E-Travel Log #5: Dunhuang - The Silk Road

Attention Teachers: Please see teacher notes below.

Dear Students:

Xuan yi pi luo tuo! Choose your camel! In this travel log, we’ll follow the Silk Road from Xi’an through the Gobi Desert to an oasis town called Dunhuang. While there, we’ll visit the Mogao Buddhist Caves, the Singing Sand Mountains and the Nanjie Elementary School. We’ll also tell you a story about Mogao, the man who the Mogao Caves are named after; challenge you with two more guess-who poems about Asian animals; and list some more answers to your questions. Enjoy!


The Silk Road is not just one single road; you cannot drive a car on it; you won’t even find it on the map: because the Silk Road no longer exists! For well over a millennium, though, it was one of the world’s most important trade routes, linking China with its neighbors to the west and bouncing through some of Asia’s most unfriendly places.

The Silk Road was actually many roads, or caravan routes, connecting many towns and cities both inside and outside of China. From Xi’an, which was connected to the rest of the Middle Kingdom by a series of canals and roads, it headed northwest to Lanzhou; squeezed through the famous Jade Pass near Jiayuguan (the traditional end of the Great Wall); crawled across the Gobi and Taklimakan Deserts; and climbed out of China over the Pamir and Karakoram Mountains, some of the highest mountains in the world. From there, it forked to different destinations in Central Asia, Southern Europe and Northern Africa.


Why do you think the Silk Road, which made many a trader and many a town filthy rich, no longer exists today? We’ll consider the answer in our next travel log.


To get through the deserts, the silk-laden caravans traveled from one oasis to the next. If they strayed from their course, they could be swallowed by the sand and lost forever. The Taklimakan, a frying pan in the summer and an icebox in the winter, which in the Uigher language means ‘If you go in, you won’t come out,’ was especially notorious for making caravans disappear.

So, hop on your camel! We’re off to Dunhuang, an oasis town in the Gobi Desert. It’s about 800 miles due northwest of Xi’an and we estimate it should only take us about 20 days to get there if the camels don’t have engine problems and they stay on track. (If we average eight travel hours per day, what will our average speed be?) We suggest you pack a scarf or a turban to help combat the searing sun and the swirling sandstorms – oh, and maybe a good compass (or a Global Satellite Positioning Unit!).


As we approach Dunhuang on our team of camels, it suddenly appears as if we are seeing a miraculous mirage. After days of traveling in a seemingly endless ocean of sand, there seems to be a wide sea of green stretching across the desert in front of us. Getting closer, though, we see trees and realize we were wrong. It is not a sea, it’s an oasis – and smiles sprout on our wind and sunburned faces: We’ll have fresh water, all the food we want and a comfortable night’s rest. Even the camels have a new spring in their stride.

Dunhuang, once an important Silk Road town, is now a thriving city of 100,000 people. Because of the constant water supply, farmers grow a variety of crops here and ship them by train to other parts of China. Because it is surrounded by famous dunes and caves, it is also a popular spot for tourists. (That’s us, so let’s go see the dunes and caves!)


After resting and refueling, we remount our camels and head due south from the town center. For a half an hour, we pass apricot and grape orchards, fields of wheat and cotton, and rows of trees separating the fields. It’s hard to believe we’re in the middle of the desert! But, suddenly, the road and all of the vegetation ends – and several giant mountains of sand loom in front of us. These are the Singing Sand Mountains, the tallest sandpiles in China, named for the haunting noise the wind makes as it dances through the dunes. Our camels, once again, seem a little excited – probably because there are many other teams of camels carrying many other tourists over the dunes. Or, maybe they are scared of the four-wheelers zooming around – or the tourists who are paragliding off the dune peaks or surfing down the slopes on little sleds. Whoever would think a desert could be so much fun?!


Tucked in between two of the giant dunes is a surprising site – a crescent-shaped pond fed by a natural spring. It’s called Crescent Moon Lake. Crescent Moon is also the name of a character in a famous legend we’ve recounted below. Have a read!


Leaving the dunes behind, we ride east for two more hours, cross a giant dry river bed and see a low mile-long cliff up ahead. As we near the cliff, we see hundreds of large rectangular black holes in it’s level face and, getting closer still, realize the holes are caves – the famous Mogao Caves! (The photos on this page show a sign that says, ‘The Mogao Caves’ in Chinese and a section of the caves open to tourists. Below are photos of replicas of artwork that is found in the caves.)

Over 1600 years ago, Silk Road travelers brought Buddhism to China from India. In time, because it was in the middle of a desert, a place well-suited for serious prayer and meditation, Dunhuang became an important center of Buddhism and a place of devout pilgrimage. By 400 A.D., artists representing a variety of different traditions and artistic styles began painting elaborate frescoes and making statues of Buddhas in caves they dug in the cliff face. For six hundred years, painters painted and pilgrims paid homage at the caves. The caves also became a library of sorts, for sacred Buddhist drawings and scrolls. In all, 492 caves contained over 45,000 frescoes, 2,000 statues, including a 113-foot tall Buddha sheltered by a nine story wooden pagoda (pictured on this page), and 50,000 drawings and scrolls.


Mysteriously, though, the caves were sealed in the 11th century and were not rediscovered until 1900. Hearing the news of the discovery, a handful of crafty European and American archeologists managed to lift thousands of scrolls from the caves, one statue and even a few frescoes (using chemicals to suck the paintings right off the walls). During this same period, European archeologists took thousands of other priceless pieces of art from caves in several other parts of China. While the ancient art was sold to museums in Europe and the U.S. and the archeologists were considered fearless heroes, a la Indiana Jones, by many, the Chinese people consider them thieves and feel they have been robbed of some their most important cultural artifacts.

In any case, the Mogao Caves have a fascinating history and are still filled with amazing art. Too bad we are not allowed to take any pictures inside the grottoes!


Maybe you have heard of Dunhuang Dream. It’s a famous Chinese musical based on the legend of Mogao, the painter who the Mogao Caves are named after, and his true love, Crescent Moon. Here’s our version:

Mogao was a humble artist, but dreamt of painting his best work in the famous Buddhist caves near the oasis of Dunhuang. One day, with only a pack of supplies and a few scrolls holding his most treasured paintings, he set off to cross the desert. In the shifting sands, though, after several days of walking, Mogao lost his way. He was determined, inspired by his dream, to push onward; but thirst, hunger and the blazing sun eventually brought him to his knees.

When all seemed lost, a vision appeared before Mogao: it was a kind-faced soldier bending over him with a flask of water. The soldier saved Mogao’s life, brought him to Dunhuang and gave him a teapot engraved with a crescent moon; but in return for the favor, took his treasured paintings.

After he recovered, Mogao started painting in the caves. Late one afternoon, after a long day’s work, he walked into town. While walking, a vision appeared before him: a beautiful woman whose kind face looked very familiar, as if he’d seen it in a dream. It was the soldier, the daughter of the general, whose name was Crescent Moon.

From the time she took the scrolls, Crescent Moon had admired Mogao’s paintings with wonder. She realized that he was a gifted artist and longed to meet him again. So she decided to look for him in town.

Mogao showed Crescent Moon his paintings in the caves – and they fell in love.

But when the general learned of their love, he became very angry, for Mogao was only a poor painter. He sent out a notice, calling all of the princes and lords from the neighboring lands to come to Dunhuang for a competition to win the hand of Crescent Moon in marriage. Hearing this, Crescent Moon ran away to the caves to be with Mogao.

Her father followed with a group of soldiers and a strong hatred for Mogao in his heart. In a booming voice that echoed through the caves, he demanded that his daughter return. But Crescent Moon stubbornly refused and defiantly stood at Mogao’s side. Furious, the general unsheathed his dagger and lunged toward the humble painter. Crescent Moon threw herself in front of Mogao and the dagger pierced her heart.

The general fell to his knees and burst into tears. Repenting in his sadness, he forgave Mogao and left him to paint in the caves. Heartbroken, Mogao painted his best work – and today the Mogao Caves and Crescent Moon Lake stand side by side in the desert along the oasis of Dunhuang.


While in Dunhuang, we also worked with students at the Dunhuang Nanjie Elementary School. It’s amazing to think that some of them are descendents of Silk Road travelers. The students created picture books and artwork for their partner schools in the U.S. and Africa. Some of the artwork was excellent, perhaps because the children have grown up in an environment filled with such incredible art.


Here are two more guess-who animal poems, each with seven syllables per line. Guess who!

Animal #1

Soft mountains on striding stilts
A valley fit for sitting
Why are there no rivers here?
All roads lead to oases

Animal #2

Stranded on remote islands
Eats whatever it snatches
You might meet this fearsome beast
But you shouldn’t play with matches

The answers to the poems in the last report are the chipmunk and the dugong or sea cow. You can read lots more guess-who Asian animal poems written in Gushi form – and see photos of the animals -- by visiting the project Web site. Your teacher has the address.


Here are more answers to your questions. These questions were answered by second grade students at Shanghai Shangyin WYSE Elementary School.

1. What is your favorite part of China? We like Shanghai, Suzhou, Hangzhou, Hong Kong, Dalian, Qingdao and many other beautiful places in China.

2. Have you ever walked beside a mountain? We have walked beside many mountains. We have climbed a few too. Last year our school took us on a field trip to Huang Shan Mountain, in the Anhui Province -- and it was very high.

3. Is it easy living in China? For us, it’s very easy and we are very happy.

4. Are the playgrounds in China fun? Yes. We love playgrounds. Although our school doesn't have one yet because it’s new, we all have playgrounds back at home in the residential complexes. We also go to the amusement parks to play quite often.

5. Have you seen many landmarks? The most important landmark in Shanghai is the Oriental Pearl TV Tower, and we have all seen it many times. Some of us have been to the Great Wall in Beijing and some of us have seen the Terra Cotta Warriors.

6. What is the design of the inside of your house? Some of us live in apartments and many of us live in houses. Just like yours, ours also have living room, kitchen, dining room, bathroom and bedroom.

7. Is it fun living in China? Yes, we love our families, our school and our friends. We have a lot of fun here but we would like to visit other countries too.

8. Do you play video games? How many books do you read in a year? We love video games! (Note from Lilia: At this point, the students told me a bunch of names of video games that I had no idea of.) We read many books, mostly science fiction cartoon books, Chinese idiom stories, Chinese fables, jokes, riddles, and a story book called “365 Nights.’


That’s all for this travel log. In our next report, we’ll fly to Lanzhou and visit Linxia nearby, both important Silk Road cities. While there, we’ll sample a variety of delicious Chinese food and go looking for dragons! Till then, learn lots! Zai jian!

Paul and Lilia
China Project Coordinators


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E-Travel Log #5:Dunhuang - The Silk Road


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