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Visitor's Guide to the Mogao Caves

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Visitor's Guide to the Mogao Caves
© 2010 courtesy of Louisa Lim.

Overview:

The Mogao Grottoes (or Caves) called mogao ku (莫高窟) are one of the most famous sights along the old Silk Road located just half an hour from Dunhuang, an ancient oasis town. The site is made up of hundreds of man-made caves that have been carved out of the rock face. Buddhist monks originally came to worship and meditate in the caves here. But soon rich merchants and local noblemen patronized the building and decorating of caves. Donor paintings can be seen on many walls.

Location:

The caves are 25 km (about 16 miles) outside Dunhuang in Gansu Province.

Ancient history:

Because Dunhuang served as an important outpost connecting China with Central Asia, the Middle East and beyond, it became a cultural outpost as well. As trade flourished, so did cultural exchange and from the 5th to the 13th centuries Buddhist art flourished inside man-made caves, or grottoes, outside the city. There are over 25,000 square meters of cave murals at the site and 20,000 texts in Chinese, Tibetan and Uigher (among others) discovered in 1900 reflect the cultural importance of the site over the centuries.

Read more: Zhang Qian Opens the Silk Road for the Han Dynasty

Features:

Visitors must purchase tickets at the gates and enter with a guide. Visitors are not allowed to wander through all of the caves. Certain caves are open to tourists and if you can, try to go with an English-speaking guide so that you'll have a better understanding of the meaning of the artworks. Ask at the ticket office how to find a guide. Depending on the size of your group and the mood of your guide, for an extra fee, you may be able to go inside off-the-main-drag caves.

Virtual Tour:

The cave decoration is very detailed and covers each of the square walls within the caves. Researchers have begun to capture full cave images and you can see a sample 360-degree virtual tour here.

During my visit, we toured 10 caves. I have written up the details we learned about those caves here.

Getting there:

First get to Dunhuang. You may have to connect through Lanzhou, Gansu Province's capital city. During peak months (May – October) there will be better options getting to Dunhuang directly.

Dunhuang is a fairly small city. You can negotiate a taxi to take you to Mogao or find a mini-bus downtown. As Mogao is the major tourist draw from Dunhuang, it is not difficult to find transportation out to the caves.

Essentials:

Opening hours: Daily all year – 8am-6pm

Recommended time for visit: half-day

Tips:

  • No photography is allowed inside the caves and the caves are not lit artificially. You can rent a flashlight but if you can remember, tuck a small one into your backpack to enhance your enjoyment of the paintings.
  • Because there is no artificial lighting, a visit during the morning or early afternoon is best. Going at the end of the day as the sun sets is not a great idea.
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