17/01/17 – Of Dirt Caves and Sand Dunes

The beacons are lit! Gondor calls for aid! – And Mogao will answer!

Holy crap, what a week. I’m not quite sure how we did it, but Francesca and I are now in Sichuan after nonstop night trains from Dunhuang to Chengdu. Of course, there were hotels in between, but none we stayed at long enough to do more than rest our heads before we headed somewhere else. I’m not going to try to summarize all of that in a single entry, so instead I’ll start back in Dunhuang.

But first that 3D model of the stupa from Bezeklik that I promised:

The original:
The model – I’ll be uploading videos of these as soon as I upgrade.

Dunhuang, while as old as the Tang Dynasty, is a city that’s really only famous nowadays for two things: first, its fields of colossal sand dunes, and second, its proximity to the Mogao Grottoes.

Mogao was one of, if not the most important Buddhist cave sites on the Silk Road between the 5th – 10th centuries, essentially acting as the hub between Rome and Chang’an as both refuge from, and the end of, the treacherous Taklamakan Desert and insurmountable Shanshan Mountains. It was inhabited by both merchants and monks and patronized by Chinese elites for nearly six centuries, and because of its location between the Muslim and Chinese worlds it wasn’t subject to the same extreme vandalism that Bezeklik was during the early 20th century. New constructions are thought to have ceased following the Mongol conquest of China, but Ming and Qing Emperors continuously commissioned the restorations and reconstructions of monuments up until the 18th century.

Mogao Caves, the tourist section – most of the plaster on the front is modern and thanks to UNESCO. It’s a bit of an eyesore but it prevents consistent rockslides which destroyed the grotto exteriors every 100-200 years.

Mogao became known to the West from the travels of Aurel Stein, a Hungarian Great Game Explorer commissioned by Britain to map the final pieces of the world map in Central Asia. He came across Mogao in 1905 and discovered thousands of Buddhist manuscripts in a cave, most of which were the Lotus Sutra, which he then took back to London where they now rest in the British Library. He returned to China four times to collect even more manuscripts, but on the fourth government officials confiscated his stolen treasures and banned him from entering China for life. Thus, in China, Aurel Stein has a negative legacy and is often why Westerners have trouble attaining permits from Chinese authorities along the Silk Road without proper connections to Chinese institutions. Francesca, thankfully, is one of the few foreign archaeologists who has that capability.

After arriving from Turfan early that morning (although poor Erin’s train operators forgot to get her off the train so she met us around noon at our hotel), we took the opportunity to visit the Mogao Research Center near the caves to ask for permission to visit the off-limits part of the caves. We got a stern warning from the administrator that if it wasn’t for Francesca’s association with Peking University (known in China as Bei-da) and to a much lesser extent mine with the University of Toronto (who knew we were so big worldwide!?) that we wouldn’t have got in, but we got the paperwork signed and headed to the northern caves.

Apparently so few people go past the gate into those caves that we had a party of researchers come with us, some of which had worked at the Mogao Research Center but never gone to the northern caves.

Northern Residential Quarters – it’s a 1000 year old neighborhood with more holes than holiness.

Our goal was to see how monasteries formed over time in cave-temple complexes beyond the usual enormous votive spaces; i.e., how monks actually lived in these places. What you see here is essentially an ancient neighborhood, constructed over 1000 years and consisting of sleeping quarters, kitchens, rooms for meditation, and a lot of rock slides. Because Mogao was constructed in dirt, not solid rock, rockslides were common, and monks would even rebuild their grottos from the debris.

Here’s a bit of what we saw:

You’d like to think they had a system of ladders in place…
There were some religious installations but not many up here.
3D image of this cave forthcoming.

The next day we did the physical tour of Mogao. The archaeologists at the Mogao Research Center have begun to group the grottoes into physical shapes over a period of time, and these come out a lot in the more votive grottoes, i.e. the ones with the big religious constructions. Now, I regret to say that anyone who goes to Mogao is likely going to get their camera confiscated if they take it in the complex and get it burned if they dare to take photos in the caves, but for some reason I got away with the first step of severity and got a few photos outside the caves.

There’s a 35 meter Maitreya image underneath this half-pagoda, but it’s so big and so far back in the cave that even with a camera it wouldn’t do it justice.
Not all the art is off-limits, especially if the façade of a cave collapsed 200 years ago.
The cave entrance on the far-right is the one Aurel Stein picked up his manuscripts from Abbot Wang, who despite helping one of the most notorious enemies to China in history is enshrined and commemorated here…odd logic…

The residential caves give a good idea of the similarities in form of these constructions, and below you can see a set of plaster casts from the museum at Mogao of the various shapes the monks/patrons had their caves carved:

Most of these models are actually representations of ones from the northern quarters…the one in the middle is the best preserved in all of Mogao and required monks to be about 5’2″ to enter comfortably.

We met up with Zhao Laoshi, a friend of Francesca’s and a former Peking University grad/current Mogao researcher, to see a few more caves that were off-limits to all but the most connected scholar after we said goodbye to Erin who had to run back to Nanning to invigilate an exam. It was sad to see her go, but she might be dropping by Phnom Penh on my way to Siem Reap to fill a few days in her long Spring Festival break.

The Northern Wei Trifecta will return…*Batman logo spin*

Zhao Laoshi and her team are working on pinpointing the painting of various Buddhist scenes within each caves (working on the Jataka tales, past lives of the Buddha, at the moment), which helps move Chinese scholarship forward in the way it knows best: using art-history to tell real history. That somewhat ties into our spatial analysis due to a desire to understand how people viewed these monuments and constructed them in relation to one another, so we had fun discussing (or Francesca and Zhao Laoshi talking and me getting to nod along and look at images all over the ceilings with a flashlight) how to move research along. I think Francesca made a lifelong connection – I just looked like a doofus with my jaw on the floor at how beautiful the images were that I was seeing.

One tip for Mogao: go to the museum across the river, because they have really good reconstructions of a number of the religious caves (you get to see maximum twelve on each guided tour), because all of the grottos are kept in the dark 24/7 to help keep them preserved. Also, the ticket office is nearly five miles from the grottoes, and they make you watch a hokey 50 minute video before they drive you up. We, thankfully, wiggled out of that.

Now, while the grottoes are my second area of research, and I love them to death, the sand dunes in Dunhuang take “cool” to a new level. Erin and I hiked up to the dunes after our first day at Mogao and caught a sweet sunset over 200-300m high sand dunes. These are beyond anything I’d ever seen (considering the first and only sand dunes I’d seen to that point were a small set in western Rajasthan) and climbing them, although exhausting, is so rewarding.

The snow creates a really eerie vibe here and makes them less like dunes and more like ice-capped mountains.


The spot I filmed the video for my friends’ engagement party – see below.



I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who doesn’t enjoy a good sand dune ridge.


Our hotel also happened to overlook the dune sea, so I got some great shots of the snowy dunes while I was eating breakfast.


Dunes at dawn.



It was like looking at a cappuccino while drinking a cappuccino.


I was also able to record a quick message to two of my oldest friends, Matt Mckerroll and Natalie Uborceva, who just happened to marry each other. Now, I’ll upload that one on the next blog because I have to upgrade my WordPress account, but one thing I’ll say is that trying to congratulate someone for their engagement part on top of a sand dune in minus 11 Celsius weather better count as a solid engagement present.

And, of course, we ran down the dune to end the day…


Our tracks are the ones that somehow look like a stomach.


Next entry: a few sites in transit, a little bit about the food in Western China, and a pretty compelling argument about why Francesca Monteith is unarguably the world’s best tourguide.


I can’t imagine being a trader 1000 years ago getting from Chang’an to Mogao, looking over those mountains in awe, and saying to myself: “awww shit, that‘s what I have to cross to get to Gaocheng? Screw this, I’m building myself a hole and becoming a monk.”




Andrew Harris

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