Honeycombing desert cliffs above the Dachuan River, the ‘Caves of a Thousand Buddhas’ at Mogao, Dunes near the town of Dunhuang, are the greatest surviving monuments of the Silk Road. Around 500 chambers are all that’s left of a once much larger complex, excavated over a thousand-year period beginning in the 4th century AD.
The caves served mainly as hermits’ cells and monasteries, and are adorned with resplendent murals and sculpture – a storehouse of ancient Buddhist art unrivalled in China. Finds from the so-called ‘Library Cave’ here included the world’s oldest printed book, the ‘Diamond Sutras’, carried off by Aurel Stein and now part of the British Library’s collection. Mogao’s wonderful clay sculptures, giant Buddhas and frescoes, however, remain in situ and more than repay the effort it takes to reach this remote site.