Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Rain in the Desert-- Two Days in Dunhuang

Well, it's clearly a little bit more difficult to keep this blog up when I'm in the US. But I still am very much intent on finishing out the documentation of my amazing adventure in China, as slowly as is neccessary.

The last part of our Xinjiang trip took us to Dunhuang, Gansu province. Dunhuang is not actually a part of Xinjiang at all, but it's the next stop on the Silk Road, an important and historical nexus in the geographical center of China. Dunhuang marks the end of the Gobi desert as well, and the overnight train we took to get there took us across hundreds of miles of flat, open, sandy nothing. That night, we schmoozed with our train car-mates-- a few Americans, a couple of Canadians, and some Chinese businessmen on the way to a conference who were very interested in hearing about my time in China. It turns out that the Americans, a son and father travelling together, were on a trip for the son's graduation present from Rutger's. When he told me he was from West Orange, New Jersey a bell rang in my head. Turns out he carpooled to high school for two years with Zack, a good friend of mine from Wesleyan. I've said it so many times now it's almost a mantra-- the world is so incredibly big and so very small, all at once.

I woke up from restless sleep over rhythmically clanking tracks to see rain pouring in sheets onto the waves of desert. It was raining so hard onto the hot sand that fog was pouring up from the ground, making it hard to see. When we got to Dunhuang, our guide informed us that it rains maybe 10 or 11 times a year. "You've brought us luck!" she said, as we drove down the soaking but arid and sandy road to the city. That day, we went to the Mugao Grottoes, a set of stunning cave paintings and sculptures in an extensive framework of caves, much much better preserved than the grottoes we'd seen in Turpan. Not only was there still vibrant paint on much of the artwork, but none of them had been defaced by Muslims on hajj (holy war), a major problem with Buddhist art in Xinjiang. The grottoes numbered in the high hundreds, but only some of them were open to visitors at any given time, to keep the more exquisite works from light damage. There was one cave with 10,000 Buddhas painted all over the ceiling. Another featured a 58-meter tall Buddha, one of the tallest sitting Buddhas in China. Walking into the cave I could only see two enormous feet with gilded toenails, a sash slung between them with red-detailed paint. And then the cavern opened out and the Buddha shot up up up into the gloom. Before the government paid for all the caves to be closed off (which is a shame because of the loss of such open-air majesty, but makes sense in terms of preventing damage), the Buddha would have been looking out with a strangely morose and wise air over the entire dusty valley. Now he looks at the wall in front of him. Unfortunately (but again, understandably), we weren't allowed to take pictures in the caves.

By the time we finished at the grottoes, the rain had cleared and the sky was a searing blue. We spent the rest of the day relaxing and ate dinner with our guide, who assured us that rain today meant sun tomorrow. And yet-- we woke the next morning to yet more pounding rain. Our guide remarked on our unusual "luck," but we felt grumpy. What were the odds that we would get stuck with crummy weather two days in a row? We searched the city for a decent place to eat and got wetter and wetter, finally coming upon a Uighur-style restaurant where they made noodles for us by hand and, beaming, showed us pictures of their sons and grandsons.

After lunch we set out on what turned into an unfortunate wild goose chase through the Gobi desert. Our guide had been misinformed about the time it would take to go to two places of interest about 100 km outside of town, and the driving rain made everything slower and, worse, washed out the scenery into a bland blend of khaki and gray. After almost three hours hurtling through the ecru emptiness, we got to an ancient Silk Road gate, basically a forbidding clay square rising up out of banks of desert grass. Not far from that, we viewed a surviving section of the original Great Wall. Not many people know that although the Han emperor started the construction of the Great Wall in around 100 AD, it was built and rebuilt in bits and chunks for the next 1600 years. The portion of the wall we viewed in Dunhuang was one of the 2000 year old portions, made of turf and mud that's become brick over the years. Despite the rain, seeing the wall (which was once over 10 feet high) was fascinating.

The Ancient Han Great Wall, a long way from Beijing

The Beijing Great Wall (for purposes of comparison)

As we turned around to do the long drive home, the weather started to turn in our favor again. By the time we'd arrived back in Dunhuang, the sky was clear and the sun was drying out the sodden sand. My parents were disgruntled about the length and bumpiness of our journey and just wanted to call it quits, but I convinced them to go to the last Dunhuang attraction-- the famous dunes that form the very end of the Gobi desert. It was well worth our visit. The desert in Dunhuang looked nothing like it had in Turpan, and the dunes were positively breathtaking, like something out of National Geographic. My dad and I undertook a sweaty hike up one of them, climbing basically a ladder-like set of steps up the long, high flank. The view on the other side was incredible, a sea of dunes undulating, unmarred and unmarked, into the distance. On the way down, I decided to swallow my anxiety and try the Y10 dune slide. Seated on a little wooden sled, I raced down the second half of the dune, shrieking and getting sand everywhere. It was so much fun!

The dunes at the end of the Gobi Desert. Damn.

Sliding down the dune

We boarded a plane to Beijing early the next morning, where my parents caught a plane back to the US and I began the next leg of my journey-- Yunnan alone.

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