Today, Dunhuang is a major tourist destination, especially popular with Japanese, Koreans and Southeast Asians. It is a highlight of any contemporary Silk Road journey. Carefully managed as a World Heritage Site, the Mogao Caves can only be accessed by groups led by local guides. No lonely backpackers here. Indeed, concerns about preservation will soon limit entrance to the caves themselves; the immediate experience of standing in intimate proximity to the ancient painting and sculpture will be replaced by a video simulacrum.
No such limitations seem to constrain another of China’s Silk Road spectacles: the terra-cotta warriors of emperor Qinshi Huangdi on the outskirts of Xian. Their main pavilion, reminiscent of an airplane hangar, stretches expansively across a grim tableau of brown clay men, arrayed in military ranks, emerging from the depths. Those in front stand in cleared trenches, freed head to foot from their earthly graves. Those further back are exposed only from the waist; while the rear orders disappear beneath the hard packed soil. Hundreds and hundreds of tourists, groups and individuals, foreigners and Chinese, stream through the viewing areas, looking down and across the wide scene. The scale is immense, designed by the first emperor himself to instill fear, the shock and awe of his age.
The terra-cotta soldiers are better known, at least among Americans, but the caves of Dunhuang are more worthy of our attention.
The Mogao caves are sublime expressions of the abiding devotion of thousands upon thousands of Buddhist monks and believers who meticulously created works of transcendent beauty. The paintings and statues have served pedagogical purposes, initiating the illiterate into the intricate stories of Buddha and his followers. While there is a political aspect — religious knowledge and status confer a certain power — what is most remarkable is the sheer splendor of it all: the graceful lines of the sculpted figures, the blazing colors, the ethereal flying spirits, all packed into rough-hewn caves.