Continuing on the Great Ride of China tour I’d like to do a quick summary of Gansu province, next stop after Ningxia where we explored the cave dwellings of the Loess Plateau. As the readers of CBR will know, this website deals not only with the topic of building restoration, but also with many related topics that fall under the wider net of architectural heritage, preservation and sustainable building solutions within China. Therefore I’m happy to have a chance to talk more about other forms of heritage restoration in this post, looking a bit closer at how Gansu province preserves it’s ancient relics whilst still dealing with year-on-year increases in tourism.
Points of Interest
Navigate through to the different places we visited by clicking on the links below. Scroll back to the top of the page to get back here or feel free to keep on reading!
Gansu’s geography is largely an arid one with the majority of it’s land 1,000m above sea level. Much of the province is wedged between the Tibetan Plateau (in Qinghai) and the Loess Plateau of Shaanxi and Ningxia. Gansu (甘肃) has parts of 3 deserts intersecting it’s borders, the best known one being the Gobi Desert. The north of the province shares its border with Xinjiang, Mongolia and Inner Mongolia, all of them sharing an arid, flat terrain. Meanwhile the south borders the more mountainous regions of Sichuan.
Gansu’s northern climate is very dry, whilst the southern climes are a little more forgiving, especially where the upper reaches of the Yellow River flow from Qinghai through Lanzhou (兰州), Gansu’s capital city, and on to Ningxia. Thanks to this largely dry climate however, Gansu has managed to maintain many valuable architectural and cultural relics fairly successfully. The Silk Road also ran through Gansu, making it an important trading post, a cultural intersection for exchanging goods, religious ideas and the arts.
As we continued to make our way evermore west, the demographic also started to shift, with Tibetan and Muslim minorities starting to make an appearance in the Han dominated communities. (photo of mosque)
Jiayuguan Pass (嘉峪关)
Jiayuguan Pass is the most intact surviving ancient military building of the Great Wall. Construction on the pass started in the early Ming dynasty (1368-1644), around 1372. It was the most westerly outpost and first pass of the Great Wall, earning it the name “The First And Greatest Pass Under Heaven” (天下第一雄关). The pass is located in the Hexi Corridor (also known as the Gansu Corridor), a fertile strip of land in the narrowest part of the province. This corridor is fed by rivers from the Qilian Mountains on it’s south-west border, which serves as a vital link between the north-west of China (and Central Asia beyond) and China proper.
With part of the northern Silk Road running along the Hexi Corridor, Jiayuguan Pass acted as a strategic trading post, the guarded fort a welcome sight for caravans that had spent weeks circumnavigating the inhospitable Taklamakan desert of neighbouring Xinjiang province. Jiayuguan was also known as a gate of exile, as criminals or disgraced officials would be banished from the security of “civilised” China at this gate, fated to live amongst barbarians in the wilderness and not allowed to return.
Having previously visited the most easterly part of the Great Wall at Qinhuangdao (秦皇岛), known as The Old Dragon’s Head (老龙头 ‘lao long tou’), we were excited to be able to visit the most westerly end of the Wall.
Due to the different times of construction and the different natural materials available, not all parts of the Great Wall were constructed the same. The Jiayuguan part of the Wall is made from layers of rammed loess, in between which seem to be embedded layers of straw or other dried grasses, as in some eroded parts you can clearly see them sticking out of the wall. Thanks to the dry climate the Jiayuguan section of the wall is surprisingly well preserved, although the desert with it’s strong winds and whipping sands is also slowly reclaiming parts of it.
Whilst we were visiting the wall there was an interesting exhibition being put together by William Lindsay and his organisation ‘Friends of the Great Wall‘ on “re-photographing” various sections of the wall to demonstrate the level of both decay and quality of preservation over several decades.
Crescent Moon Lake
100km west of Jiayuguan lies the city of Dunhuang (敦煌) which borders the Gobi desert. As you ride in along the main street it’s rather extraordinary to see these giant golden sand dunes looming over the tiny man-made structures that make up the city. 6km south of the city, at the edge of the desert lies another one of Gansu’s treasures; the Crescent Moon Lake (月牙泉 ‘yue ya quan’). The lake, which is actually an oasis, gets its crescent shape due to a combination of it’s low altitude and a prevailing wind that keeps the oasis sand free whilst building up the sand dunes around it. Despite all this sand movement the water remains clear, lending a certain romantic mysticism to this 2,000 year old emerald in the desert.
When the water depth was measured in 1960 it came to 4-5 meters with the deepest point measuring 7 meters. However due to the rapid shrinking of the underground water table over the following 40 years, the oasis started to disappear, until in 1990 it’s depth measured only 1 meter. Finally in 2006 the local government stepped in and started to refill the oasis. It seems an effort is being made to maintain the shape of the water feature and a small fence running along it’s edge stops tourists from getting too close causing damage to it’s borders.
25km southeast of Dunhuang city, carved into the side of a cliff are 492 cells, caves and temples know collectively as the Mogao Caves (莫高窟). These caves, also known as the ‘Mogao Grottoes’ or the Thousand-Buddha Caves’, were started in 366AD by a Buddhist monk who had a vision of a thousand buddhas bathed in golden light at that spot, inspiring him to build the first cave, or so the legend goes.Running along one of the Silk Road branches, the Mogao Caves were a handy place for caravaners to pray and give thanks after a safe passage through the wilderness. According to UNESCO the caves are of ‘outstanding universal value’, holding some of the most complete examples of Ancient Chinese and Buddhist artwork in the form of paintings, architecture, sculptures and written records. Below is an excerpt from the UNESCO website listing six criteria to support their listing.
Criteria (i): The group of caves at Mogao represents a unique artistic achievement both by the organization of space into 492 caves built on five levels and by the production of more than 2,000 painted sculptures, and approximately 45,000 square meters of murals, among which are many masterpieces of Chinese art.
Criteria (ii): For 1,000 years, from the period of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534) to the Mongol-led Yuan Dynasty (1276-1386), the caves of Mogao played a decisive role in artistic exchanges between China, Central Asia and India.
Criteria (iii): The paintings at Mogao bear exceptional witness to the civilizations of ancient China during the Sui, Tang and Song dynasties.
Criteria (iv): The Thousand-Buddha Caves constitute an outstanding example of a Buddhist rock art sanctuary.
Criteria (v): Occupied by Buddhist monks from the end of the 19th century up to 1930, the rock art ensemble at Mogao, administered by the Dunhuang Cultural Relics Research Institute, preserves the example of a traditional monastic settlement.
Criteria (vi): The caves are strongly linked to the history of transcontinental relations and of the spread of Buddhism throughout Asia. For centuries the Dunhuang oasis, near which the two branches of the Silk Road forked, enjoyed the privilege of being a relay station where not only merchandise was traded, but ideas as well, exemplified by the Chinese, Tibetan, Sogdian, Khotan, Uighur and even Hebrew manuscripts found within the caves.
When we visited the caves there were two things stuck out to me. The first was the unusual shape and structure of the caves. Generally when one thinks of caves and cave paintings, my mind at least will go to a carved opening in the side of a cliff with some faint images on a rough stone surface. However when I entered the first cave at Mogao I was struck by the neat and precise geometry of the space. The caves we were guided through were generally square or rectangular in shape with high trapezoid ceilings. Often additional alcoves would be carved into the back or side walls to house various sized buddhas or bodhisattvas.
The second thing I noticed was how well the entire visitor experience was organised. This might seem like an odd focus-point, however having been to numerous world heritage sites in China over the years you come to realise that just because there is a UNESCO label on it does not necessarily mean the site is treated with the respect that such a label should entitle it to. This is to say Chinese tourists sites, as a rule, are always combating overcrowding problems, and UNESCO sites more so than others. Poor site management and lack of staff training, plus generally poor layout planning and lax rules allowing trinket sellers to line all major walkways and harass visitors at will, will inevitably leave the visitor with a feeling of frustration and disappointment (and most likely severely elevated blood pressure) rather than one of enlightenment or appreciation.
At Mogao this was a different story. For a start (and probably one of the most important factors), was the implementation of crowd management. At the time we were there in 2013, 6,000 people a day were allowed to visit the caves. This was already a vast improvement from earlier peak-season numbers that could reach up to 20,000. Since our visit, the number has been further reduced to 3,000 per day. When you buy your entrance ticked you are allocated to a small tour group with an exact time for being allowed to visit the caves. The tour guide is well informed and enthusiastic, doing a good job ushering the group along so that there is no bottle-necking. In many instances the guide would tell a trigger-happy, camera-wielding tourist to help maintain the integrity of the murals by not taking pictures, as minimum exposure to UV light would help preserve the relics better. The guides themselves also only carried a single flashlight to point out the most interesting sights. The guide also told us that in order to limit damage done by visitors (who raise temperature, humidity, and carbon dioxide levels), only certain caves are open at certain times. Each set of open caves is rotated so that no one set becomes overexposed. The amount of time spent in each cave was also limited, with lengthier explanations conducted outside before entering.
This type of good crowd management is in my opinion one of the best ways of supporting the preservation of these structures and relics, especially in a country that simultaneously has such a fast-growing middle-income population as well as such a long and rich history. I found it very encouraging to see such measures being taken to preserve an important cultural relic while also still allowing it to be appreciated by the general public.
Bingling Temple (炳灵寺), also known as the ‘Bingling Grottoes’, and ‘Thousand-Buddhas’ Cave’ – the word Bingling being a Tibetan transliteration for “thousands of Buddhas” – are a series of buddhist caves carved into the side of a canyon running along the Yellow River. Bingling Temple is located north of the Liujiaxia (刘家峡) reservoir and around 100km southeast of Lanzhou. These grottoes have a history of over 1,600 years, with construction of the first cave beginning in 420AD during Western Qin dynasty (385-400AD, 409-431AD) at which time buddhism was heavily influential.
Today the site, comprising of some 9,00 square meters, still holds 183 caves, 694 stone statues, 82 clay sculptures, and numerous murals. As with the Mogao Caves which are famed for their ornate murals, so the Bingling Grottoes are known for their extensive collection of carved Buddhas. These well-preserved grottoes form a comprehensive record of the history of buddhism’s development in China, earning them a place on the UNESCO World Heritage list in 2014.
One of our (slightly more trivial) goals for the trip was to collect as many giant Buddha sightings as possible; we ended up ticking off 9 in total. Bingling Temple is home to the 27m tall seated Maitreya Buddha, carved out of the sandstone rock during the Tang dynasty (618–690AD, 705–907AD) in 731AD, it is China’s 5th largest Buddha. When we visited in 2013 the Buddha had just undergone a 3 year restoration process focusing on areas that had suffered from the effects of natural erosion as well as human destruction following various feudal wars. Reinforcement works had also been conducted to the base of the Buddha. However this was by no means the first time the Bingling Temple had undergone restoration works. Since 1955 when China’s Central Cultural Ministry conducted it’s first survey of the caves, the grottoes have undergone several rounds of preservation and restoration. In the mid 1960s, after the Liujiaxia dam was built, the government invested RMB 15 million to build 220m long levies to protect the grottoes from the rising water.
From 1997 to 1999, the State Administration of Cultural Heritage invested RMB 4.86 million to implement rock reinforcement works and carried out seepage control works which helped control the long-term problems of damage caused by falling rocks as well as water seepage. In 2009 restoration works were carried out on murals in cave 183 which had been damaged by cracks in the rocks, leading to birds nesting in the caves. A stone stupa dating back to the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368) underwent restoration works in 2011, which included repairing areas that had suffered erosion from weathering.
Most recently the Binglingsi Conservation Institute declared the launch of a rock stabilising project in April 2014. Proposed works include reinforcing and securing loose rock mass on both sides of the gorge; detecting and resolving seepage problems for 172 caves and cleaning up sediment that has built up over the centuries around the gorge.
Our next stop on our journey around China will be the Old Town of Kashgar, the most westerly city in China with a rich 2,000 year history and formally an important trading post between China, the Middle East and Europe during the time of the Silk Road.