Dunhuang lies at the western end of the Hexi Corridor, an oasis on the eastern edge of Taklimakan Desert. It is nourished by melted snow water from the Qilian Mountains. The ancient town used to be an important stop-over point on the Silk Road.
The name "Dunhuang" was given in the Han dynasty. In Chinese "Dun" means grandness and "Huang" means prosperity. In the second century BC Emperor Wudi of the Han dynasty sent imperial envoy Zhang Qian to the Western Regions, opening up a trade route which was to be known as the "Silk Road" in history.
The imperial court set up Dunhuang Prefecture in AD 111 and Dunhuang became a strategic town. Through this route Chinese culture and products, especially silk, were introduced to European and Middle East countries, and foreign culture and products such as Buddhism of India came to central China.
Much of Buddhism is propagated through artistic forms, which were soon assimilated into the Chinese traditional culture. The result was that many Buddhist images were carved in grottoes in mountain cliffs along the Silk Road. Many of them have been well preserved. The best are those at Mogao in Dunhuang.
Grottoes in Dunhuang are a national treasure of China and a cultural heritage of the world. In 1962 the State Council put them among China's first key cultural relics under state protection and in 1991 the UNESCO put them on its list of world natural and cultural heritages.
Crescent Moon Spring is 6 kilometer south of Dunhuang in the Singing Sands Mountains and is quite literally an oasis in the desert. The spring's name derives from the crescent moon shape the small pool of spring water has taken between 2 large sand dunes. Although the area is very dry, the pool doesn't dry up as one might expect.
The Singing Sand Mountains are famous for the sounds the wind makes when blowing over the dunes. Also, the sand is said to be rather noisy when tread upon. The dunes are also famous for their size, some reaching 100 m or more, relatively stable despite the fact that the dunes beyond the mountains shift frequently. Also, the sands are said to regain form overnight if tread upon the day before. Activities in the dunes include camel riding, dune paragliding and sand sledding.
Climbing the dunes is tiring and especially sweaty in the summer. There are wooden stairs to the top of the dunes for a small fee. Most people visit the dunes in the evening so as to avoid the hot sun!
The Mogao Grottoes (Mogao Ku) also known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, constitute one of the 3 major Buddhist grotto sites in China, and are situated 25 kilometer southeast of Dunhuang city on cliffs in the eastern Singing Sand Mountains.
Beginning in the Han dynasty, the caves have Buddhist sculpture and frescoes from 10 dynasties ending with the Tang. After the Tang dynasty, the heyday of Dunhuang Mogao Buddhist art, the local economy around Dunhuang went into decline and production of Buddhist art lessened dramatically. Despite the ravages of time and of the winds and sand, 492 caves still exist.
These caves contain thousands of square m of frescoes, created with layers of cement and clay and then painted. The various dynasties each have different styles and themes, so there is great deal of variety in the content of the frescoes, although themes typically revolve around Buddha images.
The Mogao Buddhist sculptures were generally constructed with terracotta and then covered with a carvable plaster surface that is painted after being carved. Cave number 17 is particularly famous for holding a hoard of Buddhist scriptures and artwork.
Opposite the Mogao Grottoes at the foot of Sanwei Mountain, the Dunhuang Art Exhibition Center was built by the Dunhuang Art Study Institute with donations by Japanese contributors. There, you can find some replicated grottoes that have been made to recreate destroyed or damaged caves.
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