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Hidden secrets of the Silk Road


Dunhuang is an oasis town on the edge of the Gobi desert. Part of the ancient silk route, it is also home to the Mogao caves, famous for their Buddhist paintings and ancient scrolls. Matilda Hickson had waited 30 years to visit



The lake in the Gobi desert at Dunhuang

As a young archaeological student we studied the early archaeologists in China who were exploring the Silk Road. There was one man whose story stood out above the rest. His name was Aurel Stein, and he was immortalised in a wonderful book by Peter Hopkirk entitled Foreign Devils on the Silk Road. Stein had discovered a cave, which had been sealed for 900 years, and contained thousands of ancient manuscripts including the world’s earliest, dated printed book (in scroll form) and astrology map. It became known as the Library Cave and while no one knew why it had been sealed up, the contents had been perfectly preserved by the desert conditions.

For thirty years I’d wanted to see that cave. And the opportunity finally arose when I visited China a few years ago. It was a slightly unusual itinerary: Beijing, Xian and Dunhuang. Why Dunhuang? Everyone asked. Why not Chendu and the pandas, or Shanghai? Because Dunhuang was on the ancient silk route, and more importantly, home to the Mogao Caves – the caves that Aurel Stein had visited in 1907 and found those wonderful treasures.


So after visiting the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, and the Terracotta Warriors it was time for Dunhuang.

The oasis town of Dunhuang lies on the edge of the Gobi desert and was originally established as a frontier garrison outpost in the Han Dynasty in 111 BCE. As the gateway to the West, and the last stop on the Silk Road before it split north and south to skirt the Taklamakan Desert, it was a centre of commerce, and was once one of the most prosperous cities of the Western Han Dynasty (Dung = big and Haung = prosperity).

Today the town is visited by tourists to see three things: the Singing Sand Mountains (so called because of the noise the sand makes when it is crunched underfoot) and the crescent lake in the desert; the earliest part of the Great Wall and Jade Gate in the Gobi desert; and the Mogao caves, which house the most stunning Buddhist art to be preserved as well as being home to the Library Cave (Cave 17): the cave discovered by Aurel Stein with over 50,000 manuscripts hidden inside.


The earliest remains of the Great Wall which was actually a mud brick wall



On arrival in Dunguang the first visit was to the singing sand mountains and the lake in the middle of the desert in the shape of a crescent moon. The lake is freshwater, and has been a vital source of water here for thousands of years. As the sand dunes are enormous, it was decided to fly over them by microlight. An unusual mode of transport admittedly, but a great way to see the magnificent crescent lake nestled in the sand dunes, complete with picturesque buildings on one side. And lots of tiny people clambering up and down those massive sand dunes.

The next day saw a visit to the Gobi desert, about 80 km west of Dunhuang, to see the earliest remains of the ‘Great Wall’. The ‘Great Wall’ that most people think of was built in the Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE), but this part of the wall was built in the Han dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE). Fed up with being attacked by the Huns, Emperor Wu decided to build a wall to protect from this continual harassment, with two areas to pass through it, known as the Yangguan and Yanguan passes. The wall in the desert is made of straw and mud brick, and it is staggering that there is anything left. But the winds and harsh desert environment have practically fossilised the remains, including bales of straw that had fallen over, and were forever caught like that in time. These bales had been on standby to be lit as a form of communication between the towers on the wall.





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