It was in 1907 that the British archaeologist, Sir Aurel Stein reached the remote Silk Road oasis town of Dunhuang, in western China. He had journeyed across the desert for a glimpse of the "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas", ancient Buddhist temples carved into the desert cliffs and filled with splendid wall-paintings and statues. In those days, the primary skills needed by such a traveller were patience, cunning, and persuasion - especially when, like Sir Aurel, one's aim was to walk away with a cache of 1,000-year-old manuscripts, part of a remarkable collection discovered a few years earlier in a secret chamber by a local Taoist priest.
A modern-day tourist intent on peering into Cave 17, the grotto where Wang Yuanlu found the mountain of precious scrolls, needs rather different attributes - a wide-beam torch, and a firm pair of elbows. The wall-paintings of Dunhuang are one of the more remarkable sights on China's tourist trail, but visiting them during the summer season is rather like joining in some Chinese plot to claim a new world record for the number of people who can fit into a Buddhist temple cave at one time. It is bad karma all round as a German package tour tries to exit through a narrow cave door just as a Chinese travel group is being led in by a guide.
Around 130,000 tourists a year descend on Dunhuang and almost all come in the summer. Regular flights to the local airport have put the caves on the tourist map for short-stay Western visitors, and the town is also on the Silk Road route taken by backpackers. But it is the booming domestic tourist market which accounts for most of the tour groups. Your elbows are employed in fending off homegrown Chinese tourists, who now have the money and the freedom to explore their own country.
China has never forgiven the West for raiding Dunhuang (in Chinese, the Mogao caves) and running off with the manuscripts and even some of the wall-paintings (although it is arguable that in doing so they were saved from the subsequent ravages of White Russians, muslims, and Red Guards), and has enforced strict visiting regulations at Dunhuang. Only around 30 of the nearly 500 grottos are available for inspection. Tourists must join organised groups led by a guide, who very often speaks only Chinese. There is a morning shift and a short afternoon shift, and the pressure on space is exacerbated by the two and a half hour lunch-break when all the caves are locked again.
The thrill of discovery is thus somewhat muted as rival groups edge each other aside for the best vantage points inside the unlit caves. This is production-line tourism - understandable, perhaps, because of the need to protect what is left, but irritating nevertheless. The Dunhuang grottos are in the middle of nowhere, about 12 miles out of Dunhuang town, surrounded by desertified and deserted lands. If "atmosphere" is important to you, you might do better to visit in winter.
The paintings themselves - from the early Western Wei remains (535-556AD) to the Song frescoes (960-1279AD) - make the visit rewarding, though in places the results of decades of vandalism can be as breathtaking as the art. Religious intolerance has gouged the faces of the Buddhas, while the least sophisticated plunderers simply scraped off any gold paint within reach. Sir Aurel's contemporaries left neat rectangular gaps where they had lifted off whole images and Cave 17 is long empty, with the manuscripts themselves mostly in London and Paris.
But more than enough remains to justify a detour to this corner of Gansu province, especially for anyone who has read Peter Hopkirk's Foreign Devils on the Silk Road, the story of Sir Aurel and his rival archeological treasure-seekers. Sir Aurel, of course, had no need for elbows. In those days, when one could only reach Dunhuang on horseback or astride a camel, strong haunches were what mattered. Teresa Poole
Dunhuang can be reached by train, via Beijing or Almaty in Kazakhstan. Contact the China Travel Service (0171-836 9911).Reuse content