The Yulin Grottoes

Friday 25 September, 2009  – Mogao and Yulin, Gansu, Western China

Liu Chen and a driver picked up Maria, me and Dabney Ford, another delegate from the US who runs a National Park site called Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, to drive to the Yulin Grottos, about a two-hour drive from Dunhuang.

The drive took us about an hour east along the main road past the airport, through farming land before turning south through desert and then more farming land. We stopped at some ancient mud walls in Anxi County, apparently from one of the ancient cities of the Silk Road. Lieu Chen said the site was protected by law, but there was little sign of intervention and no interpretation. Farmers worked the fields around the ruins.

The Yulin Grottoes are a similar site to those at Mogao, with rock cut caves filled with buddhist wall paintings and sculptures cut into the walls of a canyon. The sculptures, like most of those at Mogao, had apparently been ‘restored’ during the 19th century Qin dynasty. Lieu Chen handed us over to a local English speaking guide, who showed us through about ten of the caves. If anything, the site is more attractive than Mogao, being more compact and with a river actually running through the tree-filled canyon.

Following the tour we were given lunch, with Lieu Chen, our driver and the director of the Yulin Site (that is, the site manager – the Yulin Grottoes are managed by the Dunhuang Academy as well) in the staff dining hall. The soup and vegetables would have been more than adequate, but again the courses kept coming and we were certainly treated as honoured guests. After some photos and thanking the director we walked up out of the canyon and met our driver waiting at the top.

Lui Chen and our driver
Lui Chen and our driver

Despite the very cramped back seat (with three of us across it – fortunately Dabney is very petite and happy to sit in the middle) I snoozed a bit, and Dabney also told us about Chaco Canyon, her site in New Mexico, a significant but mysterious Native American place.

We relaxed in the hotel for a couple of hours before regrouping and heading to the night market for dinner. A large square is filled with chairs and tables and surrounded by small kitchens and tiny restaurants, apparently each specialising in a particular dish or dishes. Young women, some with a smattering of English, entreat passers-by to sit at their tables and provide a menu that is common to the entire square.

Menu from the Dunhuang Night Market
Menu from the Dunhuang Night Market

The menu has some photos and each dish is described, usually colourfully but not very helpfully, in English, so the only thing to do is really to point at a safe-looking dish and indicate how many of it one requires (generally 1, but in the case of the kebabs, sometimes more). The girls act as waitresses bringing beer and chopsticks (and bowls, but only on request) and cooks from the restaurants deliver dishes. Singers with portable amplifiers and karaoke discs entertain the crowd. A colourful and tasty dining experience.

We are so far west in China that the menu and tastes tend towards the Turkic and somewhat away from the more traditional Chinese flavours further east. Sheep is a popular meat in this region, and donkey is a favourite. A particular regional delicacy is ‘Donkey Meat and Eggs’, that is, the barbecued meat-and-two-veg of some unfortunate beast. Fortunately the menu illustrated the dish in manner that made ordering by mistake unlikely.

Donkey Meat and Eggs
Donkey Meat and Eggs

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