black city 01

As wind whips the sand dunes across the Gobi Desert, the once illustrious Khara-Khoto or “Black City” is slowly being buried by sand. According to local rumour, it is inhabited only by ghosts and demons. Yet it wasn’t always a place of desolation and death. The city was founded by the Tangut people in 1032 as the capital of their Western Xia Dynasty (1038–1227) and soon rose to become a thriving trade hub. The fortified city was captured by Genghis Khan in 1226 but, far from being lost, it actually thrived under Mongol rule. During the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), it expanded to three times its original size and was even visited by the intrepid explorer Marco Polo, who referred to it by its Tangut name of Etzina. The Tangut people, though subservient to the Mongolians, were able to enjoy a life of peace for a further 150 years under their rule.

However, as the Yuan Dynasty began to collapse, disaster loomed on the horizon. After a crushing defeat at Jiayu Pass in Gansu province, the Mongolians were driven out of China by the armies of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). Many of the Mongolian troops made it to Khara-Khoto and were able to settle there, as the Ming army chose to concentrate on returning order to the provinces of China rather than pursue them. While the Ming Dynasty consolidated its power in China, the Mongolian armies waited on the outskirts and greedily eyed the possibility of conquering the country again. By 1372, Mongolian troops had begun massing at Khara-Khoto with the eventual aim of reinvading China. It was this bold move that would seal their fate.

black city 03No one knows exactly how Khara-Khoto fell, but local legend states that Ming troops laid siege to the city in that same year. The city was so well-fortified that they were unable to take it by military force, so instead resorted to far more cunning tactics! They found a way to divert the nearby Ejin or “Black” River, which was the city’s only water source. By denying it this precious lifeblood, the Ming troops choked the city without ever needing to set foot inside of its walls. As their gardens and wells began to dry up, the people of Khara-Khoto realised that they must make a terrible choice: die of thirst, or face the Ming soldiers in combat.

A Mongol military general named Khara Bator supposedly became so crazed by this plight that he murdered his wife and children before committed suicide, although another version of the rumour states that he made a breach in the northwestern corner of the city wall and escaped through it. Upon either his demise or his escape, the remaining Mongolian soldiers tried to hold out within the fortress. When the Ming armies finally attacked, they slaughtered the soldiers like cattle. Thereafter, the city was permanently abandoned and fell to ruin. It would be another 600 years before someone would finally uncover this ancient metropolis from beneath the dusty sand.

When Russian explorers Grigory Potanin and Vladimir Obruchev heard rumours that an ancient city lay somewhere downstream along the Ejin River, it sparked the interest of the Asiatic Museum (now the Institute of Oriental Studies) in St. Petersburg. In 1907, they promptly launched a new Mongol-Sichuan expedition under the command of Pyotr Kuzmich Kozlov. Within a year, Kozlov had discovered the Khara-Khoto ruins and obtained permission to dig in the site from a local Torghut lord named Dashi Beile, in exchange for a free dinner and a gramophone!

balck city 02During his initial excavation, he uncovered over 2,000 books, scrolls, and manuscripts in the forgotten Tangut language, including a Chinese-Tangut dictionary titled Pearl in the Palm. These treasures were sent back to St. Petersburg, along with Buddhist statues, texts, and woodcuts that were found in a stupa¹ outside of the city walls. Over time, further excavations would produce thousands more manuscripts, daily items, and works of religious art, and the site would even be visited by famous archaeologists such as Aurel Stein and Langdon Warner. While these precious relics have all been carefully housed in museums across the globe, Khara-Khoto remains open for any visitor daring enough to wander its haunted ruins.

Nowadays all that is left of this venerable city are the 9-metre (30 ft.) high ramparts, the 4-metre (12 ft.) thick outer walls, a 12-metre (39 ft.) high pagoda shaped like an upturned bowl, an assortment of crumbling mud houses, and the remnants of what appears to be a mosque on the outskirts of the city walls. With the Ejin River largely dried up and the sand dunes constantly moving on the wind, navigating the desert surrounding the city is treacherous and must be done with extreme care. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can pitch a tent and stay overnight. Only then might you witness the fuel-less flames that burn for hours, the balls of light dancing in the desolate dark, and the sounds of raucous banging from unknown sources as the ghosts of Khara-Khoto welcome you to their humble home!


Stupa: A hemispherical structure with a small interior designed for storing Buddhist relics and for private meditation.

The Maijishan Grottoes


The drooping cypresses, wild flowers, and verdant grasses that surround the Maiji Mountains are a nature lover’s paradise, rich with inviting sights and fragrances. Yet break through the forest or look up through the trees and you’ll be met with the most awe-inspiring sight of all, a 16-metre (52 ft.) tall statue of Buddha that is over four times the size of a fully grown African elephant! This is just a small portion of the Maijishan Grottoes, a complex of 194 caves that have been cut directly into the cliff-face and filled with over 7,200 Buddhist sculptures and 1,000 square metres (10,700 sq. ft.) of intricate murals. They are considered one of the Four Grand Groups of Grottoes, standing alongside the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang, the Yungang Caves in Datong, and the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang.

The mountain itself sits at an altitude of 1,700 metres (5,577 ft.) and is named “Maiji”, meaning “wheat”, “corn”, or “grain stack”, due to its unusual appearance. It is tall in the middle, narrow at the bottom, and completely flat on the top, meaning it resembles a stack of wheat. So be careful when you take photographs of this scenic spot, or they might come out a little grainy! The caves are separated by number, with numbers 1 to 50 on the western cliff-face and numbers 51-191 on the eastern cliff-face.

The sudden surge in popularity enjoyed by Buddhist grottoes started sometime during the Later Qin Dynasty (384-417), when Buddhism began making its way from India to China via the Silk Road. It gradually travelled through Gansu province thanks to the support of the Northern Liang Dynasty (397–460) and it was around about this time that construction of the Maijishan Grottoes began. Sometime between 420 and 422, a monk named Tanhong settled at Maijishan and began building a small monastic community there. He was swiftly joined by another monk named Xuangao, who brought 100 followers to the mountain, and eventually this community grew to be over 300 strong.

The grottoes’ unique location resulted in a strange mixture of artistic styles, as they rest near to the East-West route that connected Xi’an with Lanzhou and Dunhuang. This route eventually led as far south as India, and so their position at this pivotal crossroads resulted in the sculptors being heavily influenced by Indian and Southeast Asia styles of art. Although the earliest artistic influences came from Central Asia, sculptures from around about the 6th century have a much more southern India and Asian appearance. As the caves were renovated and repaired during the Song (960-1279) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties, the sculptures took on far more central and eastern Chinese-style features.

Construction of the grottoes reached its peak during the Northern Wei (386-535), Western Wei (535–557), and Northern Zhou (557-581) dynasties, but continued well into the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, representing over 1,000 years’ worth of effort and artistry. The earlier caves are far more simplistic in design and mainly feature a seated Buddha flanked by bodhisattvas[1] and other attendants. The most commonly used Buddha in these sculptures is known as Amitābha, the principal Buddha of the Pure Land branch of Buddhism.

He is well-known for his ability to enable his followers to be reborn into his heaven, known as the “Pure Land”, where they worship diligently until they are made into bodhisattvas and Buddhas in their own right. This school of Buddhism was hugely popular during the Western Wei Dynasty, hence why such emphasis was placed upon it in Buddhist grottoes at the time. After all, who could resist the opportunity to become worshipped as a demi-god?

The bodhisattvas who usually accompany Amitābha are Avalokitesvara on his right and Mahasthamaprapta on his left. Avalokitesvara is the most identifiable, as he is typically depicted with an image of Amitābha on his headdress and a small water flask in his hands. In a few more hundred years, Avalokitesvara will change genders and eventually reappear in the grottoes as the bodhisattva of mercy, known as Guanyin. That being said, when it comes to eternal enlightenment, it doesn’t really matter if you’re a man or a woman! Other statues include those of the historical Shakyamuni[2] Buddha and Maitreya[3], the Buddha of the Future.

Nearly all of the sculptures are made from a mixture of clay and some sort of binding agent, which has helped to preserve them. There are a few stone sculptures dotted throughout the complex that are made of sandstone, but bizarrely not the kind that is indigenous to the mountain. Instead, this sandstone is of unknown origin and to this day no one knows how these statues were made or how they were hauled up into the caves. Perhaps it was an act of God, or Buddha!


[1] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[2] Shakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

[3] Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.


Maijishan Grottoes is one of the many wonderful stops on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China

Shuanglin Temple

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Just 6 kilometres (4 mi) southwest of Pingyao Ancient Town, nestled deep within the countryside of Shanxi, the small village of Qiaotou hosts one of the most magnificent Buddhist temples in China. The Shuanglin Temple, which is included under Pingyao as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is noted not only for its venerable age but for the more than 2,000 painted statues that decorate its halls.

This vast collection, made by moulding clay over wooden frames, has earned the temple the nickname “The Museum of Coloured Sculptures”. They are not purely works of religious art, but instead are imbued with human features and attributes to symbolise the unification of the spiritual and the physical, or rather the connection between deities and human beings.

Unfortunately the lack of historical documents has meant that researchers currently do not know exactly when the temple was first built. However, the oldest stone tablet within the complex indicates that it was rebuilt in 571 AD during the Northern Qi Dynasty (550-577) and two huge locust trees, planted during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), attest to this ancient origin. It’s estimated that the temple itself is over 1,400 years old, although it underwent large scale restoration throughout the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties and much of its surviving architecture reflects those styles. Bear in mind, when you’re 1,400 years old, you need a little extra help to keep looking good!

Shuanglin Temple 03It was originally called Zhongdu Temple but was renamed Shuanglin during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). The term “shuang” means “two” or “double” while “lin” means “woods”, and together the name refers to one of Sakyamuni’s[1] sutras[2] in which he states that “nirvana is between two trees”. Unfortunately he never specified which two trees they were!

The many sculptures littered throughout the temple were carved between the 12th and 19th centuries. Their height varies from 30 centimetres (1 ft.) right up to nearly 4 metres (13 ft.) and the vast majority are of Buddha or various bodhisattvas[3], but a few are warrior guards, heavenly generals, and even common people. Their colourful backdrops are resplendent with mountains, rivers, clouds, flowers, and dense forests.

The complex is surrounded by a high wall with a gate, giving it the appearance of a fortress. Buddhism may be a peaceful religion, but it still has to protect itself! The inner temple consists of three main sections: the ten main halls in the centre; the sutra library and monks’ living quarters in the east; and a courtyard to the west.

In the Hall of the Heavenly Kings, a sculpture of the deity Maitreya sits at the centre, while the Four Heavenly Kings rest in the north. They are all 3 metres (10 ft.) in height and each one carries an implement of symbolic importance. The first has a pipa[4], which symbolises earth; the second has a sword, which represents gold; the third has a snake, which signifies wind; and the final one holds an umbrella, which unsurprisingly denotes water. Together these instruments are meant to bless the worshipper with good weather, abundant crops, and subsequent wealth. After all, who would pray for a bunch of snakes and umbrellas?

The Arhat Hall is home to a large sculpture of Guanyin, the Buddhist deity of mercy, flanked by eighteen sculptures of arhats[5]. The face and aspect of each arhat is different; one is drunk, one is sick, some are fat, and some are thin. They are all designed to show off the artisans’ particular skill at carving and among them the mute arhat is considered the most magnificent.

His facial expression is heavily exaggerated, with pursed lips, a deeply furrowed brow, and piercing eyes, and his chest and belly are distended, as if to suggest he is struggling to breathe. His expression, coupled with his posture, implies that he has seen much injustice in the world but, as a mute, can only communicate his frustration through his body language.

In the Thousand-Buddha Hall, there is another statue of Guanyin with her right leg bent and her left leg placed delicately on a lotus leaf. A wonderful sculpture of Skanda, the celestial guardian devoted to protecting Buddhist monasteries, is at her side. The 500 statues and paintings within this hall are often studied to help recreate traditional outfits of the Ming Dynasty.

Yet another statue of Guanyin takes centre-stage in the Bodhisattva Hall, but this time in the style of the Thousand-Armed Guanyin. Remember she’s the deity of mercy, not modesty! The statue does not literally have a thousand arms, but the many clawed hands that surround this figure are both strangely attractive and intimidating. It’s bad enough being tickled by just two hands, but imagine how it would feel with twenty!

[1] Sakyamuni: One of the titles of Gautama Buddha, the central figure and founder of the Buddhist faith. It is derived from the place named Sakya, which is where he was born.

[2] Sutra: One of the sermons of the historical Buddha.

[3] Bodhisattva: The term literally means “one whose goal is awakening”. It refers to a person who seeks enlightenment and is thus on the path to becoming a Buddha. It can be applied to anyone, from a newly inducted Buddhist to a veteran or “celestial” bodhisattva who has achieved supernatural powers through their training.

[4] Pipa: A four-stringed plucking instrument that has a pear-shaped wooden body and anywhere from 12 to 26 frets. It is sometimes referred to as the Chinese lute.

[5] Arhat: A “perfected person” who has achieved enlightenment by following the teachings of Buddha.

Join our travel to visit the Shuanglin Temple in Shanxi: Explore Chinese Culture through the Ages

Qinqiang Opera

Qinqiang opera is widely considered to be the forefather of all styles of Chinese opera. In ancient times, it was originally just called Qin opera and nowadays it is also known as Luantan opera, meaning “random pluck” or “strumming” opera. The name “Qin” derives from the fact that Qinqiang opera dates all the way back to the Qin Dynasty (221-206 B.C.) and its heritage stretches back over 2,500 years, making it one of the oldest forms of opera in China. This style of opera first originated from the folk songs of Shaanxi province and Gansu province, and eventually made its way to Beijing, where it heavily influenced the incredibly popular Peking opera.

As a style, it was refined during the Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 220 A.D.), flourished during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), and was officially acknowledged as a style of opera by the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). It went through a secondary period of refinement and maturation during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) and, by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it had spread throughout China. During the reign of Emperor Qianlong (1736-1795), there were over 36 Qinqiang troupes in the city of Xi’an alone. Supposedly Qinqiang opera started in the fields and farms of the northwestern provinces, when locals would shout to one another from across the fields. Eventually these locals developed a system of shouted songs to communicate with one another and this is where Qinqiang derives its distinctive “shouted out” style of singing. Thanks to this unusual singing style, Qinqiang opera is considered one of the “ten strange wonders of Shaanxi province”.

Qinqiang Opera 02Along with this shouted style of singing, Qinqiang opera also incorporates bangzi[1] melodies. These are one of China’s Four Great Characteristic Melodies and Qinqiang is one of the most significant styles of Bangzi opera around today. The opera will usually be accompanied by several instruments, the most important of which is the banhu[2]. The banhu is either strummed or plucked, which is what earned this style of opera the name Luantan or “Random Pluck” opera. The characteristic arias of Qinqiang opera are deep, loud, piercing and bold, with singing of an impressively high pitch. There are two main types of arias in this style of opera: huanyin (joyous tunes) and kunyin (sad tunes). Though the huanyin are magnificent, the kunyin are widely considered to be the most hauntingly beautiful.

Qinqiang was one of the earliest forms of opera to focus on the expression of human emotion. Its use of exaggerated, stylised movements and facial expressions to imply actions, emotions, and events has been replicated in numerous other successive styles of opera. Most Qinqiang operas depict stories of ancient wars of resistance against foreign invaders, battles between good and evil, and the struggle against feudal oppression. They were designed to reflect the honesty, bravery and diligence of the common people of Northwest China.

There are 13 character types in Qinqiang opera. These include four kinds of sheng or male characters, six kinds of dan or female characters, two kinds of jing or painted face characters, and one kind of chou or clown character. There are four major genres of Qinqiang opera, and this is predominantly due to the different dialects and folk music in the areas in which they were developed. Qinqiang is not just about the singing; it is a complete performance art and incorporates dancing, acrobatics and martial arts into every performance. Perhaps the most famous characteristic of Qinqiang is its style of fire-breathing, which has been copied in other successive styles of opera. Watching a performer in traditional dress breathe fire across the stage is a truly enthralling spectacle. The “hat dance” is another unique performance skill of Qinqiang opera, where performers will make a hat or object appear to dance on their head. Originally there were upwards of 10,000 Qinqiang works that were widely popular throughout China, of which only 4,700 remain. The Ghost’s Hate, Down the East River (下河东), The Golden Qilin or The Golden Unicorn (金麒麟), and The Port of Jiujiang (九江口) are just a handful of examples.

Unfortunately, since the 1980s the declining popularity of Chinese opera means that the tradition of Qinqiang opera has gradually started to disappear. However, many opera performers, opera enthusiasts, and government officials are committed to the preservation of this fine cultural art. In 2006 it was listed as a National Intangible World Heritage by the Chinese government and since then measures, such as government stipends for Qinqiang opera troupes and free tuition for anyone choosing to train in Qinqiang opera, have helped bolster the prevalence and popularity of this style of opera. There is now even a Qinqiang Opera Museum in Lanzhou, Gansu.

[1] Bangzi: A Chinese woodblock percussion instrument. Traditionally, two bangzi were used to keep the main tune during an opera, like a primitive form of metronome. Now the term bangzi or bangziqiang is widely used to refer to a type of melody used in Chinese opera.

[2] Banhu: A Chinese bowed stringed instrument. The soundbox is traditionally made from a coconut shell and the rest is made from wood. They have two strings.


The Yungang Grottoes

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At the southern foot of the Wuzhou Mountains, deep within the Shi Li River Valley, the Yungang Grottoes stretch for over a kilometre and are etched indelibly into the rock-face. Just 16 kilometres west of Datong City, this group of 53 caves, 252 grottoes, and over 51,000 statues and statuettes have inspired visitors from all religious backgrounds for centuries.

They were carved sometime between 453 and 525 AD, during the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD), and are categorised as one of the “Four Grand Groups of Grottoes” in China. The grottoes combine features from traditional Chinese art with those from foreign art styles, such as Greek and Indian, while the statues themselves range in height from 2 centimetres (0.7 in.) to 17 metres (56 ft.). So if you thought you were short, imagine being a thimble-sized statue next to one the size of an oak tree!

Yungang Grottoes04Unsurprisingly the grottoes were listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site in 2001 and are currently divided into three major groups open to the public: the east section (caves 1-4); the central section (caves 5-13); and the west section (caves 14-53). Cave No. 6 is the largest, with a height of about 20 metres (65 ft.), but it is Cave No. 5 that contains the exemplary 17-metre-tall statue of Buddha. Unfortunately, over a period of more than 1,500 years, many of the statues have been damaged by war, pollution, and natural disasters, so parts of the complex are periodically shut down for maintenance. After all, at the grand old age of 1,500, they certainly deserve a little face lift every now and then!

The construction of the grottoes can be split into three time periods: the Early Period (460-465 AD); the Middle Period (c. 471-494); and the Late Period (494-525). Those constructed in the Early Period are considered the most magnificent and contain the five main caves masterminded by the revered monk Tan Yao (caves 16-20). These particular caves are between 13 to 15 metres in height and are generally U-shaped with an arched roof, imitating the thatched sheds that were prolific in ancient India. Each cave has a door and a window, while the main part of the cave is taken up with the central statue and the walls are bedecked with carvings of thousands of smaller Buddhist statuettes. Just imagine all of those tiny eyes staring down at you!

Throughout the Middle Period, the artistic style became more traditionally Chinese and the caves themselves reflect the hall arrangement that was popularised during the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD). By the Late Period, the caves and statues had become much smaller in size and simpler in style, giving them a certain stately elegance. Perhaps they’d come to the realisation that, when it comes to spiritual enlightenment, size doesn’t matter!

The history of the Yungang Grottoes is inextricably tied with that of the Northern Wei Dynasty. After the fall of the Jin Dynasty (265-420), a Turkic nomadic tribe known as the Tuoba clan took control of northern China and established their own dynasty. With the exception of Emperor Taiwu, the Tuoba clan were devout Buddhists, predominantly for political reasons as the religion helped them maintain control of their territory. Sometime between 398 and 494, Emperor Xiaowen established Pingcheng (modern-day Datong) as their capital and it would remain this way until 523, when Pingcheng would be abandoned due to warfare.

Yungang Grottoes03Originally the emperor only commissioned five caves, to be built by Tan Yao and to depict the first five Wei emperors in Buddhist forms or as Buddha. These are now known as caves number 16 to 20 and were completed in 465 AD. From 471 to 494 the second phase of construction began and it is thought that caves 5 through 13 were built during this time. All of these grottoes were built under imperial patronage, but that unfortunately ended when the Wei court abandoned Pingcheng and moved their capital to Luoyang. In short, like water in the surrounding sands, the money dried up! All of the caves built after 494 are thought to have been financed privately, which may explain why they’re so small!

During the Liao Dynasty (907-1125), wooden structures were built in front of the grottoes in an attempt to shield them from weather damage and incorporate them into temples. These were known as the Ten Famous Temples but were tragically destroyed due to warfare in 1122. The stunning wooden temples that can be found in front of caves 5, 6, and 7 were built for a similar purpose during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) but appear to have survived intact. From the 1950s onwards, numerous restorations and preservation projects have been implemented to protect the grottoes from further damage.


The Yungang Grottoes is one of the many wonderful stops on our Cultural Tour in Shanxi.


The Mogao Caves

In the extreme northwest of Gansu province lie the cliffs of Mogao, forming the eastern edge of Mount Mingsha and rising over the Dachuan River just 25 kilometres (15.5 mi) southeast of Dunhuang. The 492 caves dotted across the cliff-face were each hand-carved and were used to store some of the greatest Buddhist art in history, including over 2,000 painted sculptures, thousands of murals, and all manner of beautiful relics.

This colossal achievement began sometime during the 4th century and ended roughly in the 14th century. Unsurprisingly it was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987 and now remains one of the most popular attractions in Gansu. After all, when you’ve put one thousand years-worth of effort into something, you’d expect it to at least get noticed!

The cave complex is separated into two sections: the northern caves, which functioned as living quarters, meditation chambers, and burial sites for the monks, and are artistically quite plain; and the southern ones, which were used for pilgrimage and are far more decorative. Like the good cups and saucers, the best paintings and sculptures were wheeled out only for visitors!

The history behind these caves begins, rather unexpectedly, with failure! During the Han Dynasty (206 BC–220 AD), an envoy named Zhang Qian was sent on an expedition to the ancient country of Bactria, but this venture proved unsuccessful. In a panic, the Han court built long sections of garrisoned walls along the northern frontier and, as a result, the city of Dunhuang was established as a military post in 117 BC. Rulers vied for control over this stretch of land since it contained the Hexi Corridor, which was an integral part of the ancient Silk Road and thus an invaluable asset at the time. Just imagine owning shares in Microsoft, and you’re on the right track!

mogao caves 02Frequent conflicts meant that Dunhuang would regularly be cut off from the imperial court for long periods at a time, and this enabled the city to become far more cosmopolitan. Merchants, scholars, and monks from across Asia would settle in the city, propagating anything from Buddhism and Nestorianism to Persian rugs and Egyptian cotton! Separated from the state as it was, this meant that the building of the Mogao Caves could begin in 366 AD, even though the imperial court didn’t acknowledge Buddhism as a religion until 444.

According to an ancient book known as the Fokan Ji by Li Junxiu, a monk named Le Zun started carving out the caves after he had a vision of one thousand Buddhas bathed in golden light. This is why the Mogao Caves are occasionally referred to as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas. As more monks travelled to join Le Zun, the site swiftly flourished, although it initially served only as a place of meditation for monks and didn’t become a place of worship for the public until the Sui Dynasty (581-618). It reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty (618-907), when evidence suggests there were well over 1,000 caves. So it seems Le Zun’s vision was right, give or take a few caves!

Each cave was elaborately painted and served a purpose, whether it be to aid meditation, provide a visual representation of enlightenment, or simply to serve as a teaching tool for those who were unaware of Buddhist scripture. Yet interestingly not all of the caves are religious, as several of them depict secular themes such as pivotal moments in Central Asian history.

The complex boasts a great variety of painting styles, with the earlier caves showing more of a Western influence and those built during the Tang Dynasty onwards incorporating an amalgamation of Chinese and Central Asian styles known as the Dunhuang style. Some of the most decorated caves have paintings all over the walls and ceilings. It’s hard enough just painting a single room one colour, so imagine trying to cover it with beautiful murals!

In terms of the sculptures, the most famous are two giant statues of Maitreya Buddha[1], one towering in at nearly 36 metres (118 ft.) and the other a respectable 27 metres (88.5 ft.). The former was constructed in 695 and has had to be repaired multiple times, meaning only the head retains its original appearance. The latter was completed in 741 and is in far better condition, with only the right hand having been replaced.

mogao caves 03Towards the end of the Tang Dynasty, the site gradually declined and construction of new caves had ceased entirely by the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368). As Islam slowly conquered much of Central Asia and the Silk Road was superseded by sea-routes, the popularity of Dunhuang and Buddhism plummeted. During the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the city was steadily abandoned and the Mogao Caves were all but forgotten. The 20th century saw renewed interest in the site, where it became popular once again as a place of worship.

By this time, many of the caves had been blocked by sand and a Taoist monk named Wang Yuan-lu set about uncovering them. In 1900 he made perhaps one of the most significant discoveries of the 20th century; a walled-up cave containing 45,000 manuscripts! This vast ancient library housed 1,100 bundles of scrolls and over 15,000 paper books, ranging in topic from Buddhist scriptures to historical records. Unfortunately Wang opted to sell numbers of these manuscripts to foreign archaeologists such as Aurel Stein and his reputation suffered greatly as he was condemned for the loss of these artefacts.

The cave originally functioned as a memorial for a resident monk named Hongbian and served as his personal retreat during his lifetime. The documents in the cave range in date from 406 to 1002 and were found alongside other Buddhist paraphernalia such as figurines, textiles, and banners. It appears to have been sealed sometime during the 11th century, although historians are not exactly sure why. Some believe it was simply a repository for preserving documents, while others suggest that it was closed up to protect the contents from an incoming invasion. Perhaps, even in death, Hongbian was just a little tired of people constantly walking in and out of his private hideaway!

While the majority of manuscripts are in Chinese, several are in various other languages including Tibetan, Uyghur, Sanskrit, and even Hebrew. The grandest discovery came in the form of the Diamond Sutra, which dates back to 868 AD and is the earliest printed book in existence. The insight these works have given into the history of Central Asia is invaluable and the illustrious heritage of the site echoes throughout its many caves.

[1] Maitreya: In the Buddhist tradition, Maitreya is a bodhisattva who will appear on Earth sometime in the future and achieve complete enlightenment. He will be the successor to the present Buddha, Gautama Buddha, and is thus regarded as a sort of future Buddha.

Mogao Grottoes is one of the many wonderful stops on our travel: Explore the Silk Road in China

Eight Outlying Temples

The Eight Outlying Temples are part of the Chengde Mountain Resort but rest outside of its walls. They were designed by the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912) emperors to help keep the peace and appease people from the numerous resident ethnic minorities. In order to achieve this aim, the architects incorporated features from several styles, including those of the Han, Mongolian, Manchu, Man, and Tibetan ethnic groups. The name rather misleadingly suggests that there are only 8 temples, but there are in fact 12. The term “Eight Outlying Temples” comes from the fact that they were under eight different administrations. Many of them are over 200 years old and contain thousands of the most elaborate and stunning Buddhist statues in the country.

The most well-known is the Putuo Zongcheng Temple, which was built during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor (1735-1796) and was modelled after Potala Palace in Lhasa. Its Golden Pavilion, heavily inlaid with golden decorations, was where the emperor regularly worshipped. Xumi Fushou Temple was similarly inspired by Tashilhunpo Monastery in Tibet and was constructed to make the Panchen Lama[1] feel comfortable during his stay in 1780. You know you’re important when a whole temple is built just for your summer visit!

Pule Temple or Temple of Universal Joy was designed primarily by Tibetan advisors and bizarrely the rear of the temple is an almost exact copy of the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests in the Temple of Heaven. Finally the Puning Temple or Temple of Universal Peace, which was built in 1755, contains the world’s largest wooden statue of the Buddhist goddess Guanyin, resplendent with her 42 outstretched arms and towering in at a height of 22 metres (73 ft.). The statue is so huge that you can even climb to the third-storey of the temple and look her straight in the eyes. Just don’t try to give her a high-five!

[1] The Panchen Lama: The highest ranking lama after the Dalai Lama according to Tibetan Buddhism.

The Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves

Hidden deep within the Mutou Valley of the Flaming Mountains, the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves mark the beginnings of Buddhism in China. Though they have suffered great damage over the years, the name “Bezeklik”, which in the Uyghur language means “a place with paintings” or “a beautifully decorated place”, gives us some idea of their former glory.

The Buddhist grottos within the complex were constructed from the Southern and Northern Dynasties Period (420-589) right through to the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368), meaning the scope of art styles is incredibly diverse. Although it is essentially a religious place, many of the paintings depict images of aristocrats who made donations to support the site’s development. After all, even in ancient times people still wanted to get their moneys worth!

They are located about 45 kilometres (28 mi) east of Turpan and approximately 15 kilometres (9 mi) north of the Gaochang Ruins. Since the ancient city of Gaochang was one of the major trading hubs along the Silk Road, it would have also been one of the first places where Buddhism arrived in China and thus it witnessed the earliest development of Buddhist cave art in the country. Many of the grottos within the Bezeklik Caves were commissioned by members of the Gaochang Kingdom, who ruled over the area during the 6th century, but the vast majority of the surviving grottos date back to between the 10th and 13th centuries, when the area was ruled by the Uyghurs. Thus the art within the caves is not only a mixture of styles, but also features people of multiple ethnicities.

When Islam swept through Central Asia during the 15th and 16th centuries, much of Xinjiang’s population converted and the Bezeklik Caves were completely abandoned. During the ensuing religious clashes, many of the murals within the caves were destroyed. Since Muslims believe that images of sentient beings are blasphemous, the figures in several of the paintings have noticeably had their eyes scratched out or their faces obscured. This means some of the scenes within the caves now resemble a set from a horror movie!

Further damage was caused when local farmers broke off parts of the earthen walls and the murals to use as fertiliser. So remember, if you happen to sample any of the locally grown vegetables in the area, they might be sacred! Towards the beginning of the 20th century, foreign explorers rediscovered the caves but unfortunately stole many of the murals and sent them to their home countries. In particular, some of the most beautiful and best preserved murals were forcibly removed by explorer Albert von Le Coq and sent to Germany, where they were permanently fixed to the walls of the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin.

This meant that, during the Second World War, they could not be removed and were subsequently destroyed when Berlin was bombed by the Allies. Though this loss was undoubtedly tragic, nowadays many of the remaining murals are safely kept in museums around the world, including the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, Tokyo National Museum in Japan, and the British Museum in London.

Today the site is separated into 77 numbered grottos, of which only 40 still contain their original murals. What makes these murals so unique is that they feature images of people from multiple ethnicities living, working, and socialising together. Chinese, Indians, Turks, Mongolians, Uyghurs, and even Europeans grace the walls of these magnificent caves, providing evidence that Gaochang was once one of the first multi-ethnic cities in the world. The inscriptions that accompany the paintings are written not only in Chinese, but also in the ancient Uyghur language and several other languages, which has given historians an invaluable insight into the interactions between these peoples.

The murals within Caves Number 16 and 17 are often regarded as the most exceptional. In Cave No. 16, there is a painting of a musician playing an ancient instrument known as a xiao hulei. This instrument greatly resembled a lute and originated from Yunnan province in south China, which implies that northern and southern China had far more contact during the Tang Dynasty (618-907) than was previously believed.

The mural in Cave No. 17 is widely considered to be a depiction of the Manichaen version of Hell. Manichaeism was a major ancient religion that originated from Iran and was once the main rival of Christianity. Although the religion is now extinct, the artwork in this cave suggests that it was once popular in the Turpan region between the 9th and 12th centuries. Aside from the murals, another highlight of the area is its characteristically alien landscape. The huge sand-dunes, rust-coloured mountains, and deep canyons all give the caves’ surroundings an undeniably exotic flair.


Bai’s Agriculture and Craftwork

Xizhou Bai ethnic

Most Bai villages are situated along the Yunnan-Guizhou Plateau and are crisscrossed by the Lancang, Nujiang, and Jinsha rivers. These river valleys, lush forests, and vast plains are not only beautiful but incredibly fertile, providing the Bai people with an abundance of crops and fruits. The mild climate and rich soil, particularly around the area near Lake Erhai, means they yield crops twice a year, making life for the Bai like an all-you-can-eat buffet! They mainly farm a mixture of staple foods and cash crops such as rice, wheat, beans, cotton, sugarcane, and tobacco.

Mount Cangshan, which rises up mistily near the expanse of Lake Erhai, also contains rich deposits of the famous Dali marble, which is treasured both as a building and crafting material. Its pure white exterior, with beautiful red, pale blue, green, and milky yellow veins running through it, is what makes it so unique and peerless compared to other types of marble. The Bai, being astute businesspeople, have long since made the most of these valuable resources!

bai agricultureBeing an agriculture society, the Bai’s culture still revolves around local markets known as jie. Many Bai villages are self-sufficient, since they grow most of their own food, so these bazaars are designed to provide them with products that they don’t regularly purchase, such as farming equipment or items used for weddings, funerals, and other special occasions. In the Erhai region there is a bazaar every day in a different location so, if you want to see the hustle and bustle of a traditional market, just take a long walk along the lake’s shore!

Bai cuisine is characterised by the use of sharp, cold, and spicy flavours, occasionally using a sour tang to complement a dish. From ham and sausage to smoked pig liver and intestines, pork is central to their diet and their love of it is palpable in every Bai dish. Those who live near a lake or river will also have a lot of fish in their diet and they are renowned for their skill at cooking fish in a variety of ways. Bai women are known for their skill at making delicious sauces, such as bean sauce, lobster sauce, and flour sauce. You could almost say their women are a little saucy!

Like many people in China, the Bai are great tea lovers and will drink tea twice a day, every day. Morning tea, also known as “awakening tea”, is drunk as soon as they wake up. In the afternoon they will enjoy what is known as “relaxing tea” or “thirst quenching tea”, which some people will add milk or popcorn to depending on preference. They have become famous for a custom known as the Three Courses of Tea ceremony, where three types of tea are served in succession to symbolise the course of life.

Bai women in Yunnan are incredibly skilled at batik but, unlike many ethnic minorities, they have continued to use the bandhnu method. This method involves tying, twisting, knotting, pinching, or even stitching the material into the desired patterns, which are usually floral. The material is then dipped into a vat full of indigo dye and left for a certain amount of time. The binding process hinders the dye from reaching parts of the fabric and, if the binding is tight enough, may prevent it entirely.

Bai batik01Once the material has been allowed to dry, it is released and, while the unbound parts of the material have been dyed a deep blue, the bound parts reveal a pattern as they have remained their original white. This tying and dying process can be repeated several times to create more complex designs. The patterns achieved are more natural than the other styles of batik but less exact, and the natural dye is gentler on the skin and less likely to fade. They are also accomplished at lacquer work and have been renowned for their lacquer wares since the Yuan (1271-1368) and Ming (1368-1644) dynasties.