Mogao Grottos and the Dunhuang Academy

Thursday 24 September, 2009 – Mogao Grottos and Dunhuang, Western China

Dunhuang Town Gate, outside my hotel room
Dunhuang Town Gate, outside my hotel room

At breakfast we met with Kirsty Altenburg and Leanne Burrows from the Federal environment department (Australia) who were here organising the workshop at Mogao. Sharon Sullivan had become ill so was staying in her room. We were (apparently) to join these two and the rest of the workshop crew on the minibus to the Academy (25km from the city) at 8.00 and were told not to be late, so we had a very rushed breakfast.

Food prep for our Hotel happening in a back lane, visible from my room
Food prep for our Hotel happening in a back lane, visible from my room

On returning to our rooms we found our keys did not work (mine broke while trying to insert it into the lock), so I raced to reception and made a fuss while they a) charged me 20 Yuan for the broken key card and b) replaced or reprogrammed the wretched keys. Raced back upstairs (we were on level 8 of the furthest wing of the hotel from reception!) to discover that they still did not work. Back to reception I shouted until one of the staff agreed to come with me.

A variety of local transport is apparent on the streets of Dunhuang
A variety of local transport is apparent on the streets of Dunhuang

Eventually we got our keys working but with no time we just grabbed what we needed and raced down to catch the bus. This later turned out to be not what Liu Chen wanted us to do – he came to pick us up after we had left on the bus. Ah, well.

Grottoes and sand dunes at Mogao
Grottoes and sand dunes at Mogao

We were welcomed by Wong Xiadong, Deputy Director of the Academy, then introduced to the Reservations staff. We had a quick demo of their online reservations system – quite straightforward, but apparently best able to deal with group bookings rather than individuals.

Li Chen and Maria, Mogao
Liu Chen and Maria, Mogao

Then Liu Chen took us on a tour of the Mogao grottoes, including the must-see Library cave and two giant buddha caves, including one of the biggest reclining buddhas in the world. The ‘erect’ Buddha (if that’s the correct antonym for a reclining Buddha) is apparently the third tallest in the world, at about 35 metres. Its cave is fronted by an impressive Nine Tiered Pagoda. This forms the backdrop to many official events and functions at the site, such as the concert which the reception staff were required to devise and perform just a day or so before our arrival, and which Sharon and Kirsty sat through, gushing all the way.

Maria and me in front of the Nine Tiered Pagoda at Mogao
Maria and me in front of the Nine Tiered Pagoda at Mogao

I failed on this first tour of the caves to note precisely which ones we visited – an oversight I corrected on subsequent tours during the week.

After the tour we were taken back to the Reception HQ for a big lunch hosted by Li Ping, head of the Reception Department, who has also been to Port Arthur (actually, she was there with some other senior managers during my very first week at PAHSMA).

Stupas, Mogao
Stupas, Mogao

The lunch was – of course – extraordinary. Course followed course, with dish after dish, and none of it anything like the standard ‘Chinese’ we are often dished up in Australia. Tomatoes were an unexpected feature, including a delicious clear tomato broth which, until I tasted it, I would have sworn was chicken soup. There wasn’t a bottle of soy sauce in sight, and rice only emerged towards the end. My friend, foodie and chef Paul Cullen’s words about how at a Chinese banquet to eat the rice is to insult the host, implying that there was insufficient food served, rang in my ears.

There was a great deal of toasting with a local sweet wine, a sort of desert sauternes which we sipped sparingly. Toast followed toast, with formal greetings and responses (in my response I apologised for being so clumsy and making such a mess at table while using chopsticks), then the staff started coming around the table one by one wishing us a pleasant stay, long life and prosperity (at least I think that’s what they were wishing us).

Each time, one had to take a sip. ‘Gambe’ was the toast, meaning something like ‘drink up’, and one was meant to down the contents of one’s glass; we made apologetic noises and took sips, lest we end up asleep on our first afternoon.

After lunch, we were taken to the reception room in which Wong Xiadong had welcomed us – all seats around the edge of the room, a very common feature, and Liu Chen said he’d be back in half an hour after we had rested. The rest was welcome, but after an hour and a quarter we were getting a bit bored so headed out to find any familiar face, or go for a walk, or something. Seeing us, people came running and Liu Chen was soon summoned from whatever it was he was trying to do while in between looking after us foreign devils.

He took us to view the impressive Exhibition Centre, with its displays of Buddhist art and the stunning replica caves, the paintings of which are identical in every way to the real ones. Slightly disconcerting, there was also an extensive and very appealing display of Tibetan sculpture. A gentle questioning of Liu Chen brought the response that these artefacts had been ‘donated’ to the Academy, which may be true, but I found their presence uncomfortable. Apparently the Academy, which includes China’s national institute for the conservation of wall paintings, has done considerable conservation work in Tibet.

He took us to the little-visited display, in some of the original monastery buildings at the back of the complex, about the history of the Academy. There were still monks living at Mogao at the beginning of the twentieth century, one of whom apparently discovered the so-called ‘Library Cave’, containing thousands of scrolls, including religious texts and more mundane documents from across the known world, covering the thousand years (approximately 400-1400CE) that the grottoes were being created. These were gradually spirited away to the corners of the globe by various ‘explorers’ and ‘collectors’, along with complete sections of wall art and even some of the sculptures from the caves.

The caves were occupied by White Russians for a number of years following the Bolshevik revolution, their cooking fires blackening the roofs of numerous caves before they were moved on. The Dunhuang Academy was founded in 1947, and one of the buildings we were now in was the home of its first director, who lived simply here with his wife until his death just a few years ago. His furniture and belongings form part of the display, and we were offered a delicious pear each from a tree still growing in his courtyard.

Current director Madam Fan has been in the role for some decades. Following the of the workshop, in the days leading up to China’s 60th anniversary National Day on October 1, she was in Beijing participating in the celebrations. Apparently 100 high-level officials are there being awarded for being ‘heroes of the revolution’ or something similar. Apparently our Madam Fan was number two! Someone told me that she was largely responsible for saving the grottoes from destruction during the worst excesses of the Cultural Revolution.

We had been asked to give our conference presentation to the guides, so after heading back to the ‘conservation department’, where the Federal Department types were camped out with the Getty Institute crowd and our old friend, translator Peter Barker, to collect our bits and pieces. We were expecting just the English speaking guides, but on returning to the reception centre, the entire reception staff (or at least those not currently taking tours) was gathered. Fortunately Peter turned up to translate, and Sharon Sullivan appeared from her sick bed to lend support. It seemed to go down well and there were some perceptive questions at the end, and a request from the chap who is working on their marketing plan to work with me further during the week here. I’m happy to oblige, but it will really depend on Peter’s availability to translate, because the English-speaking Mogao guides will have trouble with the more conceptual and technical details of such a discussion.

Back at the hotel we were invited to join the Getty and Aust Govt folk for dinner. One of the Getty staff, Bo Ming, is Chinese (but living in the USA), so he led the way and ordered for us all. Again, numerous dishes of quite spicy and delicious food appeared. I was only momentarily disconcerted as I picked what I thought was a tasty morsel from a shared dish mid-meal only to discover that my prize was in fact a chicken’s foot. I have eaten chickens’ feet before, but it’s not something I intend to make a habit of. Not wishing to lose face so early in the trip, I made a show of having a good nibble, then popped it down and went searching for other tidbits. Another diner was less fortunate; after fishing around in the stew pot, the chook’s whole head floated to the surface in her chopsticks. I noted as she let go and it sank back into the murk again, untasted – but was far too much a gentleman to remark on the matter.

Dinner finished, Maria and I set out to see the nightlife of Dunhuang, which is a very modern city of a similar population to Hobart. There were well-maintained road, traffic lights that counted down to the next change (although the population apparently took their traffic lights as a mere suggestion of what they might or might not wish to do, right-of-way-wise!) and plenty of neon.

The Buddhist angels depicted in so many of the caves – the apsaras – are a regular motif in the town, appearing in every situation from statues in the centre of the main roundabout, through tile mosaics on the hotel, to neon signs and even decorating illuminated lampposts.

Another motif is the attractive twin-humped Bactrian camels of central Asia, which also appear in Dunhuang’s street art and in many toys and other baubles available in the bright and shiny night market, down which we wandered. Maria had her first bargaining experience, soon proving to be a natural. It was all very gentle and good natured, not at all like the cut-throat madness of markets in Thailand and Indonesia – yet. Most of the goods were mass-produced tatt such as scarves, Chinese name stamps, red-tasselled decorations (some featuring those camels, which will be added to my Christmas decoration collection) and cheap jade jewellery.

One item, on a stall outside a little row of ‘antique’ shops, that caught my eye was a delightful piece of ‘revolutionary kistch’ – a plate featuring portraits of ten or so Red Army generals in full rig – heroes of the revolution at an earlier time, perhaps. We ended up in a very modern clothing shop at the top of the market, where I was checking out jackets (although the evenings don’t seem to be cold) and Maria ended up buying a pair of jeans. They were a little long, so after she paid for them, the shop girl put them in a bag and led Maria at full charge (me following) out the door, across the main road, down a side lane and into a wee hole-in-the-wall where a woman had a number of sewing machines and a couple of kiddies doing their homework for some late night tailoring.

After a bit of gesturing and holding the lengthy pants against her, a point was marked and the woman produced the biggest pair of scissors either of us had ever seen, cutting off both legs at the appointed dimension in one satisfying chop. Maria fell about at this point, fully expecting this to be the extent of the service; but the woman efficiently cut off the hems from each leg then with a pass on her machine and one on the overlocker, finished the job. Never has shopping for jeans been such reasonably-priced fun.

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