The Mogao Caves (莫高窟, mògāo kū), 25km southeast of Dunhuang, are one of the great archeological discovery stories of the East. The first-known Buddhist temples within the boundaries of the Chinese empire, supposedly established in 366 AD by a monk called Lie Zun, they were a centre of culture on the Silk Road right up until the fourteenth century, and contain religious artworks spanning a thousand years. Chinese Buddhism radiated out to the whole Han empire from these wild desert cliffs, and with it – gradually adapting to a Chinese context – came the artistic influences of Central Asia, India, Persia and the West.
Of the original thousand or more caves, over six hundred survive in recognizable form, but many are off-limits, either no longer considered to be of significant interest or else containing Tantric murals that the Chinese reckon are too sexually explicit for visitors. Of the thirty main caves open to the public, you are likely to manage only around fifteen in a single day.
What makes the caves so interesting is that you can trace the development of Chinese art over the centuries, from one dynasty to the next. Some grasp of the caves’ history is essential to appreciate them properly, but be warned: restorations and replacements in the modern era have complicated the picture, and many of the statues, in particular, are not original. You may hear your guide blaming the ugly replacements on the Qing dynasty – in other words on the monk Wang Yuan Lu – but some of them are a good deal newer than that. The caves are all clearly labelled with numbers above the doors.