DUNHUANG, CHINA -- The pre-dawn sky was still dark. In a second I would reach the point of no return. Should I jump off my camel now or hang on for dear life? I could hear the groans of my fellow riders as their two-humped Bactrian camels grunted and rose, back legs first, from their kneeling position on the rough sands of the Gobi desert. White knuckles clutched the horn of the wooden saddle balanced between two furry humps and suddenly, before my feet could find the stirrups, I was riding adrift through time, space, and sand in a camel caravan along the legendary Silk Road.
As the sun slowly reddened the misty sky above the dunes I was rocking in rhythm with my lumbering camel, dreaming I was a character in the Chinese epic novel The Journey to the West, first published more than 400 years ago. Ahead I could see my hero, the pilgrim Xuanzang who, around 645AD, brought Buddhist scriptures from India to the sacred library in the Dunhuang temple-caves. Aloft another camel was Fa-hsien, the monk who, in 399AD, wrote the first account of the Buddhist cities that flourished for a thousand years in the Kingdom of Khotan, an ancient Buddhist civilization along the Silk Road. In his footsteps came Marco Polo, followed by the British archaeologist Sir Aurel Stein, carrying a shovel. These characters mark only a fraction of the ancient history that the new China is beginning to rediscover--yet another indication of its emergence as a significant member of the community of nations.
My mirage was suddenly shattered as my camel lurched into a sharp climb up Mingsha Mountain. And into reality rode my husband, Top, daughter Karen, and grandson Torin, who marked the fifth generation of our family to travel China. We were with a caravan of 15 American "Friends of Dunhuang," who had recently arrived by plane from the United States to explore and help preserve the Mogao Grottoes. In the distance, silhouetted on the ridge, with the sand dunes towering over Crescent Lake, were lines of camels bearing hundreds of Chinese tourists who had come to Dunhuang in search of their ancestral roots that had been recorded, centuries before Ellis Island, in marathon murals, painted by Buddhist monks on the walls of the nearby grottoes.
Dunhuang was originally established as a frontier outpost of the Chinese empire by the Han dynasty Emperor Wudi in 111 BC. It was strategically situated at the western end of the Hexi Corridor between Mongolia and Tibet, flanked by the Taklamakan and Gobi Deserts in what was then known as Chinese Turkistan. Today, after a millennium of neglect, the Magao Grottoes are being restored, and the archaeological site is attracting millions of Chinese, enjoying their newfound wealth and freedom to explore their cultural patrimony.
China's fast-growing economy and rising living standards have stirred a renewed national pride and interest in its ancient cultural heritage. At the same time, the new post-Mao leadership of China is confident enough in its authority that it can, without fear, allow its people to rediscover their nation's pre-communist legacy. The spectacular opening ceremony of the Olympics in August 2008 showed the world--in a techno-alchemy pageant symbolizing the 5,000 years of China's recorded history--that the "Sleeping Dragon" has awakened with a roar that is shaking the world. Indeed, as Beijing more confidently affirms its robust presence on the global stage, the nation's rich history lends legitimacy to the claim of renewing its long-dormant authority and superpower status.
In practical terms, the Chinese government is lending financial support to conservationists and scientists embarking on new projects to both preserve and unveil long-neglected cultural treasures. This may be one of the great gifts of the Chinese nation to its people, transcending even its growing economic and political muscle.
The Mogao Grottoes, known by the Chinese name Mogaoku or "Peerless Caves," are honeycombed into a conglomerate sandstone cliff rising from the east bank of the Dunquan River that slips quietly through a small green valley on the lip of the Gobi desert. Some 492 of the original 800 caves preserve a unique record, spanning ten centuries of cultural interchange between China and the West. The Dunhuang Academy, custodian of the grottoes since its founding in 1944, is pioneering advanced conservation techniques in partnership with the Getty Conservation Institute and the Chinese government. They recently launched an initiative intended to preserve history by digitizing the artwork enshrined in the caves. The project could serve as a model for cultural preservation globally. After five years of planning, a state-of-the-art visitors' center resembling the rippling shapes of the nearby sand dunes was recently approved by the Chinese government, which is picking up 70 percent of the cost.
In the early 1920s, after a thousand years of virtual obscurity, this great museum in the desert was rediscovered by foreign archaeologists...