Only any water miracle could justify what the oval frame of the plane reveals to us, down there. For hours we have flown over a dry and earthy nowhere, inhospitable and soulless to match. Eventually, this absolute nothingness in the south of the vast province of Inner Mongolia, in domains of the old Silk Road, appears sprinkled with green patches of Dunhuang that seem horticultural to us.
They are repeated in such a way that they form a dense grid of rectangular minifundia, some of a deeper green than the providential water that irrigated them.
As soon as we leave the air-conditioned airport, the dry thirty-odd degrees that are felt begin to brown us. With the wind blowing east from the deserts, the atmosphere remains dusty.
When the worst storms here spread, it is this same reinforced wind and the sand from the surroundings that reach up to Beijing and make the capital's environment heavier and more unbreathable than ever.
The Fruitful Modernity of the Silk Road
We realized, at a glance, how much Dunhuang's historical profile and look had yielded to Han modernity that, from the Pacific Ocean to the confines of the Tibet, has long been shaping Chinese territory. The old mud-brick houses gave way to prefabricated buildings. Some have two or three floors. The ones in the surroundings, even more than that.
One of the city's streets, Yangguan Dong Lu, is home to Shazhou's slender market. When we investigate it, we come across an expected but curious relationship between the predominant landscape and the products. They were mostly dry, or parched in a way that was still composed and seductive.
Over a length of tens of meters, there are square receptacles and a fascinating abundance of hazelnuts, walnuts, almonds, peanuts, pine nuts, pistachios, separated by varieties and sizes.
We are accompanied by dates, raisins, peaches, plums, sloes, figs and who knows what else, wrinkled, caramelized or salty, dictates the experience of the inhabitants of these parts to be prepared to last longer without losing flavor. This is followed by spices with a thousand tones, textures and aromas.
Fruits and spices have always been present at the Asian crossroads that immortalized these parts. And yet, throughout history, countless goods have been haggled around here.
Once known as Shazhou (as the market) and Dukhan in the Uighur dialect, from the XNUMXth to the XNUMXth century, Dunhuang thrived at the intersection of two of the primordial branches of the Silk Road and became the main point of contact between the China and the rest of the world.
The Pioneer Passage of Marco Polo and Family
It was one of the main cities found by merchants arriving from the West. Of these, Marco Polo was the most reputable. His father Niccolò and uncle Maffeo traveled to the East and met Kublai Khan, even before they met Marco. In 1269, they returned with a letter sent by the emperor to Pope Clement IV who had died the year before.
The father and uncle obtained a missive in reply, but already from Pope Gregory X. In 1271, they left once more for the mysterious Cathay – that was how the China – at the head of a caravan loaded with valuable goods. This time, they took Marco, who was already seventeen years old and had wanted this trip for several years. They would only return twenty-four years later, Venice was at war.
The trio crossed the Mediterranean and the Black Sea and, on their way to Baghdad, the Tigris and the Euphrates. They crossed Iran, the Pamir Mountains and the terrible Gobi Desert.
Before meeting Kublai Khan at his summer palace in Shang Du – now Inner Mongolia – and inaugurating a seventeen-year stay in the emperor's service, they stayed for a year in Dunhuang. There they visited the famous Mogao caves.
We found them on the opposite bank of the Dachuan River, on a rutted cliff that hides a complex system of nearly five hundred temple caves, atriums and interior passages. A kind of nine-story convex pagoda with balconies that narrow from the floor to the cupola was adapted to the rock wall and serves as a religious portal.
The Possible Discovery of the Buddhist Caves of Mogao
It is there that a government official welcomes us with somewhat snobbish ways, explains the historical context of each cave and painting and, even though he is aware of our enormous frustration, makes sure that we do not photograph them even half the time: "These times are gone." communicates to us from the top of your Han haughtiness. “We are now serious protectionists. If you want pictures, check out our bookstore. Instead of photos, they can take some wonderful books.”
Dunhuang was not alone at a commercial crossroads. With the caravans came the various faiths. For convenience, Buddhism was already represented there. Since the fourth century AD, caves began to be occupied, multiplied and painted.
The story goes that a monk named Le Zun had a vision of thousand buddhas bathed in golden light on that very spot and that this vision inspired him to build a small sanctuary. Soon other monks joined him. Gradually, the original cave evolved into today's complex.
At first, they served only as a hermit retreat. Later, with the financial contribution of believers who arrived via the Silk Road, they were transformed into true underground monasteries that, hall after hall, continued to amaze us.
The paintings made here are considered a true masterpiece of the Buddhist world. For the first time, Chinese, Uighur and other ethnicities that passed through there were attributed faces to a religion and to its sage and prophet who, until then, were visually regarded as Hindus.
The Explosive Han Rituals in a Uighur and Muslim Domain
We return to the center of Dunhuang. As we search for a mundane landing for lunch we find ourselves confronted with the explosive opening of a new family restaurant. According to the Han ritual of blessing for fortune, the owners set off hundreds of firecrackers scattered around the door and along the sidewalk.
Surprised (read, frightened) by the unexpected celebrations, we and other Uighur passersby ran to the safety of the ceremony.
The Han ethnic group has long controlled this China western. In 111 BC, it was governed by a dynasty of the same name. This dynasty established its authority in Dunhuang as one of four outposts against incursions by the Xiongnu nomadic confederation.
The city name translates as “Flaming Lighthouse”. It was thus known due to the habit of imperial guards lighting huge torches to alert the population of these attacks.
Indeed, it was after a devastating incursion by the fearsome Huns that, between 141 and 87 BC, Emperor Wu ordered the construction of the first segment of the Great wall of China, 1300 years before the sections ordered by the Ming dynasty.
Brief Expedition to the Taklamakan Desert
On another day of exploration, we left town very early. We ventured into the Taklamakan with the aim of confronting this same Great wall of China, which establishes its western limit.
But the primordial wall was made of the clay available around it, not stone like the rest. We admire how little of it we find and, a few kilometers away, also the medieval fortress of the Yumenguan gorge.
We return to the asphalt, still driven by a driver who almost made his old vehicle fly. We crossed villages lost in the desert's aridity. Finally, we stop at the Yadan National Geological Park, right in the middle of the Gobi Desert.
There, we admire the countless blocks of rock that make up such a Devil's City, carved by erosion into whimsical shapes and spread across the endless sand.
The wind that has always blown between these obstacles continues to produce the same hissing and other mysterious sounds that frightened the wary caravans of bandits on their way to Dunhuang, the base city we returned to long after sunset.
Half Drift in the very stuffy Dunhuang
The new day awakens with an atmosphere unclouded by dust. We took the opportunity to better explore the modernized urban center. The more we investigate, the more we see the duality between Uighur Muslim culture and Han Buddhist or atheist culture.
In one street, a decorative clothesline with large hanging Chinese red-yellow lamps blurs the view of the minaret and dome of the city's great mosque. Young people with bold hairstyles and garments worthy of Shanghai's westernized neighborhoods explored hairdressers avant-garde.
Next door, Ha Fei Sai, a shop assistant hidden inside a hijab and a half-translucent veil pulled up to her almond-shaped eyes, looked after a house of Islamic fabrics and costumes.
We talked for a while and then left her to her tasks. We also left Dunhuang working. We get on a small bus and take the short trip to your “City of Sands"
A rare traffic light stops us at the beginning of a boulevard. We took advantage of the interregnum and peeked through the front window. When we do this, a mirage devastates us: a gigantic mountain of sand juts out from the asphalt floor, funneled between the two arboreal hedges of the boulevard.
At its base, a Buddhist portal accentuates the grandeur of the introductory dunes, called the Sand Singing Mountains. There, the Dunhuang oasis submits to the immensity of the desert. Eager to unveil its massive shore, we bought tickets and crossed the portico.
The Surreal Mirage of Dunhuang's Singing Sands
On the other side, more and more dunes are revealed to us. It's a kind of amusement park that the Han authorities have set up to impress fellow visitors. We don't see a single foreigner around.
It is only Chinese who ride the camels that the freezing winter (they have an average of – 8º) in these parts makes fuzzy, in long caravans that climb to the top of certain dunes.
And, it is only Chinese who, on foot and in slow motion, conquer others, nearby, not as imposing as the summits that reach 1715 meters in altitude.
Meanwhile, panoramic delta-wing squadrons fly over them all and the yellow desert, then return to the ground in the vicinity of a supposedly emblematic Chinese Air Force plane carcass.
But Dunhuang's geological and scenic wonders don't stop there. We follow a flat trail. A short time later, we come across a verdant lake fed by underground springs and, as the baptism of Crescent Lake suggests, in the shape of a crescent moon. A Buddhist pavilion appears in the concave area of the Moon.
It gives it some mysticism and blesses those, like us, who pass through it. We visited it and conquered the edge of one of the dunes in a hurry to reach the top before the sun stopped illuminating the scene.
We force the heart and lungs into undeserved violence. To compensate, we feast our eyes and mind with a rest somewhere between the contemplative and the magical, over the sunset and high above the lake.