The Mogao Caves, carved out of a stretch of wild desert cliffs 25km southeast of Dunhuang, are one of China’s greatest archeological sites – it is from here that Buddhism and Buddhist art radiated across the Chinese empire. Work started on the caves in 366AD, and continued up until the fourteenth century. The earliest artwork shows considerable artistic influence from Central Asia, India and Persia, though you can see how these foreign styles waned over time, as the iconography slowly adapted to Chinese aesthetics.
Of the original thousand plus caves, over six hundred survive in recognizable form, but many are off-limits, either no longer considered to be of significant interest or containing murals that the Chinese consider too sexually explicit for visitors. Of the thirty caves open to the public, you are likely to manage only around fifteen in a single visit. Some grasp of the caves’ history is essential to appreciate them properly, but restorations and replacements in the modern era have complicated the picture, and many of the statues, in particular, are not original. The caves are all clearly labelled with numbers above the doors but the interiors are unlit to preserve the murals; bring a flashlight if you have one. Photography at the caves is prohibited.