Continuing my 1985 diary of a trip to China
Check into Dunhuang’s hotel which, unlike the hostel, does have running water. And it is hot. Showers all round! The shower is galvanized steel, like an upended spout on a watering can, and the cubicle is bare concrete. But at the risk of repeating myself, there is water and it is hot. How marvellous it is to turn a tap on and see water coming out.
At lunchtime they put 21 plates of mysterious stuff on the table and although we do our best, it is beyond us. When we finish, bloated, it looks like we haven’t eaten anything.
Share a minibus with three Japanese people to the Mogao caves. It’s the same driver as yesterday with the big shades. The caves contain countless shrines to Buddha, carved into a sandstone cliff between the 5th and 14th centuries when Dunhuang was a big stop on the Silk Road.
When we get to the caves we buy tickets – you can’t go anywhere, or do anything, in China without buying a ticket. But when we drive from the gatehouse to the entrance, the gates are padlocked. A man standing there says, ‘The caves are closed until May.’
One of the Japanese guys, a poetry professor, and his wife, wade into battle. ‘But the hotel sent us here! We’ve bought tickets! What do you mean, closed? Two of our friends came this morning.’
‘Impossible,’ replies the gatekeeper, and then adds, really rashly for a Chinese person, ‘The man with the keys was here, but he has gone home.’
‘He is ill.’
The bus driver, polishing his beloved minibus, comes up to join us. ‘How do you know he was ill?’
‘He told me.’
A crowd of Chinese people, also waiting by the gates, decide this is their cue. They too advance on the gatekeeper, much to his alarm.
‘Yes. How do you know he was ill?’ they ask. ‘Did he look ill? We’ve bought tickets too, you know.’
Eventually the gatekeeper, deciding that he is heavily outnumbered, comes up with a handy solution. ‘I’ll go and get him,’ he says, and scuttles off.
The key-keeper, when he arrives about half an hour later, really doesn’t look the picture of health, and Cheryl, Elspeth and I all feel a bit guilty. The Japanese have no such qualms. Off they stride, through the now open gates, with us behind and the Chinese bringing up the rear.
The caves are well worth the argy bargy. From the outside they look like run-down slum flats, because the sandstone has been shored up with concrete beams and pebble dashed to stop it crumbling. It was done during the Cultural Revolution so, in the circumstances, they were lucky to have got off so lightly.
It’s dark inside, with fitful light provided by dim electric bulbs strung haphazardly here and there. But the poetry professor has a torch like a collapsed sun, and we have little wavering torches that we poke bravely in some of the darker corners. The gate-keeper comes along with us, giving us random facts that Cheryl and Elspeth translate.
Some of the caves have faded and crumbled, but others are spectacular. In one, the walls are covered with 1,000 images of Buddha, done in repeat patterns of red, blue, green and ochre. The ceilings are painted with flowers and not a square inch is left bare. There are huge statues of Buddha, surrounded by disciples, some with the most evil looking expressions on their faces.
Three statues in particular stand out. In one cave you enter, you are at eye-level with the lap of Buddha; going further in you stare up at the rest of him, 13 metres high. After stumbling around the echoing stairways and passageways, being spooked occasionally by the distorted, echoing voices of our fellow explorers, we come upon a larger and even more impressive Buddha. As we pool the light of our torches, we realise that we are on a balcony staring straight into his eyes, and then we look down on the rest of his 26m high bulk.
In another cave, a gigantic dead Buddha lies surrounded by murals of people all over the world in anguish at his passing.
In every cave there is a statue of Buddha. Mostly his expressions are serene, sometimes bland, and once, his eyes glittered with malice in the light of our torches.