The Deserts of Dunhuang

The Gansu/Xinjiang border is the edge of the world.

Figuratively, of course. But when you’re there it feels plausible. Like when the sand and soil ends, the world ends too. Walk off and you’ll likely fall into infinity.

Although, the friendly owners of Dunhuang’s local guesthouse seem unfazed by the fact that they live so close to boundless space. They have kids and a dog and offered us dried red dates and coal-furnace hospitality in the middle of winter.

Maybe you get accustomed to living on the edge after so long? Where I saw reaching desert and a stretch of mountains jutting up from western nothingness, they just saw the neighboring province. My 30-hour train ride with a changeover in Lanzhou is their hometown. Remote as it seems to me, Dun1huang2 (敦煌) and its deserts are literally their backyard.

They wake up every morning to this sunrise:


In the whispering hours before dawn, in -12°C under a blanket of white-blue stars and pitch black, I think I felt it a little bit. I don’t mean the chunks of ice and snow just below the surface of the sand (though I felt that too). I mean the sheer vastness of our world. Climbing the mountain above with wind singing through the sand, I saw the sun drift along the curve of the Earth, illuminating, in creeping splendor, the endless miles splayed out in every direction. For half a second I forgot which spinning ball of mass orbited which. Truly, down to my bones I think I felt awe.

But just briefly.

The moment passed, my senses returned, and it was a numbing chill I felt in my bones, nothing else.

To warm up, I ate goat’s meat soup with thick glass noodles, green onion, cilantro, and crushed chili in a spiced broth; raw garlic and plain wheat-flour bing on the side.

Given the city’s vibrant history, I’m certainly not the first to recuperate with a warm meal in this Gobi Desert outpost.

Evidence suggests that humans inhabited the Dunhuang area as early as 2000 BCE, though it came under Chinese control during the Han Dynasty when Emperor Wu defeated the Xiongnu nomadic tribes in 121 BCE.¹ Established as the westernmost of four frontier garrison towns guarding against attacks by nomadic marauders, the Great Wall was subsequently extended to Dunhuang, and the city grew to great military importance serving as a key rest stop before setting out again into the desert.

It wasn’t until the Tang Dynasty that Dunhuang flourished as a commercial and cultural hub connecting merchants, military, and Buddhist monks from Xi’an and China’s interior to Central Asia.² Strategically situated at the intersection of the former Northern and Southern Silk Roads as well as the main route connecting Mongolia with India via Tibet, Dunhuang played a prominent role as a crossroads for all sorts of travelers.

And so, dipping my bing in the bowl of warm soup, I chuckled as I imagined myself 傅朝瑞, forgetful textile merchant with a grouchy camel, a voracious appetite, and a penchant for losing valuables.


Really, if it weren’t for the rest of my caravan, I’d still be stranded in the capital, conned out of my money by that mustachioed outlander with the accent.

Stomach adequately filled, I readied the camels while the others finished eating. No more than ten minutes later, we were off. We stopped briefly at the storehouse [header picture above] to stock up on supplies and water our mounts. Passing by the watchtower [Tile 1 below] — especially lively this mid-morning — we traveled along the length of The Wall [Tile 2] until we left that behind as well.

Only the open road lay before us now [Tile 3]; a cold northerly wind whipped across our path. Around sundown we stepped off the flat earth into infinity…


What seems like years later I visited Mogao Caves.

In these caves a million bodhisattvas sat waiting for me: smiling bodhisattvas, crying bodhisattvas, stern, contemplative, cheerful. Altogether, the complex contains hundreds of caves filled with flying spirits laughing and playing Chinese lutes behind their backs.

Most astounding is Cave 96 (originally a 4-tiered wooden structure, but later increased to 9 tiers to fully protect the sculpture inside) which houses the enormous Maitreya Buddha statue, standing at 35.5m tall.

Here’s a look from the outside:

Mogao Caves #96

The caves, initially begun in the 4th century CE,³ are now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and heavily protected against further degradation. Air temperature, humidity, and chemical balance are all closely monitored inside the caves. A small fraction of the caves can withstand tourist traffic, and only a select few are open to the public on any given day. Visitors must have a guide, and photographing inside the caves is forbidden.

It was here in these grottoes that monks cogitated the complex karmic relationship between their actions and the effects. A simple act had intensely profound ripple effects, but an intimate knowledge of those effects could lead to true release from the infinite cycle of transmigration.

In the same place that Tang-era Buddhist monks contemplated infinity of the spirit, I contemplated a different kind of infinity. I wasn’t really sure what kind. I’m still not quite sure what kind, and I question if I’ll ever know. However, the more I see and experience, the more I believe that Yann Martel said it right when he wrote, “life is a peephole, a single tiny entry onto a vastness” — a vastness whose myriad form is made all the more fascinating because that peephole is all we’ve got.

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