day 38: the biggest buddha toe you’ve ever seen

Last night we got in late to our glorious resort hotel in Dunhuang.  We entered the lobby and looked around, eyes wide with wonder, while the movie camera made dramatic circles around us.  This lobby is palatial.  Picture the hotel from The Shining, but like, Dunhuang-ish.  The only reason we can afford this place is because it’s the low season for tourism, so thank you oppressive heat.


Today we visit the Mogao Caves.  They are a network of ancient caves built into a cliffside.  Each cave serves as a place of Buddhist worship and meditation.  They are cavernous spaces, elaborately painted and populated with huge Buddha statutes.

DSC_8192-1Outside the Caves

DSC_8199-3Paintings Inside the Caves

From the outside, it looks like the petrified home of some ancient insect species, or maybe where you would imagine the Sand People from Star Wars would live – small dark doorways honey-combing the face of a tall cliff.  Very surreal.  It has a sort of “Cliffs of Petra” aura; like this might be the only place in the world that looks like this.

DSC_8228-10Sand People

The experience is not at all cheapened by my making Sam attempt to pose like the dancing goddess statue. Not. At. All.

DSC_8212-4First Attempt

DSC_8213-5Not Even Trying

DSC_8214-6The Best I Could Pull From the Model (Also, Her Face Isn’t Really That Red, I Had Some Crazy White Balance Thing Going On)

Along some parts of the cliffs, elaborate walkways, railings, and support infrastructure have been built to facilitate/protect against tourism.


In one coffin-like room lays a Sleeping Buddha, 45 feet long, with one thousand small Buddhas painted on the curving ceiling above.

You come to the Giant Buddha Cave, clearly the highlight of the trip judging by the 7-tiered temple facade decoration the outside of it.


You don’t know what to expect, but the name “Giant Buddha Cave” seems to be hinting that some sort of large-ish Buddha doesn’t seem entirely out of the question.  So you walk into the long, dark hallway separating the cave from the outside.  Finally, your eyes swimming, you begin to make out an large open space, on the other side of which is a stone wall made to look like fabric.  As you reach the entrance to room and realize what you are seeing, you lose your breath a little bit.  It isn’t a wall you were seeing, but the cloth of a seated Buddha’s robe hanging between his feet. You crane your neck back, back, baaaack and see the underside of his nose seventy-five feet above you.  A hole in the cliffside above allows a strong beam of light to shine on his serene face.  Somehow you can feel the height of the room pulling away from your shoulders.  You see the Buddha’s hand resting on his knee, the hand that people call “The Most Beautiful Hand In All of China,” but you think it is actually kind of boneless and limp. The sandaled big toe in front of you is larger than your torso.

The majesty of the reveal makes you think of the first explorer who made his way into this place and you feel just an inkling of the wonder and disbelief and fear that he must have felt.  It is a soul-stirring sight.

Of course, no photos allowed.  But trust me, it is amazing.

You return to the hotel and get leg massages while you drink beer, and then spend the afternoon sitting on the patio of the coffe house restaurant in your splendid hotel.


The sun gracefully lowers below the sand duned horizon and mercifully lets up its harsh glare. Wind blows through the distant trees, the pages of your journal, your hair, and quiet recordings of chinese traditional stringed instruments swim at the edge of your cognizance.  A Tsingtao beer sits half drunk on the table above your freshly massaged feet, which are propped on a cushioned chair.

DSC_8240-14Beer and Books

Over the railing, the flared roofs of quintessential chinese architecture jut proudly.  Behind them, immense sand dunes sharply divided in half by the light of the westering sun.



You eat dinner on that patio, chuanr served with flaming sterno gel to keep them warm, and little pizzas.  The sun sets and you watch shooting stars in the night.

DSC_8252-17Journal Time


1 Response to “day 38: the biggest buddha toe you’ve ever seen”

  1. 1 you know who this is.
    August 20, 2013 at 4:20 pm

    Time for the epic conclusion my friend.

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