Silk Road and Granite Steps. essay with photographs by Glenn Arnold

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Dunhuang, China, 27 December 2012

The wind bites my face, snow crystals sting my eyes.  It is -17C, and my wife and I are scrambling out of the station, flowing with the swell of humanity that has exited the train and is now searching for family, for friends, for rides. We squint into the white blast, looking for our guide. Everyone is hurrying, trying to get out of the wind, but hurrying isn’t a good idea here. The cold granite on the train station floor glistens, polished smooth for the appearance of elegance. But the crowd moves most inelegantly, slipping and sliding on the glassy surface. There are no rubber treads on the stairs, no safe route out of the station.  We move slowly, trying to keep our feet in the gusty wind, learning from those who have gone down in front of us. The exquisite, but treacherous granite in the station is a testament to scale and speed of China’s development, and perhaps also its incongruity. The steps, an opulent greeting to the thousands of tourists that flock to this small city in northwest China, are completely impractical, even dangerous, when snow dusts the surface.

Dunhuang is an ancient oasis along the Silk Road, a place for traders to quench their thirst on a long and often dangerous journey.  It is also a place where Buddhist monks have sought peace and enlightenment.  Carved out of nearby cliffs are the Mogao Caves.  Visitors come to view some of the 700 chambers, each meticulously painted with complex and stunning images. The city of Dunhuang is trying to take advantage of this popularity.

We eventually find our way out of the station and locate our guide at the far end of the parking lot. The snow is falling heavier now, and as we start the 20 km journey to the caves, our guide immediately begins making excuses, telling us that the caves may be closed because of the weather. I consider this as I try to unclench my muscles, still stiff from the cramped, 14-hour, overnight train ride across the deep void of the Gobi Dessert.  The road is almost invisible in the blizzard, and I wonder if the guide doesn’t want to drive here. I consider offering to drive, but he pushes on.

The caves are open, but we have to wait in a small, but mercifully heated room for the tour leader.  The other tourists all wear rented army coats, a highly undisciplined looking squadron. My wife very sensibly talked me into buying a down-filled jacket before we left, but I feel like a rogue agent among this pseudo-military group.  Our tour leader eventually takes us back out into the churning wind to the first cave. Before we enter, she explains the rules. Don’t touch anything. Don’t take any pictures inside the caves. Don’t stray from the group. Each cave is locked, she explains, and if you get locked in, you’ll have to wait for the next group before you get out, which could be quite a while.  I shiver as the wind snakes under my hood.

We view about a dozen of the caves. Most are not open to the public, and in many, the artwork has decayed significantly.  But even with caves’ age, the complexity, detail and grace of the images are stunning.  We shuffle obediently from one chilled cave to another, awed by the delicate and intricate depictions of different aspects of Buddhist stories and teachings.  The paintings cover the walls and ceilings, leaving not one square inch of stone bare. In some of caves, massive Buddhas are carved out of the rock itself, silent giants who have watched the ages pass. Outside, the snow has turned into an ice haze, obscuring the surrounding rocks and sand dunes, chilling my sense of time.

Later, the sun begins to cut through the fog as we head back to town. Our guide gets into an argument with the young attendant at the tollbooth at the entrance to Dunhuang. Apparently he does this every day, registering his displeasure at what he claims is an illegal obstruction of his trade. It seems there are unpleasant political realities swimming below the surface here.  Eventually he pays, and we are greeted by a mass mobilization of labour clearing the fresh, powdery snow. There are neither plows nor graders here. The streets are cleaned by an army of citizens equipped with roughly tied, straw brooms. The labourers are old or young, but they all work hard to clear the roads. Some take time to build snowmen, low, bulbous creatures that seem to be suffering from an excess of gravity.  Snow is celebrated in this dry, remote desert city, as it provides some temporary employment.

Our guide takes us to the main tourist attraction – the Minsha Shan (Echoing- Sand Mountain) and Crescent Lake oasis. The oasis is why Dunhuang exists, the way station for ancient travelers on the Silk Road. The sand mountain is one of those stunning, but unusual, natural phenomena that doesn’t seem possible.   It looms over the city, shaped by thousands of years of wind scraping across the desert, cementing the coarse grains into a smooth-flanked mass that should be swept away, but somehow survives.  Nature is strange and powerful here, but commerce is even more powerful. There are three ways to ascend the mountain: on foot, with special, fluorescent boots and gaiters; on camel; and by jeep.  Each choice costs progressively more money.  Nature provides opportunity.

As we stand at the base of the mountain, the wind whipping grit into our eyes, we can see several tiny strings of regularly spaced dots on the face – the camel trains- interspersed with more irregular, neon chains – the hikers. The wind and temperature make our decision easy: the jeep. The ride up the face is quick, exhilarating, frightening and a little vertiginous. The lunatic behind the wheel seems to know what he’s doing, but I have a few brief moments of doubt, wondering if I will find myself occupying a premature grave under the Gobi Desert.  The wind is strong and desolate at the top, the air gaining speed as it races across the empty plains of central Asia.

We later have dinner at a restaurant recommended by our guide. We soon realize his family owns it. The food is not very good, and my wife argues with the proprietor, accusing her of trying to take advantage of the tourists. This scene amuses me more than it probably should.

Surface and core always seem to be in conflict here. The polished granite of the train station glosses over a dangerous truth; the delicate and profound works of art hide in caves behind simple wooden doors; the shifting sands of the mountain, move like fluid over a much stronger nucleus; tourist accommodations attempt to welcome visitors but really only welcome their money.  There are hints of deception here, but it is not malicious.  It is simply an acknowledgement of the nature of  this place: an oasis in a brutal environment, a place stamped with thousands of years of uplifting and violent history, a place of spiritual contemplation and commercial exploitation, a place that shouldn’t exist, yet somehow continues to survive.


Glenn lives on the cold fringes of civilization where he teaches at a polytechnic and keeps the two halves of his brain in separate jars.

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This entry was posted on February 2, 2014 by in china, essay, photo.


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