A taste of desert culture

Guests deserve sympathy along the Silk Road. As such, I was offered the most prized part of a freshly slaughtered lamb by the head of a Kazakh family - the stomach.

The previous evening in the oasis town of Dunhuang, I had also been given the VIP treatment by local government officials who ordered an expensive delicacy, camel's foot.

Then of course there are the toasts. Talkative hosts can be harmful to your health. Each speech was followed by the order Yum Bei! and it would have been bad manners not to knock back in one gulp the rocket fuel they claim is rice wine.

Alcohol loosens tongues, the speeches continued and the waiters kept pouring. The only escape is to deftly empty the contents into a glass of coke as your hosts tip their heads back.

Dunhuang, the hub of the 2,000-year-old Silk Road, does have plenty to celebrate, though. This town of 20,000, isolated some 1,500 kilometres west of Xian, and surrounded by hostile desert, is expecting a tourism boom as transport links are improved.

I had flown into Dunhuang's tiny airport, which is about to be extended, in a small aircraft from that ancient, first capital of China, expecting to be hit by a blast of hot air as the doors were opened. Temperatures can reach almost 50 degrees Celsius on the Silk Road.

Instead there was driving rain and a cool breeze, conditions almost unheard of out here.

The following morning though, as we left the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel, built in the style of a Ming Dynasty palace in a setting straight from the history books under shifting sands, it was blazing hot and as dry as bleached bones.

We would drive for more than four hours through an area newly-opened to tourists. Akasai, I was told, was yet to receive its first tour group.

On the way to Dunhuang's Mogao caves, China's treasure trove of ancient Buddhist art and sculptures, 25 kilometres from town, stone burial mounds litter the desert, about 10,000 of them. Some of these simple graves are said to date back to the fifth century AD.

But as we headed into the Akasai area, home to nomadic Kazakh herdsmen, there were few burial mounds. It was too remote.

We drove off the desert road through a steep-sided narrow gully that would have been impossible to find without a guide.

Here, in the heart of this seemingly inhospitable terrain, we came across a hidden valley, made fertile by a river, overlooked by caves which had been hewn by hand into the cliffs by Buddhist monks around 1,300 years ago.

Amazingly, Buddhists had stumbled across this secret valley as they explored by camel-back, and had made it their home.

We scrambled up a steep slope and edged our way along a narrow ledge in the cliff face to the five grottoes whose walls had once been covered with beautifully hand-painted frescoes and filled with statues of Sakyamuni and his disciples, only to find that the caves had been vandalised.

The roof of one cave which had probably been covered with paintings of the Buddha, was now black from the smoke of fires where workmen had cooked, sheltering from the fierce sun.

Most of the remaining frescoes had also been damaged, the eyes gouged out in some cases, and others had been covered by graffiti.

I was told the Red Guards had never reached here. This wanton vandalism had probably been done by people of other religious denominations, perhaps centuries ago, who wanted to wipe out all traces of Buddhism.

The authorities have now put doors on the caves, which are padlocked. Officials opened the caves for us, and though some of the frescoes are nearly intact, it seemed a bit like shutting the door after the horse has bolted.

Though saddened by this desecration, looking out across this silent valley, it was easy to imagine the simple, peaceful lifestyle of those monks so long ago, made possible by the river below that still feeds this area. The only inhabitants in the valley now are a family of Kazakh sheep farmers.

Our spirits were soon uplifted though, as we continued through the desert landscape, empty on all horizons but for an endless line of telegraph poles, marching through the desert like soldiers to who knows where.

We passed empty grasslands, climbed through steep passes dotted with yurts, where mountain goats searched for sparse tufts of grass on the precarious slopes, and we stopped to climb mountainous, wind-whipped sand dunes.

Kazakh boys, expert horsemen, herded sheep. Proud of their independence, and perhaps a little annoyed at the intrusion, they totally ignored us as we stopped to take photographs.

Eventually, at the top of a mountain pass, an indescribably beautiful vista opened up before us. Far below, grasslands stretched seemingly forever to the left, while desert ran away to the horizon on the right, ending at the foothills of snowcapped mountains which ran parallel to the ribbon of road.

We drove on without seeing a soul, to the shores of Su Dang lake where migrant birds fed, undisturbed. Here, by the long abandoned ruins of a mining settlement, stood a yurt, and the Kazakh family of five invited us to join them for lunch.

This was no tourist yurt. These were genuine herdsmen who live out here in the summer months, and return to their simple village several hours from here to shelter during the harsh winter months.

The head of the family took out a red cloth bundle and spread it out across the thickly carpeted floor of the yurt, as we sat cross-legged. It contained cheese made from sheep's milk and small buns, which we dipped into sheep butter. We washed it down with bowls of sheep milk. They poured water over our hands and we waited to be given a small towel, careful not to shake off the excess, which is regarded as bad manners.

And then the whole cooked lamb was brought in in a large metal dish, even the head, and I was invited to eat the stomach. We tore at the meat with our hands, forming a circle around the bowl.

Later, we would drive along the trackless lake shore watching the wild birds before undertaking the long journey back to Dunhuang.

If you do nothing else in Dunhuang, you must watch the sun rise from the knife-edge ridges of the Mingsha sand dunes and visit the Mogao caves. This great Buddhist site is the main reason why so many people make their way here.

We rose at 5am the next day, and camels were waiting outside the Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel to take us through the darkness to the shifting sands that tower several hundred metres above the oasis.

The dunes are continually changing shape, carved by the desert winds, and we dismounted to climb cautiously and quietly up a knife edge ridge.

From the top, we would settle to watch the sun rise, but this would be a tough climb. The ridge was only about 60 centimetres wide, and at either side the dune fell away steeply. A fall would probably not cause injury in this soft sand, but it would be a long, exhausting climb back.

As the sun broke over the horizon, the vast expanse of desert was gradually highlighted before us, dwarfing the cypress-fringed oasis below, making it look very vulnerable to the force of nature.

We watched the changing hues of these massive dunes as the light improved before making our way to the lower slopes, where hotel staff, resplendent in red jackets, had set tables in the sand overlooking the pagoda of Crescent Lake, which is surrounded by dunes. In this surreal setting, feeling like guests at a Mad Hatter's tea party, we were served American breakfast on tables that had been carried up during the night, before mounting our camels to return to the hotel.

Later, outside the Magao caves, I felt despondent surrounded by souvenir shops. It seemed only a giant money-making venture. There was even a charge for using the toilet. But inside the complex of 492 caves hacked into cliffs, some as long ago as 1,600 years, it was peaceful, even holy.

Most of the caves with their giant carved Buddhas and beautifully painted frescoes covering walls and roofs, are still in good condition, the ancient art preserved by the dry desert air.

And the authorities have taken steps to ensure that these treasures will not be destroyed by tourism.

No cameras are allowed inside, and all caves are padlocked. Only one party of tourists can enter each cave at a time, and only a handful are opened to visitors. They must be accompanied by a guide.

As Buddhism swept through China, Buddhist artists made the long, arduous journey from India by camel to paint these sacred caves. I would soon be retracing part of their journey, for this was just the beginning for me. Ahead lay around 1,000 kilometres of desert to Urumqi.

Hong Kong's Silk Road Travel offers various Silk Road tours, tailor-made if required.

Phone 2736-8828, fax 2736-8000.

Next week's Review: Gobbled up by the Gobi, a picture special