August 9, 2015 — Dunhuang, Gansu Province
While I picked away at my yellow donkey-meat noodles, Matt stared into the bowl of steaming beef noodles that had just been placed on the wooden table in the back of the tiny Dunhuang restaurant crowded with musty vegetables and bottles of sauce.
He breathed in.
“These are the thing that finally makes me sick,” he said with a cheerful chuckle, then dug his chopsticks into the tangle.
He was right.
We got up early the next day, planning to go to the Mogao Grottoes. When I asked the hostel desk how to get there, however, they asked if we had reservations. Apparently we’d needed to book slots on an online reservation system some weeks before. Oops.
I told my friends. They were bummed. I said I’d fix it. We’d go out anyway. We’d figure it out.
We arrived at the caves, some 15 kilometers outside of town. I approached the ticket window while my friends leaned against a wall in the shade. Matt was looking a little funny.
I told the attendant we wanted three tickets.
“Do you have a reservation?”
“No, but …”
She cut me off.
“You need a reservation.”
“But my friends…”
“You need a reservation. You can try to join a group tomorrow.”
We had to leave that night. I went to the next window, right next to her. My friends glared at me, skeptical. Same story. This time I got some more words in, though.
“My friends, they’re here from America. They’re really interested in Chinese history. We didn’t know we needed a reservation and we have to leave tonight. They’re really disappointed. Is there anything you can do?”
“No,” she said. “You need a reservation. You can try to join a group tomorrow.”
“But they really like…”
She shook her head.
I went to the third window right next door and started the same story. “My friends … Chinese history … disappointed .. really interested …”. The lady from the first window strolled over.
“Come with me,” she sighed.
We went to a closed window. She sold us three tickets. We were in. Then the food poisoning hit.
Dave and I ate some rice and beef and drank some coffee – after replacing it due to expired, curdled creamers – in the café while Matt struggled with a disease of his own foretelling. After two trips to the bathroom, we walked out to the big line. I told one of the workers we had tickets. They were unmarked for either a time or group, so they just shoved us through the door.
We herded into a massive, planetarium-style theater that explained the history of the Mogao Caves, complete with 3D rendering of many of the place’s most impressive caves.
According to the legend, a monk named Le Zun stumbled into the Gansu desert sometime between 353 and 366 CE. Cresting a dune, he had a vision of a thousand Buddha’s bathed in golden light. That sign inspired him to dig a cave at the site that’s now the Mogao Grottoes.
My friend Aaron Hedge was born in the wrong era in the wrong region. He would’ve been a perfect wandering monk.
Over time, other monks joined Le Zun, and a community began to grow around the caves. By the Tang Dynasty (618-907 CE), more than 1,000 caves had been carved out of the desert walls, those in different areas reflecting the different Buddhas and art styles in fashion during different eras, most of them owned or funded by individual families who bought cave sites as worship sites and to demonstrate their wealth and prestige.
Also during the Tang, Dunhuang became a critical commercial and religious heart in the region. From the 4th until the 14th century, the region buzzed with construction as more and more caves were added to the five-story cliff walls. Scholars believe that at its peak, Mogao was home to more than 1,000 caves, although today only 492 cells have been opened, housing more than 2,000 sculptures and about 45,000 square meters of murals.
When the Silk Road was abandoned during the Ming Dynasty, Dunhuang slowly depopulated and the caves were largely abandoned and forgotten, fading into memory as the desert sands reclaimed them.
By the late 1800s, however, Western explorers began to explore the lost cities of Central Asia and to show archaeological interest in the ancient artifacts that would surface along the old Silk Road. By the turn of the century, a Chinese Taoist named Wang Yuanlu had become something of a self-appointed guardian of the Mogao site and had started to clear some of the caves blocked by the desert’s reclamation. In June of 1900, he unblocked one such cave and discovered a veritable motherlode of Buddhist texts and artifacts – more than 1,100 scrolls and 15,000 paper books, which had been walled off since the 11th century. He later sold them to western archaeologists, among the Aurel Stein, for a trivial sum of money.
Due to a lack of interest from Chinese authorities, many of the artifacts disappeared overseas or were stolen over the next decade. Some of the caves were further damaged in 1921 when they housed Russian loyalist soldiers fleeing the Russian Revolution, then again in 1939 when they housed Kuomingtang. Finally in 1961, the caves were declared a state cultural relics site, then earned UNESCO World Heritage status in the late 1980s. To this day, Mogao is an unfinished archaeological project. Seven hundred and thirty five caves exist today, the earliest dating back to 366 CE.
The film was beautifully made. All three of us fell asleep.
We took the shuttle bus an hour out to the caves. We sat next to a group of old Malaysian men who told us all about the glories of Malaysia, as well as just how impressed they were with the Chinese infrastructure, even in these far-flung towns.
Since we had no numbered tickets, we weren’t attached to any particular tour group, so when we arrived at the cave site, we weren’t sure exactly what to do. We bade goodbye to our Malay friends, then we walked from worker to worker, asking for some help, until someone finally set us up with a guide – a stick-thin, 22-year old college student. We were to be her first English-language tour. Just the three of us.
She took us from cave to cave, telling us the history and legends of each. Tours are somewhat random in that only certain caves are open only some of the time. Each cave was unique in its carvings, paintings, and more. Buddhas, most of them made of mud-covered wood, of varied sizes and colors generally dominated the center of the caves, while around them swirled Asparas, bodhisattvas, and other mythical beasts painted in oxidizing blues and reds and golds. Some caves told stories; some repeated their images in trippy, overlaying fashion. Some caves had crumbled, while others were near-pristine. In one, we looked up over the feet of a Buddha that stood 34.5 meters (113 feet) high. We squinted at others just two centimeters tall.
I was enchanted by all of it. Matt was dripping sweat and starting to sway.
We wrapped up our tour and walked along the outside of the caves, marveling at some of the woodwork which was original to the 6th or 7th centuries in some cases. Matt sat under a tree and tried to curl into himself.
Dave and I strolled the museum, which featured more of the history of the site, as well as some impressive reconstructions of some of the more unique caves which aren’t open to the public. Matt disappeared into the bathroom.
After another hour or so, we queued up under the desert sun to catch a shuttle bus back to the visitor center. The line wasn’t going anywhere fast. Matt had gone white. He swooned, keeping from the concrete only by falling onto Dave’s back.
“Dude, don’t vomit on me,” Dave said.
After a few moments to center himself, Matt stumbled off into the parking lot corner to projectile vomit. Now it was coming out of both ends.
A serious problem began to crystallize: Not only did we have the hour-long bus ride back to the visitor center, we had a 3.5-hour drive over ragged country roads after that. Our night train that would take us to Urumqi in Xinjiang left from a train station 130 kilometers from Dunhuang.
I could see the fear in Matt’s eyes as he eyed the tiny wastebasket in the center aisle of the shuttle bus.
We made it back to the visitor center without Matt having to do something horrible, then back to downtown Dunhuang, where we bought Matt some water and some medicine and left him on some steps outside a shop while Dave and I walked to the bus station to buy tickets to the train station. When we returned, Matt lay sleeping on the steps, while old men glared at him and muttered to each other.
Matt steeled himself for the final leg of the journey. Then, for three hours we bounced around the back of a minivan as it cruised a pockmarked two lane highway past donkey carts and tractors in tiny villages and empty stretches of desert, stopping once at a barren gas station to fill up and watch a crowd of half-naked men pound liquor and slap each other in the gathering twilight. Those hours may have been the longest hours of Matt’s life, but he held it together … or at least in.
It was a bad day to be right about the noodles.