Sunday, October 5, 2008

Camels & Caves & Forts...oh, my!

Greetings from Camel Country! That would be Dunhuang, the oasis town in Northern China that was once the hub of the Silk Road a thousand years ago. Ever since my husband's cerebral and vivacious Aunt Barb shared her fascination with the Silk Road with me almost a decade ago, I've wanted to visit at least part of the route where caravans of traders brought goods (such as silk and porcelain) and ideas from the East to the West and vice versa. Part of the route. We're talking some 5,000 miles that traversed Asia, the Mediterranean, and Europe, starting around 115 B.C.E.!

For the Chinese National Holiday 2008 (celebrated Oct 1-5 for the founding of the People's Republic of China), our family joined two of our new friends, the Roeschels and Idekars, on our modern-day caravan to China's westernmost trading town and military garrison back in the Silk Road Days.

We descended on two of the main passes along the Great Wall: one at the Jaiyuguan Pass, the other at Yangguan Pass. Jaiyuguan was constructed around 1372 A.D., and filled with soldiers to protect China from the "barbarians." This is one of the oldest surviving military forts, which included traps so that mauraders could be corralled and then shot from above.

I realize that I am displaying way too much joy in my defense lesson. Not that any invader would have to worry if I were stationed to protect a fort. My arrows flew nowhere close to the straw dummy stationed below...
Afterward, we climbed the Hanging Wall, the end of the Great Wall of China. The end! Imagine being the lone soldier stationed at this distant locale and being the one to spy the marauders...then racing down steep stairs, some sections sitting at a 45 degree incline atop the ridgeline of the Black Hills...

A long, five-hour drive took us through some of the most desolate land I've encountered in the desert from the pass to Dunhuang. Then, we happened on a small oasis which grew the region's famous Hami melon. I can only imagine how psyched those old caravans were to spot green! Fruit! Water! Hundreds and hundreds of these sweet melon (somewhere between cantalope and honeydew) were piled at roadside stands. Here are strips of the melon drying in the sun like peach-colored peapods. Yup, tasted them. Yummy.
And then we arrived in Dunhuang itself. Spectacular. That's all I can say. Truly, the sand dunes were every bit as gorgeous and picturesque and exotic as I had imagined them to be. So beautiful, in fact, that I braved the cold to watch the sun rise and set. Which says a lot since I hate being cold.

Our adventured included a camel expedition through the Echoing Sand Mountains. (Note: Camels are more pungent than I thought they would be. And they whimper like little children! Mine, however, did not make a sound. Could petting its hump help?) And then there was the sand sledding down an ultra steep, very long dune. (Note: Scary! In my feeble Mandarin, I aptly communicated that I was very scared--wo shi hen pa!!!! The guys manning the top thought I was hilarious...and then pushed me down in my inner tube.)
As wonderful as the camels were (and traumatic as the sledding was), my favorite part of the trip was our daylong visit to the Mogao Caves, possibly the most breathtaking manmade site I've ever seen.

Imagine hundreds and hundreds of meditation caves carved into the mountainside and decorated with gorgeous Buddhist paintings, all between 1,200 to 1,600 years old. Starting around 400 A.D. (did you read that year right?), monks carved out caves and illuminated different Buddhist sutras. Some of the caves were tiny--no bigger than a computer-sized niche. Others were enormous, able to house a 37 meter sculpture of a Buddha...You walk into the cave and all you see through the doorway are huge toes. And then you look up. And up. And higher up yet. And there, sitting in the cave, is a serene Buddha, perfectly proportioned, carved out of the sandstone.
The caves are now locked behind doors to protect against the elements and graffiti. Only 10 or so of the nearly 500 caves are still open to the public. We decided to pony up the moolah for a private tour in the morning where we were able to visit five caves closed off to the general public. Our guide was so thrilled to be in one of the caves rarely ever open that we stayed in it for nearly an hour as she told us story after story about the sutra illustrated within.
I have to say: if you are at all inclined to visit the Mogao Caves, one of the world's most historic sites, book your visit within the next three years. I just don't see these caves being open to the public for very much longer. (Note to my mom: Mama, you would LOVE this place. Art and spirituality.)

As for my writing... The best part of this trip wasn't just filling my creative well with what I saw and tasted and heard and learned, but it was discovering ideas that I needed for my next novel. Coincidence? Or providence?

In any case, to inspiration fueled by embracing the new and different!


  1. These pictures are gorgeous! Thanks so much for showing us around and letting us live vicariously through your experiences.

  2. Wow, Justina! What a fabulous adventure! Thanks for posting so many great pictures.

  3. Thank you for taking us to the desert through your blog, Justina! Just amazing!

  4. I couldn't resist. I had to nominate you for I Love Your Blog, too Justina, because I follow your travels and writing tips, and photos every week. This blog is sensational!


  5. This post was just AMAZING. Wow. I need to visit China.

  6. Such amazing pictures -- I love the desert, but I hate being hot, so I'm really glad you went there and took pictures for me...