My phone rings; it’s Brian, the foreign affairs rep at my school.
“The Gansu Bureau of Foreign Experts has invited you to join them next weekend for a trip to see Mogao Grottos, Crescent Moon Spring, and Yuan Guan Pass-”
“YES YES YES YES YES YES YES!”
“ok, ok. calm down. I’ll send an email with more details later. Have a nice day”
And with that, ladies and gentlemen, this FOREIGN EXPERT got himself a trip to Dunhuang!!
Dunhuang is located in the far north-west corner of Gansu province. It is part of the old Silk Road that originated some 2,000 years ago, and is more or less the final stop in a Han-majority China before the merchants would head further west into Xinjiang (Which today is part of China), thread through Central Asia, Iran, and Turkey, eventually reaching Rome. Dunhuang grew fabulously wealthy through the centuries but after the era of sea exploration 500 years ago, the Silk Road and its camels fell out of use and the city laid in a dusty, sandy slumber.
Thursday afternoon I showed up at the train station to meet the other foreign experts. In total there were 21 teachers from 8 nations (and four Chinese counterparts from the Bureau). Most teach English but a few teach Russian, Arabic, and Physics. It was a good mix of rowdy extroverts and some more contemplative individuals, and the age range was 24 to early 70s maybe – which just goes to show that living abroad and following your dreams can and should be a reality for anyone, at ANY point in life!
We hopped on an overnight train, and 12 hours later arrived in Dunhuang early morning. After a quick shower and breakfast at the hotel, we went straight to Mogao Caves.
The Mogao Caves were first carved by Buddhist monks in the 4th century AD. For the next thousand years, local rulers, wealthy patrons, and the Chinese emperors donated enormous sums of money to construct hundreds of grottoes, wall paintings, and massive statues throughout the Mogao Caves.
The murals are brightly painted (some using the deep blue lapis lazuli pigment brought from Afghanistan, which was worth more than gold by weight!) and tell stories of Buddha, his teachings, and also the secular lives and interests of wealthy Chinese through the centuries. No photos were allowed inside, so I grabbed the next few pictures from various museum websites:
By the end of the Yuan dynasty in the mid 14th century, Islam had spread throughout all of the Middle East and Central Asian; the power of Buddhism waned in this region, and the caves were abandoned. This also coincides with the rise of sea-trade, which wiped out the need for the old Silk Road.
THE LIBRARY CAVE
As the tour progressed, a fierce rivalry developed among the Gansu Foreign Experts who hailed from former imperialist / colonialist powers. The Sri Lankan, Egyptian and Filipinos in our group were spared from this misery (historically, their nations were busy protecting their own statues from being hacked headless by explorers) but the rest of us were in a race to see whose country desecrated Mogao Grottoes the LEAST.
The story goes like this: in 1900 The lowly Taoist monk Wang Yuanlu discovered a hidden chamber (the Library Cave) in Mogao Grotto that was sealed off for 1,000 years holding some 50,000 scrolls (written in Chinese, Tibetan, Uighur, Sanskrit, etc) As news spread , Europeans raced to Dunhuang and the fame-whoring Wang Yuanlu was more than happy to part with tens of thousands of ancient texts for next to nothing in return. He is now burning in the 18th layer of eternal Taoist hell with the weight of 1.3 billion Chinese forever cursing his name for his stupidity and betrayal.
The culprits who looted Mogao, in chronological order:
British (1907): Sir Marc Stein, 20,000 scrolls
French (1908): Paul Pelliot, 10,000 scrolls
Japanese (1911): Otani Kozui, 400 scrolls
Russian (1914): Sergei Oldenburg, 200 scrolls
American (1924): Langdon Warner – not satisfied with scrolls, STOLE A LIFESIZE STATUE of out of the best preserved grotto, and then CARVED OUT A PIECE OF A FUCKING MURAL to take back to the states.
The Russians foreign experts were amused by Mr. Wagner’s actions
Nikolai: that is SUCH an American thing to do
They glanced at me and smiled. I needed a safe space from all the humiliation.
“Guys don’t look at me, I’m from Mexico!”
CRESCENT MOON SPRING
The next day we head to Crescent Moon Spring, an oasis in the middle of the desert that served as a haven for parched merchants and their camels back in the Silk Road era. Our tour guide Lily tells us we can ride a camel for 100 RMB. Everyone cheers. The Canadian is ecstatic. But the lone Egyptian, Mustafa, looks upset. He rolls his eyes and protests; he’s rode/ raised/ kissed a thousand camels in his lifetime.
“Can I ride an elephant instead?!?!”
Lily sensed his disappointment and made a counteroffer.
“if you want, you can fly in a helicopter, for 500 RMB”
500 RMB for a helicopter ride!! That’s ten days of living stipend in the Peace Corps; it’s certainly out of reach for most PCVs. Fortunately, I have some money saved up from my previous private sector job, where I was paid to read Vox and HuffingtonPost: Black Voices work nonstop doing very important things for very important people… Anyway, fuck it: when else in life will I get the chance to ride a helicopter over the Gobi Desert???
“500 RMB? I’M IN!”
An American couple also shells out 500 RMB per person and the three of us pile into the helicopter.
For a short ten minutes we soar above the sand dunes- it was an incredible experience, to see camels as little specks of dark brown against a sea of golden sand.
Not satisfied with just a helicopter ride, I pay another 100 RMB and hop on a camel to trek through the desert for the next hour.
I get off and walk the final stretch to Crescent Moon Spring. It is beautiful. In early December there are no hoards of tourists here in Dunhuang.
The wild grass is golden brown in early December; another treat for coming off-season!
DUNHUANG CULTURE SOCIETY
Later we make a stop at the Dunhuang Culture Society. It’s another museum with relics from the past, but the highlight is an exact 1:1 Replica of one of the best preserved caves in Mogao (Cave 328). We walked into a small room that is shaped just like a grotto, with a meticulously painted vaulted ceiling and wall murals throughout.
There were duplicates of all the statues, including – dear god – what I suspect to be the missing Attendant Bodhisattva that Langdon Warner stole, which is now sitting in a museum at Harvard. I knew what was coming…
Marilou: Americans!! PHOTO PHOTO!
Vita: David should take a photo too!
David (from the UK, with heavy British accent): I’ll pose for you in a room filled with 20,000 scrolls, but we never laid a finger on the sculptures!
We had a banquet at night with local government officials to celebrate the work that Foreign Experts contributed to Gansu this past year. The meal was delicious- and there were images of animals carved on some orange vegetable (pumpkin shell?) to help identify what we were eating. Lots of toasts going around and we are drinking some wonderful Mogao red wine.
But there is no free lunch (dinner) in China. We won’t be paying for the banquet in RMB; the currency of choice for Chinese officials is human dignity. We will be “entertaining” the vice mayor and other bureaucrats with a skit, a song, or a dance. Brett and Olga (American and Russian, but speak far more advanced Mandarin than I do) naturally chose the skit. The burnt out Canadian guy is going to sing. And I opted for a dance with the three Filipino women. We do several toasts and soon it’s our turn to dance…
So now I’m up here on stage with sunglasses and a scarf, with three women in their 50s… Billy Ray Cyrus’s Achy Breaky Heart is playing, and I’ve had two glasses of wine in the past five minutes… We spent the 45 seconds doing our tightly choreographed routine. Then the ladies clear out; it’s just me. We all agreed I would have the next 60 seconds to myself.
I’m trying to remember all these steps from my modern dance class which I haven’t attended in two months. I jump around, spin, do some salsa, do some ballet-ish moves, do some things from the 2001 Britney “Slave 4 U” video…
…I’m starting to sweat and after what feels like eternity the three women finally step forward, dance a bit more, and we hold hands and bow. It was a mess. But we were all drunk and had a good time and laughed off the whole thing, and our sponsors were thoroughly entertained
YUAN GUAN PASS
Our final morning we took a bus out for an hour or so, to Yuang Guan Pass. All that is left there today is the ruins of a Han-dynasty watch tower. 1,700 years ago, these towers guarded the edge of China and fires were lit from tower to tower, to communicate messages across the border
Bret and I gave our best Vogue pose
In the Tang Dynasty the most famous poet Wang Wei wrote a poem “Seeing off Yaun-Er on a Mission to Anxi” describing Yaun Gaun Pass:
The morning rain of Weicheng dampens the light dust,
The guest house is green with the colour of fresh willows.
Let’s finish another cup of wine, my dear sir,
Out west past the Yangguan, old friends there’ll be none.
There is desert and barren land as far as the eye could see, until you reach what looks like an impenetrable wall of mountains in the far distance. Standing there, I could hear nothing but the howling wind. And I couldn’t help but imagine how terrifying it must have been to ride into the unknown, some 1,500 years ago.