CHINA’S most magnificent Buddhist grotto is getting too much love, being trampled by hordes of modern-day visitors. Now tourists going to the site in northwestern China’s Gansu Province are entering through a new visitor center that officials hope will slow down the wear and tear on the sacred place.
Carved out of the cliffs 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang, the Mogao Grottoes site lies at a strategic point on the ancient Silk Road, where religion, culture and commerce between the East and West intersected for 1,000 years.
There are 492 caves, 2,415 sculptures and 45,000 square meters of murals at the site, which span 1,600 meters from north to south.
The Mogao Grottoes gained international fame in 1900, when a local monk broke through the wall of a cave and found 50,000 cultural relics from the 4th to 14th centuries. Among them were Buddhist scriptures, embroidery, paintings, letters, works of literature, contracts and account books written in many languages.
With long winters and short but hot summers, the area is most pleasant to visit between June and September. But increasing crowds from all over the world are endangering the condition of the centuries-old grottoes.
In 1979, when the Mogao site was first opened to the public, it received fewer than 10,000 visitors. In 2012 nearly 800,000 people showed up, creating a big challenge to the protection of the treasures.
“Mogao Grottoes are vanishing, 100 times faster than the erosion in the ancient times,” said Fan Jinshi, director of the Dunhuang Research Institute. “Apart from the erosion by wind, sand and water, such a large number of daily visitors also imposes a heavy burden on the ancient treasures.”
The new digital exhibition center aims to ease the situation.
Different from the previous on-site ticket-buying process, visitors must make a reservation by phone or via Internet beforehand. Upon arrival, they are guided to the digital exhibition center to see two films that give them some knowledge of Mogao Grottoes. Then a shuttle bus will take them to the grottoes for sightseeing.
The changes decrease the amount of time visitors spend inside the grottoes, allowing entry of about 6,000 people per day, almost double the previous figure.
The admission fee for the digital exhibition center is 60 yuan (US$9.67), while admission to Mogao Grottoes is set at 160 yuan for the peak season and 80 yuan for the low season. According to a report in Gansu Daily, visitors may either buy tickets on site or make reservation before September 10. After that, all tickets need to be reserved and there’s a limit of 6,000 visitors per day.
“The digital plus on-site visit actually enriches the visiting experience of Mogao Grottoes,” says Li Ping, director of the digital exhibition center. “The films will introduce the cultural and historical background, and also unveils the seven grottoes with very high artistic value.”
The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art. They were dug out in AD 366 as places of Buddhist meditation and worship.
The Mogao Grottoes are the best known of the Chinese Buddhist grottoes and, along with Longmen Grottoes and Yungang Grottoes, are one of the three famous ancient Buddhist sculptural sites of China.
In Fan’s eyes, the digital center represents an eternal protection for Mogao Grottoes. In the 1980s, officials launched a database, recording each grotto.
“About 492 grottoes have 492 files individually. Each file needs at least six pictures to show the inside, such as the four walls, the roof and the front. In other words, there will be 3,000 pictures in total,” Fan says. “But at that time, our institute was short of budget and even a camera. It was so difficult to obtain these pictures.”
And more needs to be done, she adds. “Today when using these file photos, we are still not satisfied as most of the pictures are in black and white, which cannot fully reflect the charisma of the splendid murals inside the grottoes. Also photos or tapes will become damaged over time.”
Established about 70 years ago, the Dunhuang Research Institute not only focuses on the protection of the grottoes and their sculptures and murals, but also of the natural and humanistic environment that relates to the grottoes.
“It involves physics, chemistry, engineering, architecture, environment, computer and biology,” Fan says.
At the end of the 1990s, the institute began work with overseas organizations to digitize the site, partly in an effort to save it from the busloads of visitors.
“The space inside the grottoes is small, and sometimes it is hard for visitors to see the upper mural paintings there, and sometimes some special grottoes are closed to visitors,” Fan says. “We need to balance between people’s passion to see the grottoes and the protection of these grottoes.”
Under the ravages of time, the mural paintings inside the grottoes are slowly decaying, and Fan and the institute want to extend their lifespan.
“A digitized Mogao Grottoes can not only provide file materials and photos, but a new tourist program for the visitors as well,” Fan says. “Today you might not think so highly of these digital files, but what about 10 years, 20 years, 50 years or 100 years later? Their value will be increasing as time passes.”