At the point where Dunhuang stops being an oasis and starts being desert you’ll find the Caves of Magao. More than four hundred have been dug into the rock. Inside are carefully carved and painted Buddhist icons. Some statues are massive and reach to the sky, or they would if they weren’t in a cave. But I also want to offer a special mention of the reclining or otherwise sleepy looking Buddhas. We’re pretty enthusiastic about religions whose central figures are eager to nap.
When we visited the crowds were so large they cancelled the English language tour. So we dutifully followed from one cave to the next. The Mandarin commentary was only punctuated with occasional ooos and ahhhs from the hordes of domestic tourists. The caves deserved all the gushing they got.
The craftsmanship is superb and represents the influences of Persian, Indian and Chinese artisans who all came to work at this important silk road site. The caves were commissioned by merchants looking to buy merit, and a better afterlife as a result.
After Islam swept the silk road corridor the caves were mostly abandoned. When a British-Hungarian explorer named Aurel Stein arrived in 1907 he found just one caretaker monk living in the complex. Here comes the Indiana Jones part. The monk showed the Stein a false wall in one of the caves. Behind it thirteen thousand documents were hidden. Most were Buddhist Sutras, but the collection included representations from other religions too. They were written in a wide range of languages many of which were dead by the time the texts were discovered. The collection is a reminder of the diversity that was tolerated, and flourished, between the communities who traveled this silk road.
With cash and trickery (he pretended what he took was destined for a monastic library in India) Stein took away the most valuable of the documents. Other European explorers followed suit and extracted almost all the documents, and a fair amount of the artwork. . The documents that were removed offered an extraordinary amount of insight on the workings of the silk road route and the societies that surrounded it. The museum at the Dunhuang site offers thinly veiled resentment of this pillaging of Chinese treasures, however.