In late September and early October, 2009, I joined my colleague from the Port Arthur Historic Site Management Authority, Maria Stacey, for a journey to China, to attend and present a paper at a UNESCO-sponsored conference on managing tourism at cultural and natural heritage sites.
Our CEO, Stephen Large, had been scheduled to attend, but circumstances conspired to prevent him travelling. A week before she was to depart, I was sitting at home on a Sunday afternoon when I received a call from Maria, asking if I would accompany her on the trip. After carefully considering the offer for about 0.2 of a second, my considered response was ‘hell, yeah’!
The next week was a blur of preparations, as I booked flights, obtained a visa and we completed the presentation we were to give. The following Sunday morning, we departed Hobart for a stop-over in Hong Kong, where I had arranged with Vivian Chow, Tourism Tasmania’s representative in that city, for us to meet a number of leading travel agents and promote Port Arthur to the growing Hong Kong and Chinese travel markets.
The Mogao Grottoes
The Mogao Grottoes and the nearby but relatively little-visited Yulin Grottoes (about 2 hours’ drive away) sit in the Gobi Desert at a major crossroads of the ancient Silk Route from China to the west, just outside the city of Dunhuang in Gansu Province, western China.
There are more than 700 caves at the Mogao site. They were cut into the valley walls by Buddhist monks between the fourth and fourteenth centuries. Some were used as accommodation, meditation rooms and even tombs. More than 400 of the caves were decorated with intricate wall paintings and sculptures depicting a range of Buddhist iconography. Each cave was commissioned by a wealthy patron, to increase their stocks in their next life.
Artistic influences, and also the extraordinary cache of texts found at the beginning of the twentieth century in the so-called ‘Library Cave’, are testament to the range of cultural influences at work at Mogao, and also at Yulin. Han Chinese styles collide with Indian, Tibetan and central Asian styles, as well as those from as far as the Middle East, Egypt and the Mediterranean.
That the caves have survived the tumults of history, particularly China’s Cultural Revolution, is an extraordinary part of the story of the sites in its own right. The Dunhuang Academy manages the sites and interestingly adopts a similarly cosmopolitan approach in achieving worlds best practise management. They have long worked with the cream of international experts to develop management plans and ensure that the caves survive into the future. In particular, the Getty Conservation Institute and the Australian Government have played significant roles in this process.
While the Mogao Grottoes have remained relatively unknown for a long time, that is about to change. The Chinese Government is positioning the site as one of the ‘big four’ world-heritage attractions in China, alongside the Great Wall, Forbidden City and Terracotta Warriors at Xian. The airport has been extended, a new railway line and station brings visitors close to the site and there is much evidence of development in Dunhuang, including a large international hotel about to open in the centre of town.
The Academy is preparing for the onslaught with detailed preparations for the construction of a large new visitor centre capable of handling 6,000 visitors per day. Guides are available speaking Chinese as well as six other languages. It’s off the beaten track, but well worth the effort to visit this amazing site.