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Home Travel in Gansu Mogao Caves - A Shrine of Buddhist Art Treasures
Mogao Caves - A Shrine of Buddhist Art Treasures
Travel in Gansu

 Mogao Caves
The Mogao Caves or Mogao Grottoes (mò gāo kū 莫高窟), also known as the Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (qiān fó dòng 千佛洞), form a system of 492 temples 25 km southeast of the center of Dunhuang, an oasis strategically located at a religious and cultural crossroads on the Silk Road, in Gansu province, China. The caves may also be known as the Dunhuang Caves, however, this term also include other Buddhist cave sites in the Dunhuang area, such as the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, and the Yulin Caves (yú lín kū 榆林窟) farther away.


Mogao CavesThe Mogao Caves are a system of Buddhist cave temples near the city of Dunhuang in Gansu province. They were a center of culture on the Silk Road from the 4th to the 14th centuries and contain a religious artworks spanning that entire period. The Mogao cave complex is comprised of 492 caves, containing 450,000 square feet of murals dating and there are about 600 surviving cave temples, of which 30 are open to the public.

The traveler finds the Mogao Caves, a shrine of Buddhist art treasures, 25 km (15.5miles) from downtown Dunhuang on the eastern slope of Mingsha Shan (Mount Echoing Sand). A network of plank reinforced roads plying north to south 1600 meters (5, 249 feet) long lead to the cave openings, which are stacked five stories high some reaching up to 50 meters (164 feet). By the way, Mogao means high up in the desert.

Mogao CavesAccording to Tang Dynasty records, a monk had witnessed onsite a vision of thousand Buddhas under showers of golden rays. Thus inspired, he started the caves construction work that spanned ten dynasties. Mogao Caves are commonly known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.

Buddhist art has its origins in India. Mogao sculptors improvised where the rock surface did not work well under their chisels. They placed clay statues in front of the cave walls, carved relief murals as backdrops, and painted the sidewalls and ceilings with art decors. The largest statue is 34.5 meters (113 feet) high and the smallest a mere 2 centimeters (0.79inches) high.

The traveler will note traces of Indian Buddhist art in the earlier works. More recent works depict all walks of life and activities in a local setting. You will relive the daily routines and special events as captured by the artists while you are exploring the 750 caves. There are also ups and downs in the artistic quality over the centuries, depending on the fortunes of Buddhism with available art patronage. Artists in each dynasty painted with their distinctive palette.


Mogao Caves 
Gansu Province, with great length, has a pronounced difference between the climates of north and south. Dunhuang City, situated in the north of the Province is land locked, and surrounded by high mountains, its great distance from the moist sea breezes helped form its arid continental climate. The annual average temperature is 9.3 C (48.74 F), but ranges from 24.7 C (76.46 F) in July to -9.3 C (15.26 F) in January. Dunhuang weather is fervent in summer and bitterly cold in winter with precipitation outstripped by evaporation.

The fluctuation in temperature between day and night suggest tourists should bring a warm, winter clothing for use in the morning and evening. Other essentials are sunglasses, caps, sunscreen and gauze-kerchiefs. The air here is extremely dry in most of the time for the frequent wind. Lip balm is thus highly recommended. It is necessary to have enough water and fruits every day here.

Winter is bitingly cold season and is not suitable for traveling. March to October is suitable for visiting, with May to September offering the most clement weather, especially for visiting the caves, as there are no lighting facilities inside but the sunshine perfuse the caves with radiance at this time.

The Founding 

Mogao CavesAccording to "An Account Of Buddhist Shrines" written by Li Junxiu during the reign of Tang Empress Wu (684-704), a monk named Lezun (also known as Yuezun) founded the Mogao Caves in 366. It is said this monk's favorite disciple, Zhiqin, had a holy vision here. As the last rays of the sun struck the peak of Sanwei Mountain, the disciple Zhiqin looked up to see the Maitreya Buddha (Buddha of the future) sitting in a golden light, surrounded by a host of celestial maidens playing musical instruments and dancing for his entertainment. So awe-struck was the disciple that he immediately took up hammer and chisel, hollowed out the first of the grottoes and painted his vision there.

Scientists refer to large mica deposits in Sanwei Mountain as a possible explanation for the intense golden light related within Zhiqin's vision. Also several accounts refer to the great thirst and fatigue of the monk prior to his vision and thereby seem to imply the potential for a hallucination


There were originally about 1,000 Buddhist cave temples here, over 600 of which survive in recognizable form. Many are off-limits, however, either because they are not of significant interest or they contain Tantric murals considered too sexually explicit for visitors.
Thirty main caves are open to the public, and most visitors manage to visit no more than fifteen in a day. The caves are all clearly labeled with numbers above the doors. They are not lit inside, in order to preserve the murals, but guides carry flashlights and visitors should bring their own as well.

Northern Wei, Western Wei & Northern Zhou Caves
Mogao CavesThe earliest caves are distinctly Indian in style and iconography. All contain a central pillar, representing a stupa, which the devout would circle in prayer. Paint was derived from malachite (green), cinnabar (red) and lapis lazuli (bule), 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. Don't be fooled by the thick, black modernist strokes - it's the oxidisation of lead in the paint, not some forerunner of Picasso.

Sui Caves
Mogao CavesThe Sui dynasty (AD 581-618) 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.

The Sui dynasty was short-lived, and very much a transition between the Wei and Tang periods. This can be seen in the Sui caves: the graceful Indian curves in the Buddha and Bodhisattva figures start to give way to the more rigid style of Chinese sculpture.

Tang Caves
During the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907), China pushed its borders westward as far as Lake Balkash in today's Lazakhstan. Trade expanded and foreign merchants and people of diverse religions steamed into the Tang capital of Chang'an.

Mogao CavesThis was the high point of the cave art at Mogao. Painting and sculpture techniques became much more refined, and some important aesthetic developments, notably the sex change (from male to female) of Guiyin and the flying apsaras, took place. The beautiful murals depicting the Buddhist Western Paradise offer rare insights into the sourt life, music, dress and architecture of Tang China.

Some 230 caves were carved during the Tang dynasty, including two impressive grottoes containing enormous, seated Buddha figures. By this time space in the caves was at a premimum and many murals were painted over existing images. The statue residing in cave 96 (believed to be represent Empress Wu Zetian, who used Buddhism to consolidate her power) is a towering 34.5m tall, making it the world's third-largest Buddha. The Buddha were carved from the top down using scaffolding, whose anchor holes 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, who controlled most of Gansu from 983 to 1227, made a number of additions to the caves ar Mogao and began to introduce Tibetan influences.

Location: 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang city in Jiuquan, Gansu Province
Tel: 0937-8869060
Transportation: Taking special non-stop bus in Dunhuang city, the bus is available per 0.5 hour during 08:30am and 20:00pm
Opening Hours: 9:00am~17:00pm
Admission Fee:
CNY 160 (May 1 to Oct. 31); CNY180 (including English guide)
CNY 80 (Nov.1 to Apr. 30); CNY 100 (including English Guide)
Recommended Time for a Visit: 1 day
The Best Tourism Season: Summer and Autumn

Mogao Caves

Travel Tips:

How to get to Dunhuang

By Air
Dunhuang Airport (DNH) is located about 13 kilometers away to the east of the city center.  It operate a series of scheduled flights to Beijing, Shanghai, Xian, Lanzhou and Urumqi.

By Train
There are now two railway stations available for your trip to and from Dunhuang: Dunhuang Railway Station and Liuyuan Railway Station.

Dunhuang Railway Station is located 15 kilometers (9.3 miles) away form the city center. At present, trains connecting Dunhuang with Jiayuguan, Xian, Lanzhou and Yinchuan leave from this station. In front of the station square, there are many taxis and minibuses heading for the downtown area. The minibus fare is about CNY3 and the journey to the city center is no more than 20 minutes. Moreover, buses heading for Mogao Caves coming from the Dunhuang Hotel in the downtown area stop in front of the railway station every half hour. You can take these buses to get to the Mogao Caves directly.

Before the opening of the Dunhuang Railway Station, Liuyuan Railway Station was the main transfer station for people getting to Dunhuang by train. This station is about 128 kilometers (79.5 miles) north of the downtown area. Tourists can travel directly by train to Liuyuan Railway Station from Shanghai, Beijing, Xian, Chengdu, Lanzhou, Urumqi, Chongqing, Lianyungang, Zhengzhou, Hankou, etc. In the square in front of Liuyuan Railway Station, there are minibuses and taxies which can take you to downtown Dunhuang. The minibus usually charges CNY30 per person. Taxies or other cars may ask for CNY100 per car. To get to the railway station from downtown Dunhuang, you can take the bus from Dunhuang Long-Distance Bus Station.
1. If you take the taxies or other cars at night, you can bargain with the driver about the fare and usually you'd get some discount.
2. Do not trust the driver who quotes you a quite low price, because if he may raise the price on the way (at the vast and desolate rocky desert), you may have no choice but to pay more.

By Long-Distance Bus
There is only one bus station in the city, which is called Dunhuang Bus Station. The bus station is located at No.24 Mingshan Road, Shazhou Town, opposite Feitian Hotel. This bus station operates buses to Xining, Lanzhou, Zhangye, Urumqi, Delhi, Golmud, Huatugou, Aksay, Subei, Guazhou, Yumen, Jiayuguan, Jiuquan, Jinta, Fengle, Shandan, Wuwei, Tongwei, Hami and Turpan. Apart from these destinations, there are 8 buses from Dunhuang Bus Station to Dunhuang Railway Station daily.
Tips: Buses to Lanzhou, Xining, Golmud and Zhangye are usually sleeper coaches. There are also sleeper buses, sleeper minibuses and air-conditioned buses. Visitors can confirm the types of vehicles in the bus stations

Activities and Events
Temple Fair on the eighth day of the Chinese lunar 4th Month
Location: The Mogao Grottoes and the Leiyin Temple (always participated by local people

Best Time for Visiting:
May to October is the best time for visiting Dunhuang. In the low season, it is hard to buy articles and take buses in Dunhuang, although the tickets are cheap in the low season. During that time, you’d better prepare some sun protection products such as sun cream and hats or caps.