Friday, 20 October 2017

Silk Road: Yangguan Pass and Yumen Pass

We visited the two westernmost frontiers in China during the Western Han Dynasty in Gansu province near Dunhuang. Well, three to four hours' drive from Dunhuang. They were both important points along the Silk Road.

Yangguan Pass was built by Emperor Wu in 120 BC and was considered a military lookout post, while Yumen Pass, also known as Jade Gate, was used during the Han Dynasty where people went through here along the Silk Road to get to Central Asia.

Yumen Pass had a museum that visitors could go through before heading outside to see the actual structure, a giant brick structure that looked like a fortress that you can walk through.

However Yangguan Pass requires a golf cart trip to get to, and then it's surrounded by a fence. Both look like shadows of their former selves... but that's what happens thousands of years later when they fall out of use.

Nevertheless, both are points along the Silk Road that should be visited, though driving to get to both points (north and south) was a slog!

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Silk Road: Dunhuang Celebration

Learning about the story of the Mogao Grottoes through an outdoor show
To extend our Mogao Grottoes experience we got to see a show related to the caves. We didn't quite know what to expect, but then again, what else are you going to do in the evening in Dunhuang?

Our tour guide didn't know the show would be outside, so it did get a bit chilly, but given that an audience of several hundred were packed together, we were able to generate some body heat.

Special effects like these fire-related splashes were a bit much
The stands where the audience sat could move and it turned at right angles around four times to face four different stages. It's described as "luxury live desert theater", but how is it luxurious if you have to brave the natural elements? And the plastic seats aren't very comfortable... are we asking for too much?

The story is about a painter called Mo Ding who works in Dunhuang, painting in the caves. It is highly dubious that he and a princess fall in love, but we suspend our doubts, because there's conflict in that she is betrothed to a warrior leader in order to have peace in the area.

The smitten couple escape and hide for a while, but then the barbarian leader finds her and takes her back -- she apparently later dies of depression! In the end, Mo Ding continues his mission by expressing his love for her on the murals at Dunhuang.

Some of the projections are pretty neat, creating a 3D effect, or at least adding another layer to the production, while other scenes, like in Dunhuang town dancing in the streets and couples standing by windows were irrelevant. There were also some fire special effects used that again were not relevant to the story, but were there to keep the audience interested.

A romantic ending with some 3D projection
The ending was kind of tacky, women dressed in white with the dresses covered in LED lights, while Mo Ding and the princess danced on a huge crescent moon...

Having just been to New York where the performers on Broadway are thrilled to be on stage, the dancers here looked at it as a job, some appeared bored, others managed a smile or two.

The performers stood on or by the stage as the audience left, and a few elderly women pinched some of the young women's cheeks as if to check if they were real or not. Did the performers get this kind of treatment all the time? How bizarre!

It was an entertaining show for the most part, though it's heavily promoted by the government which makes us wonder who gets how much of a cut out of it. Since it's the only show in town, there's pretty much a captive audience every night...

Wednesday, 18 October 2017

Silk Road: Mogao Grottoes

The Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, Gansu province
About 10 years ago when I was in Beijing, I checked out an exhibition that was a replica of the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang.

There are over 400 caves, but only a handful shown publicly
I didn't know anything about them but it sounded fascinating and was so glad I went. Afterwards I was thinking, I have to see the real thing... wherever Dunhuang is!

It took me a decade to finally go see the place in person and it has to be appreciated on so many levels in terms of art, history, and society. It all started in 366AD, when a Buddhist monk named Le Zun was traveling in the area and had a vision of a thousand Buddhas. He built a cave here in hopes of reaching nirvana.

Others soon followed, digging out their own caves and began decorating them with paintings. It's here in these caves or grottoes that one can see not only the artistic skill that spans over 1,000 years, making it a kind of library of art history of that time, but also how Buddhism was depicted and studied.

Some caves reveal intricate artistic detail and vivid colours
Some pilgrims paid artisans to decorate caves for them, and so it must have become a mini industry in the middle of the desert to demonstrate their devotion to Buddha. Apparently there were some 1,000 caves, but when they were abandoned, the desert sands took over them; there are 735 left, of which almost 500 are decorated.

While most of the caves feature three Buddhas -- the present, past and future, along with musicians and dancers that seem weightless in the sky, there were also more down-to-earth portraits of wealthy patrons, such as the Cao family, featuring women in long robes and make-up. Others captured daily life, such as farming and the foods they ate.

Musicians in flowing robes performing for Buddha
We only saw about seven caves and the ones we saw were not all in good condition. Some figures had black faces, but that's because the pink colour had oxidized over the decades and centuries. Some caves had glaringly empty spots where sculptures used to be and had been stolen, or the "eyes" of Buddhist disciples scratched out because they used to have gold on them.

One cave had a giant Buddha lying on his side after death, his disciples mourning in grief, while another had Buddha standing up 75 feet tall.

Black faces are from oxidation of the paint on the walls
A reminder of foreign theft was shown in one cave that had stored 7,000 manuscripts including the Diamond Sutra that was published in 868AD and were gone, now in the British Library. The caves are individually locked with padlocks which our guide has to use a key to open each one and lock afterwards.

We were lucky to come here just before the Golden Week rush, so there wasn't a massive crowd of people, and we came early in the morning too. We wished we could see more, and the prime examples of caves, but alas, our guanxi wasn't good enough.

But just to have the experience of being in these caves and seeing the majesty of the art work was enough to satisfy our curiosity. Will we come back? Not sure, but at least we saw a slice of it.

Some have large statues housed in them with disciples
No wonder artists like Zhang Daqian came here to copy many of the murals, staying here for months at a time. I managed to see some of his works from his time there in August when there was an exhibition in Macau.


Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Silk Road: Singing Sand Mountains

One of the giant sand dunes that make up Singing Sand Mountains
China has a lot of different geographical terrain, and while Gansu province has some lush green areas thanks to land being near the Yellow River, there are other areas that seem very parched to the point of becoming desert.

One such spot along the Silk Road is the Singing or Echoing Sand Mountains about 5km from Dunhuang.

A guide leading a string of camels and tourists
When we reached the site it was literally desert with sand dunes. Some of our fellow travelers came prepared wearing masks -- they were worried about possible sand storms, and the mountains get the name singing or echoing because when the wind blows the sand here, it makes an eerie sound apparently.

But the day we went the weather was perfect -- not too hot -- though a hat helped shade from the sun, and there was a gentle breeze.

The tourist site sold bright orange tall boots to cover people's feet from getting sand in them, but we decided it wasn't necessary. Lots of local tourists were taking camel rides at 100 kuai each, and with each guide leading four to five camels strung together, that was big business, as there was a non-stop stream of camels walking along the sand.

Meanwhile there were others who climbed up a giant sand dune, much like hiking up a snow mountain and then riding a sled down the sand slope. It seemed like a lot of work for about 20 seconds of fun.

Crescent Moon Spring has been here for hundreds of years
The site also has a walkway so tourists won't get sand in their shoes. My aunt and I chose to walk the 1km route and along the way we saw lots of greenery amid the desert, which was man made. The washrooms here were very clean -- they even had soap and toilet paper! When we came out we admired the nearby fruit trees and saw they had fruits on them.

They were small, but too tempting to pass up, so I climbed up a pear tree and managed to pick seven or eight of them! I tried them afterwards and they were quite sweet!

The path we walked along led to Crescent Moon Spring -- it really is that shape and interestingly has never been covered up by the sand. Visitors along the Silk Road would stop here for a drink -- it definitely was not a mirage.

Three of the small pears I picked from the tree!
Today there are gift shops and refreshment stands near Crescent Moon Spring... the modern version of freshening up.

We walked in the sand for a bit, and it was very fine, soft and warm from the heat of the sun. What an interesting experience, seeing sand dunes, camels and picking ripe pears.