounced along for a couple of minutes until, up ahead, I saw a car parked by a solitary bush. We pulled up next to it. Jessica said, “Here we are.”
Bemused, excited, wary, I got out of the car. It turned out there was a set of concrete steps built into a cliffside behind the bush, invisible from the approach path. The cliff ran parallel to the road, which is why I hadn’t been able to see it. And off to the left, running along the cliff facing away from the road, I could see a series of caves cut about ten meters up from where the ground lay below. A narrow concrete corridor connecting the cave faces ran along the side of the cliff wall, with banisters to prevent people falling off the opposite side.
We descended the stairs to the level of the corridor that had been visible from above. A locked door separated us from it, and the stairs doubled back going down to the base of the cliff where an artificially manicured garden lay, looking *very* out of place in the middle of the desert. We later learned that a river ran by the far side of the garden, so it wasn’t *that* artificial. An introduction to desert ecology for us. Of course, none of this was visible from road level.
Jessica explained that a closed circuit TV would have recorded our arrival, so we’d now have to wait around for a bit till the caretaker arrived to let us in. It didn’t take long for him to appear, out of the garden, followed by a family of videocam wielding Chinese tourists. He climbed the stairs to corridor level and unlocked a door – not the one that led to the corridor, but another one that led into a little cave room in the cliffside. There he proceeded to sit behind a table and dole out tickets. Cameras aren’t allowed past the door, so I and the Chinese had both to make us of the free onsite locker facilities.
Formalities attended to, we followed the caretaker out of his office and through the now-unlocked door to the caves. There were several cave entrances along the length of the corridor (which curved along the cliffside out of view), but only a few were open for viewing. The first one we stepped into was completely dark inside. However, we had brought a flashlight, which Jessica now switched on to start showing us the paintings on interior walls. My first impression was of many many many little Buddha figures painted all over the walls. The cave wasn’t very big, about ten feet or so across and similarly deep, but there were hundreds of these little figures in unending arrays. I was startled to see that they all had black faces – J explained this as being due to the oxidation of the mineral pigments used. This cave was painted in the Tang dynasty, China’s Golden Age approximately 1400 years ago, yet one can still make out almost all the features on the paintings, discoloration notwithstanding.
Each of the caves we entered featured a couple of large paintings, bigger than lifesize taking up an entire wall, surrounded by tons of other smaller ones. Some of the caves had a big pillar right at the center inside, which afforded even greater surface area to paint on. However, a few of these were sealed off with tape or glass walls, so we could only view from afar. A couple of the others had tiny antechambers, barely large enough for a person to sit in, off to one or both sides – meant for monks to sit and meditate in. One of the caves had the most incredibly serene Buddha painted on the side of a particularly large inside pillar.
Each of the paintings had a background and a story of its own, but Jessica didn’t seem to know very much about them. The caretaker gave her a brochure in Chinese which she read from and interpreted for us. We learned later that grottoes such as this have dedicated specialist guides to themselves. The one we’re at, desolate as it was, didn’t have an English-speaker around that morning, and the Chinese speaker had gone off with the other group that had arrived at the same time as us. He showed up a little later, dressed in of all things army fatigues. Answered a few questions from us. We proceeded down the corridor, ducking into those caves that were open for viewing. After we’d seen the last one, TPB and I walked alone to the very end of the corridor – to the point where there was nothing but cliff to our left and old river valley below. We saw where the river must have flowed back then. It must have *really* overflowed to have come up all the way up here, threatening the caves as it had on occasion. J did say that many people ask why these guys came all the way out here to the middle of desolate nowhere to paint these caves; and the simple answer is that back then it *wasn’t* a wilderness at all.
A little context here. Going from east to west, Dunhuang was the first major oasis town on the Silk Road. Caravans would start from the capital Xi’an (Chang’an), and, going westwards, would first reach Jiayuguan, the westernmost extremity of the Ming Dynasty (approx 14th-15th century). Then, after the first stretch of wilderness, would come Dunhuang. This is where the Taklamakan, the real desert, began (“Taklamakan” in Uyghur means, “he who enters does not return”; Aurel Stein, the legendary early 20th century explorer and archeologist, called the Gobi desert just northeast of here, “an afternoon walk in the park for the ladies”, or words to that effect, in comparison with the Taklamakan). From here caravans would take any one of three major routes, two skirting north and one going south. And before setting off on this life-threatening venture, or alternately, on arrival, deliverance from a deathly journey eastward, they would pause to give thanks. Which is why the area around Dunhuang, and all other major oasis settlements, contained several such divine grottoes.
The most famous of these, the one in best surviving condition, is at Mogao, also near Dunhuang. We were scheduled to head there in the afternoon. But first, from the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, we drove southwest towards the Yangguan Pass – about an hour away.
Yangguan was the furthest frontier of the Chinese Empire during its greatest period, the Tang Dynasty (approx 7th-9th century). As we drove up, we could see the ruins of the beacon tower – now no more than a few storeys high. However, as we neared, the barren landscape suddenly changed to complete greenery. Another oasis. We drove past lush vineyards and took a left off the highway past an incongruous set of newly constructed empty villas that could have been lined up in any Delhi suburb. We pulled up at another reproduction old-timey fort, much like the Dunhuang Hollywood. The Yangguan museum. A product of the 21st century.
This little two-room museum had a model exhibit of the view from a “bacon tower”, and a surprisingly large proportion of its space devoted to horses. The ancient Chinese only had access to their local horses, which were much smaller and slower than horses we know today. These are descended from the horses of Central Asia, which (“heavenly horses”) came to China via the Silk Road. Indeed, the western extension of the Great Wall in these parts is all about horses. Here it’s not the high stone construction that we all know from the pictures of the tourist trap in Beijing. Here, it’s more functional. Built of straw and compressed earth, it barely reaches a couple of meters in height. The reason being that all it needed to do was prevent horses from jumping over. The sweeping invasions of the Xiongnu (Huns) were effective only on horseback. The wall did not have to be too high to neutralize them.
Outside the museum there was a nice big statue of Zhang Qian on horseback.
This legendary warrior is the one credited with first blazing the Silk Road. It’s yet another incredible story. Circa 139 BC, the Han Emperor Wu Di decided that the Xiongnu were getting too much of a pain in the butt to tolerate. However, he wasn’t very confident of beating them by himself, and so he needed allies. The Yuezhi tribe had recently been forced out of northern China all the way west towards modern Uzbekistan. He decided that they must themselves be hungry for revenge and eager to get back to their homeland, and so it would be a good idea to team up with them. So he sent Zhang Qian to try and locate them. No one from China had ever been that far west before.
Zhang was captured by the Xiongnu almost as soon as he set off. However, they didn’t kill him, but instead tried to domesticate him, providing him with creature comforts of every sort. For ten years he stayed with them, even fathering a child during the while. Then, finally, he escaped. Incredibly, he found his way west and located the Yuezhi. Unfortunately for him, they decided that they were happy where they were, the agrarian life suited them well, and, unlike many modern tribes, didn’t feel it worth the while to enter battle for land they had lost long ago. Zhang Qian, rebuffed, turned back. This time he followed what is now known as the southern Silk Road. He finally reached Chang’an more than thirteen years after he’d first left, with only one other member of his original party that was a hundred strong.
Zhang Qian looked a little more heavyset than I had imagined, and his horse was definitely larger than one he’d have ridden on. I think. I walked past his statue and heard music coming from a courtyard that lay through a doorway to the left. TPB had gone to buy water from the only stand in the vicinity, but without waiting for either her or Jessica, I followed my ears. To my surprise, I saw a group of six very pretty young ladies, dressed in flowing white (blouses and bell-bottoms cut in some faux-traditional style) with red sashes and scarves, dancing in unison. The music was being piped through some speakers somewhere. A small group of Chinese tourists was watching them. As I approached, the music stopped; and they stopped and retreated into a wooden hut at the far end of the courtyard. It was all very mysterious. I followed them into the hut and walked into something resembling a set from a play. Off to the left was a set of old-timey costumes: step into one and get your photograph clicked. Dead center was a heavy wooden desk with a long wooden parchment bearing an important-looking inscription. Sit at the desk, pretend to be the local regent, and get your photograph clicked. To the right is a bearded gentleman wearing a coat of armor (in this weather!). On his desk is a selection of stamped papers and passports, ostensibly from 1500 years ago. He will stamp one for you as well. And one of the pretty ladies in white will then present it to you. And you can get your photograph clicked.
Hearing another group of tourists approaching, the ladies ran back front. The music restarted, as did their dancing. I stood in the doorway behind them and shot a video, which ends with TPB and Jessica sidestepping the edge-most white lady and entering my hut.
They looked around, and then we all exited through the back door, through an open yard, and out the back gate (where a faux soldier was checking those passports that had just been issued). To get to the relic of the beacon tower, we had a choice between two sorts of carts: 12-seater electric versus 6-seater donkey. We went with electric, preferring to be able to spend more time at the destination, as did almost everyone (there were about twenty others there, counting the two tour groups). A short ride through the dunes brought us to the fenced-off tower, the only surviving ancient structure in the place. A minute’s walk away was a long viewing gallery that looked out over the Taklamakan, and a minute further on, at the top of a small hill right on the edge of the desert, was one last lookout point. Something in me snapped. I scrambled up towards the old beacon tower then turned, looked back, and giving the viewing gallery a miss, made a beeline for the far lookout point. To my good fortune, everyone else went either to the beacon tower or the viewing gallery, or both. I was alone – alone – at the edge of this endless desert.
SO MUCH history to it.
TWENTY YEARS since I’d first read and dreamt about it.
This REALLY was the middle of nowhere. And I was in it.
TPB landed up a few minutes later, so we had a little breathless time there to ourselves. I’m a placid sort; I don’t remember when last I was so excited. Jessica followed shortly, and then, increasingly, other tourists. Soon almost everyone was there, and the donkey cart lady was inviting us aboard. That’s when we decided to walk back. The weather had turned interesting – looking back towards the old beacon tower it seemed as if it might even be raining in Dunhuang. There was a lovely cool breeze, quite unlike anything I’d have expected from my first view of this legendary desert. Of course, TPB still had her shades and hat on, and within two steps out of the lookout point the wind had whipped the hat off her head and sent it tumbling towards the Taklamakan. “He who enters shall not return,” I thought, as I, camera on alert, followed her chase it. Luckily the hat had got caught on a rock about halfway up the hill to the lookout point – somehow she scrambled up and then down again, despite the state of her legs courtesy the previous day’s exertions at the Big Wild Goose Pagoda, while I recorded the moment for her grandchildren.
All the way on the drive back to town I could not stop marveling about the beauty of the spot. And then, as if to set the seal on it, it actually started raining on us, i.e., on our car. Desert Rain. I woke TPB from yet another of her 25 minute naps so that she could feel the moment as well. After she went back to sleep, after a little struggle with my conscience, I determined that I would listen to Indian Ocean the next time I rousted the poodle out.
Our driver's Chairman Mao charm spun gracefully in time to the rhythm of the desert rain.
The story, long as it is, is just warming up. Yet, Gentle Reader, I must take your leave for a few days now: there is an intercontinental relocation to attend to. If all goes according to plan, I will be able to pick up from where I leave you some time later this week. Wish me luck.
The storyteller makes no choice
Soon you will not hear his voice