The tarred road, straight and smooth as a treadmill, runs us towards civilisation. All around us, the flat nothingness is punctuated only by the skeletal frames of electricity pylons, stretching into the distance like children holding skipping ropes. We pass ghost-town service stations with toilets waiting for a hundred people and empty supermarkets stocked with perfectly aligned drinks, noodles and vacuum-packed chicken feet. And then Dunhuang — or Shazhou, as Marco Polo knew it — comes into view.
The Kumtag Desert dunes rise above it like a tidal wave, seemingly ready to snatch the town back at any moment. It was a sight merchants would have both feared and fallen on their knees in thanks for because Dunhuang was the last watering hole before the Taklamakan Desert. It was also where the Silk Road split into northern and southern routes, so it became a cultural crossroads and key supply base for caravans setting out for the tough trek across the unforgiving dunes.
One site traders would’ve almost certainly visited are the Mogao Caves — a total of 492, hand-hewn into a cliff face because a Buddhist monk by the name of Lè Zūn had a vision of 1,000 Buddhas bathed in golden light at the site in AD 366. The interior walls were painted with lavish murals and the niches filled with statues of Buddha and his bodhisattvas. Merchants would pass by to pray for protection from the warring nomads and bands of murderous thieves that lurked on the path. However, in the 14th century, Silk Road trade was ditched in favour of sea routes, Dunhuang was abandoned and knowledge of the caves faded from memory.
Five hundred years later, on 26 May 1900, a Taoist priest named Wang Yuanlu — a self-appointed caretaker of the grottoes — was sweeping sand from the corridor of Cave 16 when some of the wall crumbled away revealing the meditation cave of ninth-century Buddhist monk Hong Bian. Peeking through the crack, he discovered around 50,000 scrolls and silk paintings, including the Diamond Sutra — the world’s oldest surviving dated printed book. All well preserved due to the dark, dry conditions. Known as the Library Cave, ‘the cache revealed a multicultural world which had barely been suspected. Besides a mass of Chinese prayers were documents in Sanskrit, Tibetan, Uighur, Sogdian. A [collection] of chance intimacies. There was a prayer to alleviate menstrual pains; even a funeral address for a dead donkey,’ writes Colin Thubron in his travelogue Shadow of the Silk Road.
Anglo-Hungarian archaeologist Aurel Stein, who was excavating in China at the time, heard rumours of the caves’ treasures and, upon entering with Wang, wrote of what he saw: “heaped up in layers…there appeared in the dim light of the priest’s little lamp a solid mass of manuscript bundles rising to a height of nearly ten feet.” He coaxed Wang into selling 13,000 of them for £130. Teams from France, Japan and Russia all rushed to scoop up a portion of the library for themselves and, as a result, China lost the lion’s share of the manuscripts. Perhaps the most unscrupulous was Harvard professor Langdon Warner. He burnt off a number of murals using a chemical solution and took them back for the university’s historical collections, along with a statue of an attendant bodhisattva.
I walk along an avenue of silvery poplar trees. To my left, the caves look akin to a row of prison blocks: squat square doorframes, each numbered, and set into the smoothed pebbledash concrete. But as I dip my head to enter, a kaleidoscopic dreamworld of dragons, phoenixes and petal-scattering flying apsaras (angels) unfolds. The hands of our guide, Song Shi, make shadow puppets on the wall as she gestures in front of the torchlight.
In Cave 96 sits the hulking mass of a seven-storey Buddha. The third-tallest in the world, all I can see is the hem of his robes decorated with snarling dragons and azure lotus flowers. His long toenails at the right height for scratching the top of my head. I crane back my neck to stare at his ruby lips. They’re pursed sternly, refusing to tell me the whispered secrets of travellers before me.
Travel tip: A decade ago you could’ve visited all the caves, but today just 40 are open to the public and each guide is allotted a selection of eight. However, if you visit in winter tickets are half price and you can visit 12 grottoes.