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Journey to the breathtaking West (2)

(Shanghai Daily)

08:54, October 24, 2011

The overnight train took around 14 hours and I greeted a brisk morning in high spirits when we reached Dunhuang's new railway station, completed in 2006 and located less than 5 kilometers from the city proper.

Dunhuang, a county-level city with a population of 130,000, lies in Gansu in the region where it borders Qinghai Province and the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. The area itself was originally named Shazhou or Sandbank and the name has connotations of grandeur and prosperity.

Dunhuang, once an oasis on the Silk Road, was a crucial hub for flourishing East-West trade (it was named for Chinese silk that was traded westward) and cultural contacts between ancient China and nations of Central Asia and Europe.

The Silk Road, opened up during the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC-AD 24), started in Chang'an (now Xi'an, capital city of Shaanxi Province) and extended through what is now Gansu and Xinjiang, through Central Asia to Europe and parts of North and East Africa.

Buddhism also was introduced to China from India through the Silk route.

As soon as I arrived in Dunhuang, I went on a nonstop pilgrimage to the Mogao Grottoes, the Buddhist art treasures listed in 1987 as China's first UNESCO World Heritage Site. It lies just 16 kilometers southeast of the center of Dunhuang.

The grottoes, also known as the Caves of 1,000 Buddhas, contain more than 730 caves and a system of 492 temples extending more than 1.6km in length, carved into the eastern cliffs of Mingsha Mountain.

The caves contain some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years; the first caves were dug in AD 366 as places of meditation and worship.

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