Since my camera decided to stay in the hostel that day, I took zero pictures. The pictures in this post are from Wikipedia and the UNESCO World Heritage site official page. Inside this building was a giant, seating Buddha the entire height of this building.
So remember when I said traveling in this region was tough? Well, I had the most difficulty in Dunhuang, China. Going to the desert was easy, my hostel was right next door and I just walked. But the other exciting part of town is the Magao Grotto. It is one of the best preserved Buddhist artwork sites in the world, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. As such, I thought information would be easy and services convenient.
I was wrong.
Turns out, unlike pretty much every place in China, you cannot go to the caves to get a ticket. It is protected and they only allow 6,000 people a day. For China 6,000 is like, the amount of customers at one KFC. That is to say, not a lot. And I was there in summer. On the weekend.
I figured out I needed to pre-buy tickets Saturday night for a Sunday visit. I asked my hostel for help. “Mei banfa,” she said. Loosely translated to “Your on your own sucker, now fuck off so I can keep watching this TV show.” I took out my ipad and started searching the web. Again, my thinking of “it’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, there must be a ton of info!” turned out to be quite incorrect.
Even worse, it seemed like quite recently, the process had changed. So the information gleaned from different sites was contradictory. I eventually figured out I had to go into town to the official ticket office to get a ticket which would have a time I would need to arrive at the caves. So Sunday morning I did just that. I figured I would never get a ticket for that day, but she told me I could get an afternoon time. I couldn’t believe my luck!
“Today?” I double checked (speaking Chinese).
“This afternoon,” she said. She took a pen and changed the printed date on the ticket from the 8th to the 7th. It was a little sketchy but she was the official ticket seller so I figured it was fine. I took my ticket and went back to the hostel.
About 30 minutes before my appointed time, I left my hostel to find taxi. As I’m walking I realized I left my phone in my room and ran back, hot and sweaty, to get it. Then I ran back out into the road and flagged down a taxi. “Magao,” I told him.
“Magao Grotto?” he said back and I nodded. Actually I didn’t know the Chinese word for grotto so he took out a picture on a brochure and pointed.
“Yeah!” I said taking out my ticket to show him. Only the ticket had a picture of the desert on it, not the Buddhist artwork. “Is this right?” I said looking closer at it.
“No, this is for the desert. Not the caves.”
I searched through my bag and came up empty handed. “It must be in my room, can we go to my hostel first and get it?” I asked the driver.
The artwork inside the caves is incredibly preserved with every cave filled with statues, colors and paintings all over.
So we drove back to the hostel and I tore apart my room looking for the damn ticket. Nothing. I upended my bag all over the bed, and searched through the few items there. Still nothing. I didn’t have much stuff, just an extra pair of pants and a few shirts, but I threw them all over the room looking for this damn ticket. Finally, I kinda shifted my diary and saw a piece of paper underneath. It was the ticket! I grabbed it, stuffed a bunch of junk back in my bag and ran back out to the driver who was getting impatient.
We drove to the caves, we were chatting in the car, and I reach in my bag to check my phone for the time. It wasn’t there. I checked my pockets. Not there. I re-checked my bag. Nothing. I resigned myself to fate. It seemed Buddha was determined for me to not have my phone/camera that day.
My ordeal didn’t end there though. I entered the hall, scanned my ticket and a big red X shows up. Fudge. They looked at my ticket. “It’s for tomorrow,” they said in Chinese. The woman had changed the date, from the 8th to the 7th on the ticket. But I had failed to realize that today was the 6th.
“She said it was for today, the woman that sold it to me,” I replied.
“We’ll call the manager,” said the ticket takers obviously wanting to get rid of me.
The outside of the caves are covered in a kind of protective stucco with a walkway built on the outside. Caves have heavy-duty doors which guides must open and close with each group. It seems a bit extreme but I was quite happy at the level of security to ensure these relics aren’t damaged.
The manager came over, a nice middle-aged lady, and she took my ticket. “It’s for tomorrow, not today,” she said in Chinese speaking painfully slow like I was a dumb kid. “It says the 7th, today is the 6th.”
“I know,” I said.
“It says the 7th, see? Today is the 6th,” she said pointing it out again.
“I know. But the woman said it was for today.”
“Where did you buy it?”
“At the office downtown,” I said.
“Well, it says the 7th, but today is the 6th.” But at this point the manager kinda stopped and looked at the ticket. because officially the ticket had printed the 8th and the lady at the office had changed it with a pen.
“Well, this is weird,” she said thinking. “Come over here a minute.” and we walked over to the coat check area while she took out her walkie-talkie to speak to someone else. Then she said, in English, “wait a moment, someone is coming out.”
I decided at this point, my best strategy was to play dumb. Suddenly my Chinese became halting and to everything she said I replied with “What? What?” until she just spoke English. I tried to look sweet, dumb, innocent. Like a baby animal you had to help.
The other manager looked at my ticket, and was confused by the writing as well. He called the downtown ticket office and asked about it. They spoke rapid Chinese and while pretending I didn’t understand, I listened and could tell the conversation was going my way.
“It says the 7th but today is the 6th,” said the other manager, repeating what I clearly knew already.
“I’m leaving tomorrow. I can’t come back!” I implored. Truth was I had a night train at midnight the next day. I could have come back the next afternoon but I had payed for the taxi dammit! And I was there now. They conferred and I heard the female manager fighting for me. Finally, the man relented and the woman told me that since I was leaving, I could go today. We went to an office where I got a new ticket, and entered.
But that kind lady didn’t stop there. The tour starts with two movies, in Chinese, and she got me special headphones with an English translation. “Enjoy your time,” she said. It was real customer service. In China! I was grateful to her she really didn’t have to be so nice, even in the face of me playing dumb.
Some of the caves had parables painted in them, and I enjoyed hearing the stories.
As for the caves themselves, they were quite amazing. You had to go with a group. The doors to each cave was locked and only the guide could open it (also, the caves had no light in them, so you needed to guide’s flashlight.) There were no tours in English that late, which was a shame because in each cave she talked quite a bit about when it was made and the meanings of the paintings. I understood only a few of the stories (my Buddhism vocabulary is not up to snuff, so I could only understand when she was telling the stories behind some of the paintings) but the place was fascinating. Very well preserved and each cave was filled with color and meaning.
It also has some sad history of major looting. Not mob-style grabs, but by foreigners who slowly, methodically won the trust of the head monks and then paid small fees to ship the amazing trove of books and artwork out of there. It happened more than 100 years ago, but the sore feelings are still fresh and it was brought up again and again on the tour.
But honestly, I will remember that day not for the artwork or the remote mountain caves, but rather for the ordeal it turned out to be and the nice manager that saved the day. Sometimes the journey is more memorable than the destination.