We spent our first thee nights and four days in China sleeping in the hotel Salem in Kashgar. However we saw very little, if any, of the town as we spent most of our time being ferried by bus to and from the Customs pound and the Vehicle licencing yard, trying to extract our cars from the Chinese bureaucracy. (See previous post). Our last day in Kashgar was spent trying to sort out our ailing gearbox and we limped stressfully to a local garage to have the gearbox oil changed, to see if we could avoid crossing the whole of China on a low loader! After the oil change, it was slightly better. For better or worse, we decided to limp on with the group, although things were still not right, but we thought we should give the oil change a chance. And to be honest we had no idea what the problem actually was and we refused to believe that another gearbox was actually defective.
Our little convoy headed off Eastward towards Aksu which was 465 kms away through the Taklamakan desert. Landy perked up on the very good Chinese motorways and we got some mileage on the clock, in spite of losing time in the many police checkpoints to be found in this Shingjan Province. The fuel stops were also a trial as fuel was heavily guarded and all passengers had to disembark and drivers had to proceed singly unaccompanied to fill up and collect their passengers beyond the armed guards on exit. Whilst it was perfunctory, albeit irritating for us as visitors, for the local population it must be a constant trial and a massive imposition.
The first night we stopped at an indiscriminate hotel at Aksu, and then drove on through endless dessert towards Kuqa. Landy was still stuttering around town and we were constantly threatening to pull out. However, when we stopped at a motorway service station for a break, it was now the Landrover that was in trouble.
Their radiator pump had given out and their radiator had over-heated. The ever resourceful Matthieu had a spare pump in a box on the roof, and after gifts of sealer and coolant appeared from sympathetic passers by, it was only a few hours later before we glided out of the service station to tackle more of the desert landscape, slightly relieved that it was not only Landy sputtering!
We were glad to leave poor Shingjan province and the constant police check points and police and military presence. It was not a great gateway to China and in some ways was quite shocking. We travelled into Gangzu province where the roads were even better and luckily for us the road signs henceforth were in Chinese and English.
Having really missed Kashgar because of the car and the difficulties getting through customs, Dunhuang was our first real stop in a holiday town. It boasted huge sand dunes, access to which was ticketed! Plus amazing caves in the hillside with lots of decorations and Buddhist statues. The Mugao caves in Dunhuang had accommodated the thousands of Buddhist scrolls which were plundered by archaeologists and are now stashed in museums including the UK. This was a very popular destination and hugely controlled and ticketed. They limit the numbers to around 6000 a day or 2 million visitors a year. Tickets had to be purchased in advance by NAVO, our tour company, or we would have been denied entry. Yes this one was worth it!
Lastly we opted to visit an Arts complex in the evening with a theatre performance showing the development of culture and the shift from a rural economy to smart city living over the centuries along the Silk Road. It was an amazing spectacle with the audience being shepherded from huge performing space to more space and amazing costumes and acrobats and lighting and sounds and tableaux. Well worth seeing performing art at its best. The costs of the production were eye watering, but it played to packed houses several times a day.
Dunhuang itself, is an Oasis town which became a trading post along the Silk Road and it was as a result of trade that Buddhism was introduced to china by monks. Monks constructed the first cave in 366 AD. Other caves followed. Buddhists prayed in the caves for peace and prosperity.
The wall paintings depict many aspect of life. Including Brilliantly painted visions of paradise. Maurauding nomads and robbers but also harsh environments. Spiritual world of hope. Solace from Buddhas and protection from many dangers. Location of spiritual power. Other functions as well as spiritual to support trade.
Powerful families started sponsoring new caves and Buddha statues and then then poor folk also raised money to continue the tradition. Shrines, lodgings and sacred works of art. Art of 10 dynasties. (Reminds me of the Chinese road builders).
Rich merchants would sponsor a cave or a painting and eventually there were 1000 caves hollowed our of the cliffs. During the Ming dynasty the ‘Silk Road’ Route was abandoned as water dried up and for 500 years the caves were forgotten. In early 20th century the caves were rediscovered and the hidden scrolls uncovered. The murals are spectacular and some date back to the 8th century with colours derived from Turquoise,Cinamon and Lapis lazuli. People would pray in the caves in the belief that their wishes may be met for perhaps a child or boy or girl. Over the years and in the 19 century in particular the paintings and carvings were restored. There are amazing small images on the ceiling. During the 19th century restoration (Early Tang Dynasty) It was the library cave that the hidden ancient scrolls were plundered with the ‘permission’ of a resident monk. This is still a matter of much regret and bad feeling. The story of the loss was featured in the theatrical show we had seen earlier.