Day 50 - Sunday 21st May - Dunhuang

The numbers to visit the Mogao Grottoes are strictly limited and there are only two sessions each day. We were to visit in the afternoon. Unfortunately photography inside the caves is strictly banned.

While I had intentions of catching up on blogs, the morning was spent on the terrace of our hotel overlooking the Whistling Dunes discussing the technical issues with the Overdrive unit with the other mechanical people. Then emails and phone calls back to Australia to try to get clarity on whether we could easily fix the problem or if not fixed, would it continue to deteriorate until the whole OD unit failed.

The messages we were getting back were that the OD unit could not be fixed on the road. Pulling it our requires the motor and gearbox to be removed. A big task. We also got the message that previous experience was that the whole OD unit would not fail, but that I should drive in a way that does not cause further wear.

Modifying driving habits is not a big issue. Once we are on the highway, the overdrive is switched on and it drives normally. The problems really only manifest when in stop start traffic when de-accelerating and running against the motor. To avoid this I need to put the clutch in and use the brakes, rather than use the motor as a brake. Hopefully all will hold.

The Mogao Grottos were first occupied by Buddhist monks in the 4th century. At its peak, the site housed 18 monasteries and more than 1400 monks. Today it is known as one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world.    

The caves fell into disuse after the collapse of the Yuan Dynasty in the 14th century and were largely forgotten about until they were rediscovered by Auriel Stein in the early 20th century (the Chinese had not actually lost them, but rather he brought the treasurers they contained to the attention of the West). At the time that Stein arrived they were being cared for by a Taoist monk Abbot Wang.

Stein not only carved some of the paintings off the walls, but his greatest find was the Library Cave containing 50,000 manuscripts. Some were Buddhist scrolls brought back from India by Xuanzhang, others were more mundane official records of the times. But one of the most famous is a copy of the Diamond Sutra which proved that the Chinese were printing documents by the 8th century.

Stein was followed by a queue of French, German, Japanese and American visitors who also helped themselves to the art and the scrolls.

Needless to say the Dunhuang Research Centre which now manages the site only has 400 scrolls in its possession. There are over 10,000 in the British Museum in London and a similar number I Paris. Beijing also made a late grab for their share and some of those have ended up in the Beijing Museum, but only a few. A lot have disappeared in transit.

The “Foreigner Devils” as they are referred to, are not kindly thought of locally. Abbot Wang does not get a great wrap either. Needless to say the foreign museums are reluctant to return their treasures and would claim that they have protected these priceless treasures over the past century of turbulent times in China.