Explore the less explored – the enchanting land of Dunhuang

By Annabel Toh

Located at the edge of the Gobi Desert in China lies a spectacular art gallery that tells the history and flow of Buddhism. Embodied with various artefacts ranging from statutes to scriptures and even walls adorned with beautiful paintings, the Mogao Caves is a must-visit for all.

The team spoke to Renna Tan, a member of Singapore Soka Association (SSA) who had previously went to Mogao Caves in 2014 while she was pursuing her graduate studies in Ancient Chinese History in Nankai University. Here are her four reasons why you should visit Dunhuang:

Renna at the Crescent Lake Pavillon in Dunhuang

1. Dunhuang is a living museum

Situated at a strategic location, the Mogao Caves served as an important centre along one of the world’s largest and oldest trade route and became a melting pot of cultures. Connecting the east to west, Dunhuang witnessed the fusion and influence of various cultures and religions from people all around the world –  China, ancient India, Greece and Central Area.

What currently reside in these caves are artefacts of Buddhist art spanning almost 1000 years. Boasting a total of 735 extant caves, 492 are decorated with Buddhist artefacts, and houses approximately 2400 statues. It is no wonder the Mogao Caves was designated as a World Heritage Site, and was termed as a “grand art gallery in the desert” by the UNESCO.

Outside one of the Mogao Caves that was open for tour during her trip


The exterior of the Mogao Caves

2. The journey to Dunhuang is as beautiful as the destination

One of the ways to get to Mogao Caves was to take a train from Tianjin. According to Renna, the journey from Tianjin to Dunhuang gave her the opportunity to explore many other cities in China. While this may seem like a gruelling journey for many, Renna could only feel rewarded with picturesque memories of the different cities and landscapes of China.

Renna’s excitement when she saw the desert landscape outside her train window


Her first view of Dunhuang upon arrival

3. Dunhuang has its own quirks unlike anywhere else in the world

If you can’t land on the moon, why not have the moon on land? Amid the endless desert resides the oasis of Dunhuang. Known as Yueya Chuan, or the Crescent Lake, this lake is an icon of Dunhuang and forms the shape of a crescent moon when viewed from the top.

Summer time at Crescent Lake in Dunhuang

Since Dunhuang is situated nearer to the Middle East, and particularly close to Afghanistan, there has been fascinating evidence of cross cultural exchange. For example, it was noted that there were Chinese porcelain artefacts found in Mogao Caves that were carved with Islamic words. The stores within the city were also predominantly Muslim more than Chinese.

Be sure not to miss Dunhuang’s very own opera show as well, which is unique to their own city. The natives speak their own dialect, don their own costumes and even cosmetics that you would not see in the rest of China!

Enthusiastic Dunhuang residents performing Dunhuang’s opera to keep their traditions alive

4. Dunhuang is an oasis of treasures in the desert

When Renna first arrived in Dunhuang, what captivated her was the famous sand dunes. How could such a landscape, buffeted by sand and wind, possibly serve as a home to some of the greatest works of Buddhist art?

The magnificent view of the Gobi Desert where Dunhuang resides

As she recounted her journey with us, her heart leapt with joy recalling the Buddhist saying that “the Saha World ( our ordinary world filled with human suffering ) is itself the Land of Tranquil Light”. The harsh conditions of the desert was itself a land brimming with beautiful art and where Buddhism flourished. Wasn’t this a living testament to this saying? A living testament to the wondrous nature of life?

Before It is Too Late

For all the reasons to go to Dunhuang, many archaeologists are also increasingly concerned about the sustainability of the Mogao Caves. With the increase in tourism and the fragility of these age-old artefacts, recreational centres are now in place to make use of technology to display some artefacts and protect this precious heritage for future generations.

Digital centre in Dunhuang where digitalised artefacts are shown to upkeep preservation efforts

The upcoming Lotus Sutra Exhibition that will be held from 1 to 25 October 2017 at the Arts House will also showcase some of these precious replicas of paintings of the Mogao Caves to provide a deeper and better understanding of the universal values and spiritual heritage of humankind as taught in the Lotus Sutra. Join us on this rare opportunity to take a sneak peek into the precious and wonderful Mogao Caves!

Please visit www.lse.sg for more information.