Image by Megan Eaves Lonely Planet
The Mogao Grottoes are considered one of the most important collections of Buddhist art in the world. At its peak during the Tang dynasty (618–907), the site housed 18 monasteries, more than 1400 monks and nuns, and countless artists, translators and calligraphers.
Tours by excellent English-speaking guides at 9am, noon and 2.30pm are included in the admission price, and you should be able to arrange tours in other languages as well. Many of the guides are students or researchers at the Dunhuang Academy, which administers the caves.
In 2015 the Mogao Grottoes site saw a huge upgrade, with a state-of-the-art visitor centre built just a few kilometres outside of central Dunhuang. Admission includes two 30-minute films, one on the history of the area and the Silk Road, and one that allows close-up computer-generated views of cave interiors not normally open to visitors in an IMAX-style theatre. From here, visitors are shuttled to the caves 15km down the road in dedicated coaches.
Of the 492 caves, 20 ‘open’ caves are rotated fairly regularly. Entrance is strictly controlled – it’s impossible to visit them independently. In addition to the two films, the general admission ticket includes a roughly two-hour tour of 10 caves, including the famous Hidden Library Cave (cave 17), the two big Buddhas, 34.5m and 26m tall, and a related exhibit containing rare fragments of manuscripts in classical Uyghur and Manichean.
Photography is prohibited inside the caves. If it’s raining or snowing or there's a sand storm, the site will be closed.
Tickets must be purchased in advance either online at the caves' official website (Chinese ID card needed at the time of writing) or from the Mogao Grottoes Reservation and Ticket Center, a separate booking office where staff speak English. Note that tickets are not sold at the main visitor centre.
Wealthy traders and important officials were the primary donors responsible for creating new caves, as caravans made the long detour past Mogao to pray or give thanks for a safe journey through the treacherous wastelands to the west. The traditional date ascribed to the founding of the first cave is AD 366.
The caves fell into disuse for about 500 years after the collapse of the Yuan dynasty and were largely forgotten until the early 20th century, when they were ‘rediscovered’ by a string of foreign explorers.
Northern Wei, Western Wei & Northern Zhou Caves
These, the earliest of the Mogao Caves, are distinctly Indian in style and iconography. All contain a central pillar, representing a stupa (symbolically containing the ashes of the Buddha), which the devout would circle in prayer. Paint was derived from malachite (green), cinnabar (red) and lapis lazuli (blue), expensive minerals imported from Central Asia.
The art of this period is characterised by its attempt to depict the spirituality of those who had transcended the material world through their asceticism. The Wei statues are slim, ethereal figures with finely chiselled features and comparatively large heads. The northern Zhou figures have ghostly white eyes.
The Sui dynasty (AD 581–618) was short-lived and very much a transition between the Wei and Tang periods. This can be seen in the Sui caves at Mogao: the graceful Indian curves in the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures start to give way to the more rigid style of Chinese sculpture.
The Sui dynasty began when a general of Chinese or mixed Chinese–Tuoba origin usurped the throne of the northern Zhou dynasty and reunited northern and southern China for the first time in 360 years.
The Tang dynasty (AD 618–907) was Mogao’s high point. Painting and sculpture techniques became much more refined, and some important aesthetic developments, notably the sex change (from male to female) of Guanyin and the flying apsaras, took place. The beautiful murals depicting the Buddhist Western Paradise offer rare insights into the court life, music, dress and architecture of Tang China.
Some 230 caves were carved during the religiously diverse Tang dynasty, including two impressive grottoes containing enormous, seated Buddha figures. Originally open to the elements, the statue of Maitreya in cave 96 (believed to represent Empress Wu Zetian, who used Buddhism to consolidate her power) is a towering 34.5m tall, making it the world’s third-largest Buddha. The Buddhas were carved from the top down using scaffolding, the anchor holes of which are still visible.
Following the Tang dynasty, the economy around Dunhuang went into decline, and the luxury and vigour typical of Tang painting began to be replaced by simpler drawing techniques and flatter figures. The mysterious Western Xia kingdom, which controlled most of Gansu from 983 to 1227, made a number of additions to the caves at Mogao and began to introduce Tibetan influences.
Getting There & Away
The Mogao Grottoes are 25km (30 minutes) southeast of Dunhuang, but tours start and end at the visitor centre, about 5km from Mingshan Lu near the train station. A green minibus (one way ¥3) leaves for the visitor centre every 30 minutes from 8am to 5pm from outside the Silk Road Hotel (丝路宾馆; Sīlù Bīnguǎn). A taxi costs ¥15 one-way, and taxis generally wait outside the visitor centre, so it's easy to find one on the way back.