Buddhist Art, Ruined Cities, and Theft on the Silk Road

Buddhist Art, Ruined Cities, and Theft on the Silk Road

Continuing  the journey which commenced with Mosques Pagoda’s and Art – Silk Road Journeys.

The road from Urumqi to Turpan passes through a varied landscape with views of the Tianshan mountains and stony desert during the first couple of hours and then through the Tianshan mountain pass.  The mountains rose on either side of the pass, a small stream was visible, its banks hosting the only vegetation to be seen.  Once through the pass, it was desert all the way to Turpan.

Tianshan Mountains.
Tianshan pass.

Turpan was startlingly green. The area is irrigated from an underground water system, called karez.  The underground tunnels bring water from the mountains and because they are underground, there is little evaporation. The tunnels were built around 2000 years ago. Fruit and vegetables are produced in abundance. The melon fields produced some of the sweetest melons I have tasted.  There were cotton crops, and an area called Grape Valley produced grapes in massive quantities.  Grape drying houses were made of mud brick, with latticed walls.  The area around the “sultana” houses smelt of port.  There were piles of sultanas on the dusty roadside for sale.  There was no wine in 1992, when I visited, although when Marco Polo visited Karakhoja, which became Gaochang, he observed that the land produces grain and excellent wine.   Lucky Marco Polo – I had to drink tea.

Grape Valley in Turpan.

During there 5th to 14th centuries, caves were being dug by buddhist monks at Bezeklik, near Turpan.  The caves are known as the Thousand Buddha Caves, which is something of an exaggeration, since there are less than 100 caves.

Thousand Buddha Caves, Bezeklik

The artwork in these caves has been vandalised, and the less vandalised panels were cut from the walls of the caves and stolen by Albert von Le Coq, a German Archaeologist, between 1902 and 1914.  Manuscripts were also stolen.  

One of the caves I visited had a huge chunk cut out of a wall.  This was pointed out with a great flourish, to illustrate the vandalism of the Devils on the Silk Road.  The stolen art works were taken to Berlin and were destroyed by the bombing during World War II.

The earlier vandalism was carried out by Muslims, who scratched out the eyes, and often the mouths of the Buddhas – so called religious vandalism. 

I was presented with a huge bowl of bones for dinner that evening.  Large bones in a clearish liquid.  Bones for a large dog came to mind. I decided that it was perhaps soup.  The liquid had no flavour, so if it was soup, it was less than enticing. Another large bowl appeared full of a noodle.  One continuous noodle.  The noodle was luke warm and was very greasy, and all but impossible to eat with chopsticks.  I contemplated sucking a mouthful up, and biting off the end, but as it was a shared meal, I thought better of it.  

Breakfast next morning consisted of peanuts, pickled beans, fried lumps of dough, dumplings and cake.  No sign of congee for the pickles and peanuts. The fried dough was quite satisfactory, covered with pickled beans and peanuts.  

 Thus fortified, I set out to explore the ancient ruined cities of Jiahoe and Gaochang.  First stop was Jiahoe.

Ancient City of Jiahoe.

 Jiahoe dates back some 2,300 years. The city was abandoned at the end of the 14th century, after being destroyed following a Mongol invasion, led by Genghis Khan.  We had the place to ourselves.  No other tourists.  No vendors harassing us to buy worthless trinkets. No evidence of anything modern.  Bliss. 

Jiahoe all to myself.

We didn’t have the Ancient City of Gaochang to ourselves.  There were about 6 other tourists and some local people there.  The site is large, with donkey carts to transport people around.  Gaochang dates from around 2BC, and it existed until destroyed by Mongol invasions – not long before Marco Polo was supposedly in the area.  The flaming mountains provided a spectacular backdrop. 

Ancient City of Gaochang
Gaochang – not all to myself.

The Astana-Karakhoja tombs were the local cemetery for Karakhoja.  From items found on the site, it appears the tombs were established in 273AD and abandoned in 788AD. In the early 1900’s Albert Von le Coq, followed by Aurel Stein, the Hungarian born, British archaeologist carried out excavations at the tombs. Russian and Japanese archaeologists were also excavating  They were beaten to it by earlier tomb robbers, but they still managed to steal a large number of relics. 

When I visited, there were 3 preserved bodies on display, and a mural.  I had never seen a preserved body.  I was fascinated to see long hair and fingernails.  The very arid dry climate accounts for the remarkable preservation.

Country near Astana/Karakhoja tombs.
Emin Minaret, near Turpan –  commenced in 1777. Said to have been designed in a pre-Safavid Iranian style.  

I was catching the 9.40pm train to Dunhuang.  The train was the Urumqi to Shanghai service, which stopped for 10 minutes at Turpan.  I have never seen so many people at a railway station.  There was hardly an inch of space on the platform – and it was a very long platform.  People were sleeping, vendors with little carts were selling food, people were boiling up water on little burners to make tea.  The train arrived on time. As our sleeper carriage was at the rear of the train, instead of being in the middle where we were told to wait, we had to move very quickly down the platform, through the teeming multitudes to make it. 

I had barely dragged myself and my case onto the train, when it began to move. I still had to find my compartment, but at least I was on board.

I love trains, and this train trip did not disappoint – although it was a little startling at times.  Just settling down to sleep, when 2 random men turned up, and hopped into the bottom bunks.  They had disappeared by the time I woke up.

The breakfast experience was interesting.  Our sleeper carriage was supposed to be next to the dining carriage, in the middle of the train.  It wasn’t.  The train was to stop at a station for five minutes at breakfast time, and we were advised to get off, and run up the platform to the dining carriage.  With thoughts of being stranded we knew not where, we certainly ran, dodging people disembarking and embarking, and numerous food vendors, selling their wares to people in the carriages.  

Chinese breakfast was still being served and the “restaurant” staff wouldn’t let us have the Chinese breakfast.  We need not have run along the platform I thought – a stroll through the train would have provided perfect timing for the “tourist” breakfast. 

Tourist breakfast for 4 of us, plus 2 British tourists and 4 Japanese tourists consisted of 1 fried egg, a slice of frozen bread, jam and a glass of sweet milk.  The Chinese breakfast would have been preferable. 

Walking back to our carriage through the train after breakfast provided a vision of hell, and the reason for running up the platform to the dining carriage.  The people in the hard seat carriages far outnumbered the seats available. Children were sleeping on the floor.  The noise was deafening and discarded food and other rubbish threatened to bury the sleeping children.  Add to that the chaos of people trying to get off the train, and people getting on, we would probably have been annihilated. 

The train was stopping for 5 minutes only at Liuyuan (the station for  Dunhuang).  How were we going to work out, in 5 minutes, what the name on the station was, fight our way through the people boarding and get our ourselves and our suitcases off the train in time.   I was advised that the train would arrive at 9.30am, so we should get off then.  What if the train was late, or early?  It wouldn’t be we were told.

The train pulled in to a station at 9.30 am, and we got off, hoping our advice was correct.  We had barely alighted before the train departed.  There appeared to be the population of a small city on the platform, and it took several minutes for the crowd to disperse.  We were the only people left on the platform.  The name of the station was unreadable in 1992. I went off to find someone (anyone) in an attempt to confirm that we were at Liuyuan, and discovered our guides inside the station, waiting for us.  Logical really, as it was the 9.30am train, so obviously we wouldn’t be concerned, would we.  Furthermore, they pointed out, if they had gone onto the platform they would have been among the thousands of other people, and we may have missed them and gone on to Dunhuang on our own.  I gave in gracefully, and didn’t point out that it would have been impossible for us to obtain any transport as they had our permits to travel to Dunhuang. 

During the 2 hour drive to Dunhuang desert gave way to crops of  cotton and sweet corn.  The cotton was being harvested. Huge cartloads of harvested cotton were lined up at the gates of a cotton mill, waiting for the mill to open. Camels were loitering along the roadside, disdainfully ignoring  all who passed.

Cotton growing near Dunhuang, with White Horse Pagoda in background.

The highlight of Dunhuang was a visit to the Magao caves, near Dunhuang.  The caves had been built and decorated by by Buddhist monks for over a thousand years from the mid 4th century. In 1907, Aurel Stein, the Hungarian born British Archaeologist, by bribing Abbott Wang, the custodian, “stole” thousands of manuscripts, buddhist silk paintings and the worlds oldest printed document, the Diamond Sutra, dating from 863CE. Mercury, the god of merchants, travellers and thieves, must have been looking after Stein and his ilk along the Silk Roads. 

Magao Caves, Dunhuang

 The Magao site contains around 500 caves of which  I entered about a dozen.  What I saw was like nothing I had ever seen before, and it had a profound effect on my understanding of art and religion.  The stories being told were similar to the stories, myths and legends shown in the art of the christian and orthodox world. Buddha with disciples, attendant bodhisattvas and heavenly kings, Buddhas with hands in meditation postures, early style bodhisattvas, Buddhas resisting temptation, and so much more.  

I did not see any manuscripts, paintings on silk, or any embroideries in Dunhuang. I have since seen examples in the British Museum, the V & A and the British Library.

Marco Polo stayed for a year in Su-chau (as Dunhuang was known), but no mention was made by him of  the caves.  He did however see the Mingsha sand dunes – he referred to them as the rumbling sands due to the noise made when the wind sweeps over them.    Did he ascend the sand dunes by camel, as many people did when I visited.  Alternatively, he may have walked up, as I did, and slid down.  Polo did observe that rhubarb and ginger grew in great profusion in the adjacent mountains, and that one Venetian goat would buy 40 pounds of fresh ginger of excellent quality.  

 On the drive from Dunhuang to Jiayuguan, I experienced some very realistic mirages – a forest, a city, lakes and rivers shimmering in the distance.  Little wonder early travellers perished following a mirage looking for non- existent water.    

The western terminus of the Great Wall is near Jiayuguan.  Beyond this people were banished to the areas I had just travelled through.  Other than being an important link in the old silk road, and the view of the terminus of the great wall, there is little in Jiayuguan of interest.  Polo said of another city “this city offers nothing specially remarkable we shall pass on” which reflects my thoughts on Jiayuguan.

Looking toward the terminus of the Great Wall from Jiayuguan Fort.

Getting out of Jiayuguan proved to be a challenge.  Arriving at the airport for a 9.50am departure, we find the plane has been delayed maybe 2 hours, maybe 3.  Reason – a bit of the plane broke at Lanzhou.  A very sad and decrepit looking plane finally arrived at around 2.30pm.  Its wings appeared to be drooping – down at mouth drooping.  The plane would take us, but not our luggage, which would go by train to Xian, even though we were not going to Xian from Jiayuguan.  After much discussion, measuring and weighing, it was decided our 6 suitcases could go on the plane. By then I was thinking that maybe me and my suitcase should go by train, but was dissuaded on discovering only hard seats were available.

The plane which took people but not their luggage.

The drive to Lanzhou from the airport is 75km.  We drove through lovely misty looking hills, hill after hill fading into oblivion.  

“Original” silk road near Lanzhou.

After driving through an industrial area containing petro chemical plants, the most polluted place I had ever experienced, we emerged into acres and acres of peach orchards. Marco Polo apparently travelled through a river crossing point at Lanzhou during his travels with his father.  He took a more northern route on his second journey.  Lanzhou is not mentioned  in his travels.  Lanzhou is situated on the banks of the Yellow River, a rather brown river when I was there.  The markets in Lanzhou provided my first experience of live produce other than cattle type markets – that is fish in buckets, snakes writhing in baskets, birds in cages and other small animals, which were distressing to observe.  The guide very cheerily announced that people liked to have fresh food, and as they did not have refrigeration, they needed to buy their food “live”. 

 Marco Polo was impressed by Xian (Singan-fu) – which he called a great and splendid city.  He mentioned fruitful gardens and fields, and mulberries.  I did not see fruitful gardens and fields or mulberries, but I did see the terracotta army – serried ranks of warriors and horses emerging from their trenches.  Marco Polo did not.  They were all still safely buried under their mounds when he visited.  It is fortuitous for China that the warriors had not been discovered when Aurel Stein and his ilk were exploring the silk road.

The Big White Horse Pagoda in Xian was originally built in 652AD, so Polo would have seen it, but he makes no mention of it.  I could barely see other than a looming shape through the pollution until I got very close.  I climbed up to the top, but could see very little.

Big White Horse Pagoda, Xian.

The old city wall in Xian is most impressive. Marco Polo described it as a stout and lofty wall about 5 miles in circuit, crowned with battlements and strongly built.  Unfortunately the pollution was so bad, I could hardly see a block beyond the wall, so there seemed little point in hopping on one of the golf carts for a circumnavigation of the wall.

On top of the Old City Wall Xian.

 Banpo, near Xian, contains a neolithic village of the Yangshao culture, discovered in 1953.  The settlement was established between 5000BC to 4000BC.  It felt more like a museum rather than an archaeological site in 1992.  The parts I saw had obviously reconstructed dwellings illustrating different forms of dwellings, some underground with just a roof to 2 room constructions    above ground.  The reconstruction, while useful to show schoolchildren what life looked like in neolithic times, did not inspire me. 

At Banpo Village

An evening at the theatre in Xian provided a most entertaining spectacle.  We appeared to be the only non Chinese in the audience, so hoped that the performance would not be the usual pretend cultural experience for  tourists.  The show was a recreation of Tang Dynasty song and dance. The programme included a fan dance, in civilian form.  The dancing was graceful, resembling ballet.  A mask dance was also performed.  The costumes the dancers wore in both dances were bright and colourful, and appeared to be silk.  Sitting beside the toilets, with the attendant aroma, did not diminish the experience.  The behaviour of the audience indicated that it was a show for tourists – Chinese tourists.  They were videoing, photographing, walking round to get the best angles for their photographs, and chatting among themselves.

My silk road adventure concluded in Xian.  Marco Polo went to Xanadu (Shang-tu).  I did not.  Xanadu is now an archaeological site but Marco Polo was full of admiration for the city, saying “in this city Kublai Khan built a huge palace of marble and other ornamental stones.” He also described gardens and a second palace made of bamboo.  Kubla Khan by Samuel Taylor Coleridge inspired me long before I set out on my Silk Road Journeys. Who would not be inspired by  “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree:…”.  Whether or not Coleridge wrote this while in an opium induced state doesn’t matter.  What matters is that his words inspire – “For he on honey dew hath fed And drunk the milk of Paradise” nailed it.  I am going to Xanadu.