Even Buddhists try to buy a good afterlife

Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
Trip End Nov 20, 2007

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Monday, October 15, 2007

Wednesday, September 26th

Once again my philistinian ways are revealed. The Mogao caves are unquestionably an impressive homage to Buddha. Several hundred caves are dug into a low cliff outside of Dunhuang, and many, if not all, are all tricked out with Buddha statues, some quite large, and paintings of 1000 Buddhas per cave. (To protect the caves, only about 20 at a time are open for viewing, so we saw only a tiny fraction of them.) Me, I kept wondering three things:
- How the place looked when access to the caves was via the original wooden platforms, before all of the openings were covered with steel doors and the entire fascade was covered with concrete
- How much longer the caves will continue to exist with several thousand visitors traipsing through them each day and exhaling moisture and carbon dioxide, both of which, by the admission of our tour guide, are quickly deteriorating the art in the caves.
- What the price is for admission to Buddhist heaven. The first cave here was created after someone had a vision, but our guide said that many of the subsequent caves were created at the expense of wealthy patrons. Who would do a Buddha cave, and how much would they charge? Flat fee, or time and materials? If you pay enough for your cave, do you receive a guarantee?

After a morning of disrespectful ponderings (on my part, anyway), we had some lunch and then went for a camel ride partway up the Singing Sand Dunes, which are encroaching on the outskirts of Dunhuang. (The dunes sing in a high wind. We heard nothing but the sound of camels snorting.) This wasn't the adventure it might sound like. You pay a fee at the front gate, walk a short distance to the camel parking lot, get on the camel that the camel tenders tell you to, and hold on while your camel stands up, rear legs first. The camels are initially laying on their bellies like sphinxes, so getting on is about like getting on a bar stool, only smellier.

Let no opportunity to make money be squandered. We rode maybe a mile (or rather were led by a camel tender on foot) past folks trying to sell us pictures of ourselves on camels and stopped at the base of a dune, where we had to pay again to climb to the top and pay yet again if we wanted to ride down v-e-r-y s-l-o-w-l-y on a makeshift sled. (The coefficient of friction of sand is much higher than that of frozen water, some folks discovered.) I almost didn't bother hiking to the top-I could see sand from where I was-but I'm glad I did. I now understand why there are so many art photographs of sand dunes. You pretty much can't take a bad abstract picture of a sand dune with fluffy clouds in the background.

When we'd regrouped, we hopped back on our camels and were led past the main gate to another Buddhist temple, complete with snack bars and vendors of tourist junk. This was really a reproduction of a Buddhist temple; the original was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution, sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s. After a final ride back to the main gate, we had dinner and then took the night train to Turpan.

Noe that the map pin for Dunhuang is not correct. The actual location is 82 kilometers west-southwest of the marked location (Anxi), but Travelpod's mapping mechanism doesn't allow me to get any closer.  
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