Mogao Grottoes

Top choice cave in Dunhuang
Image by Megan Eaves

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.

English-language tours, running at 9am, noon and 2.30pm, are included in the ¥258 'A' ticket admission price, which gives you access to eight caves; the alternative ¥100 'B' ticket is for Chinese-language tours, with access to four caves.

Due to a massive increase in visitor numbers (including school tours), the access procedure has undergone a revamp and all visitors to the Mogao Grottoes now have to go via the visitor centre a few kilometres outside of central Dunhuang. The ¥258 'A' ticket includes transport to the grottoes, access to four museums and admission to 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 at the visitor centre. From the visitor centre, purchasers of both 'A' and 'B' tickets are shuttled to the caves 15km down the road in dedicated coaches. The ¥100 'B' ticket is only for those who have a good understanding of the Chinese commentary (and includes transport to the Mogao Grottoes and access to three museums). After the tour, you are free to wander around the site and catch whatever coach you like back to the visitor centre at your own leisure, but you won't be allowed back into any of the caves. The ¥50 'C' ticket only covers access to the films in the cinema at the visitor centre.

'A' tickets are limited to 6000 tickets per day; 'B' tickets are limited to 12,000 tickets per day. Purchasing tickets is not straightforward. 'A' tickets must be purchased in advance either online at the caves' official website (Chinese-language website only; Chinese phone number and Chinese ID card most inconveniently required for purchase at the time of writing) or in Dunhuang from the (also) inconveniently located Mogao Grottoes Reservation and Ticket Center, a separate booking office in the east of town where staff speak English. During the high season, you should buy your ticket a day or more in advance from the Mogao Grottoes Reservation and Ticket Center.

Of the 492 caves, 20 ‘open’ caves are rotated fairly regularly. Entrance is strictly controlled – it’s impossible to visit them independently. On the 'A' ticket, you will be given a roughly two-hour tour of eight caves, which should include the famous Hidden Library Cave (cave 17), the two big Buddhas including the vast 35.5m tall Buddha in Cave 96 (behind the iconic seven-storey pagoda) and another 26m-tall Buddha statue, the vast reclining Buddha, in Cave 148, as well as a chance to see rare fragments of manuscripts in classical Uyghur and Manichean. The cheaper 'B' ticket gives you access to half the number of caves and may be useful if time is tight (but remember the tour on the 'B' ticket is in Chinese only).

Photography is prohibited inside the caves. If it’s raining or snowing or there's a sand storm, the site will be closed.

History

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.

Sui Caves

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.

Tang Caves

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 35.5m 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.

Post-Tang Caves

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 Yiyuan Hotel (丝路怡苑宾馆, Sīlù Yíyuàn Bīnguǎn). A taxi costs ¥20 one way, and taxis generally wait outside the visitor centre right by where the green minibuses wait, so it's easy to find one on the way back.