Dunhuang and the Mogao caves

I reach Dunhuang after another short trip, in the range of half a day, the last before the big jump west and the enormous distances I’ll travel in Xinjiang. The modern vehicle travelling on a well-surfaced road makes you nearly forget that it is the desert out there, but sand devils whirling over the barren ground indicate that it is all dry and dead.

Dunhuang, in spite of the surrounding inhospitable environment, looks completely different from other places I have seen. Paved streets, flowerbeds, urban furniture beautify this centre of tourism that has been equipped with commercial services, shopping malls, and every modern facility. In the evening there is a seaside resort atmosphere. The roasting stalls that lay parked along the streets during the day are edged forward and lit with coal fire. The streets are invaded by a fleet of chairs and tables. The town turns into a gigantic restaurant, steeped in the smoke from the grilled meats. This place emanates a definite festive character.

Just south of Dunhuang, the desert besieges the town, but it has been turned into a lucrative business. Impressive sand dunes stand as high as a mountain painted by beautiful shadows that highlight their contours. This beautiful spot, which could be a sanctuary of silence in remembrance of the Silk Road caravans that crossed the wasteland, has unfortunately been turned into a colossal playground. Pay the ticket and slide down with your toboggan, ride a camel or do other activities in the sand. People are screaming like mad, all turned into rampaging schoolchildren let loose for an hour. The communist party emblem with the sickle and the hammer stands at the entrance in open contrast with the hyped commercial character of this venue.

However, the reason why Dunhuang has developed so much is to be found in its exceptional Mogao caves. They are renowned across China, so that the bulk of visitors is nationals, with only a handful of foreigners when I did my tour. Countless groups are shown around only a handful of caves, of the tens that are dug into the rock.

Contrary to Datong or Ajanta, you certainly miss the cave impression because the openings are protected by an outer concrete wall that hides the natural cliff. The reason for this safety measure is preserving the unique feature of these caves: the marvellous paintings decorating the interiors. I found the museum very informative and I was left wondering whether I could just have visited it for free and saved on the preposterous ticket to see the originals. After all, you are not allowed to take pictures there, you visit only few of them, and the museum has excellent reproductions of four grottoes, one for each period.

Back in town, the central street is invaded all day long by a tourist market. The stalls sell dried fruits, trinkets and souvenirs. It seems that all the refinery that China was previously known for has given way to an invasion of bad taste and poor quality. These goods are the antonym of the elegance found in the cave paintings.

The problem of poor quality in China has reached unprecedented proportions: the nation boasts the ugliest towns built with materials of substandard quality. However, it is not just a domestic affair. Chinese goods are found at the four corners of the earth and are universally known as inferior, cheap stuff.

The invasion of Chinese goods, especially in public procurement, may in the long run defile the aspect of other countries. I hope the savings rush will not lead to the impoverishment of my urban landscape. If we need an argument against this, we only have to see China. The flagstones are so thin that the granite slabs take no time to crack; high-quality materials are replaced by cheap imitations of plastic, at most ceramic; a pretty town like Dunhuang now will not stand the test of time.