‘Do you know? There’s a nuclear test site over the hill.’ Wei was driving us crossing a desert at fifty miles per hour. The National Highway 215 ran uphill ahead, as if sending us into the sky. Sea buckthorns and camelthorns sparsely straddled the road. Wind poured in from the rolled down window, punching my ears.
I shouted back: ‘oh, is that so?’
‘A hundred percent sure. Didn’t you see the road we just passed? It leads to the nuclear base, we’re not allowed to enter there.’
I turned around. The branch road was zooming out in the rear window.
We had encountered Wei at the exit of Dunhuang train station two days ago. It was a gloomy morning. The buses were out of service. Dawn light sifted through pewter sky. The air was so dry that whenever the wind whipped, it felt as if someone was cleaning your face with exfoliating scrub.
A few private cars were parked at the drop-off area. Moonlighting drivers huddled at the square, feverishly touting for business. I threaded through them to find anyone with a cool head for making money.
In his thirties, the driver wore a white shirt and had thin flat hair. His rough skin was sunburnt colour. He spoke a mixture of western dialect and mandarin, close to the accent of my hometown. Soon he struck a deal with us to take us to the hotel at a reasonable price. Knowing we were travelers, he made a detour to show us around without charging an additional fee, though Dunhuang was not a big city.
My parents had visited Dunhuang in 2016. There was a framed photo on the telephone table in our house, in which they stood in front of a dune arm in arm, wearing orange shoe covers. My father frowned at the camera sternly, like he always did. He is a taciturn person. Before I first published a short story at fourteen, he thought my writing was a play.
After my father’s trip in Dunhuang, he said to me: ‘The Mogao Caves there is worth a visit. Its murals are gorgeous, which might enlighten your writing. They’re dying arts, so value the years when you still can see it.’
I had little image of Dunhuang before. But I always liked ancient art, and so did my friend, June. She came from a town known for its calligraphy paper. Sometimes June would wear a traditional silky robe, commuting between the library and her accommodation, regardless of pedestrians’ stares.
In hot October, we left sultry Wuhan to Dunhuang, a historic frontier city, whose annual rainfall was less than 50 millimeters, 5% of London’s. Wavy lines of dust on the windowpane in our hotel room were like frozen ripples of a lake. I unlocked the window to air the room. The grit that choked in the slot rubbed against the aluminum frame, making a sound like mortar and pestle grinding seeds. The thick clouds started to dissipate, allowing the sun to develop its round shape.
‘We’ve just checked in,’ I texted my father. ‘And hired a local driver to take us to the Great Wall Relics tomorrow.’
He replied in a few seconds: ‘Good. Be safe.’
We easily found the landmark, Feitian, at the central roundabout while roaming around.
It was an ivory-white statue of a lute performer. Standing on one leg and looking aside with a serene smile, she played the lute behind the scruff of her neck, a technique I once saw at a music festival.
Theoretically, a lute could be as heavy as eight pounds, which made it hard for a musician to play behind her head, let alone to complete a song, so it could only be a dance move. However, the plump body of the performer disregarded the lute’s weight in an airy delicacy. As the deity of dance and music, Feitian was the symbol of Western Paradise, where Buddhas and Bodhisattvas dwelled. Buddhists envisaged it as a destination where no depression existed but only eternal tranquility and pleasure. They spent their whole life seeking epiphany, an entrance ticket to this place.
From August to October every year, tourists around the country crowded into the place where the classic image of Feitian was born, the Mogao Caves.
June and I waited under shade trees. Hordes of tourists lined up before us. I shielded my eyes with one hand to block out the sunlight of high noon.
On our right-hand side was the façade of the Mogao Caves with hundreds of cavities scattered on the lee side of a cliff, running 1638 meters down the length of it. The closed doors barred visitors’ inquisitive eyes. We could only visit eight caves, and the number of tourists each day decided which caves we could see, so that visitors could be distributed to lessen the damage of emitted carbon dioxide on vulnerable murals.
A fracas suddenly burst out in our queue. A middle-aged woman cut the queue. She was arguing with an indignant young lady. Their husbands stood aside, arrowing curses at each other.
As the middle-aged woman repelled her rival, her iPhone slipped out and crashed on the ground.
‘My phone screen is broken! You have to repay me!’ she exclaimed.
Policemen stopped the quarrel and wanted to take them back to the police station. The small, bespectacled young lady asked tourists if they could give her their phone numbers in case of any witness statement. Most people turned their faces away and avoided looking into her eyes.
The disorder in the Mogao Caves was more severe nearly a century ago whilst warlords were busy reclaiming territories and wealth. And no one was keen to take charge of it.
Built up in 366 C.E., it had been expanded to 735 caves within more than ten dynasties as a collection of murals, sculptures, manuscripts and architectures that represented the highest level of ancient craftsmanship in China, both in quality and quantity. It was not merely a holy place for Buddhists but also a museum where scholars could find artifacts and historic documents of different dynasties.
The discovery of Cave 17, the Library Cave, was as legendary as that of the Dead Sea Scrolls. In 1900, a guard was smoking his pipe in Cave 16. When he knocked the pipe bowl on the northern wall, he heard a hollow sound coming from it. He tore down the wall, and found a small storeroom, stuffed with piles of timeworn scrolls and sutra codices.
When news of this find reached the West, it incited an increasing number of expeditions to Central Asia, among which were British archaeologist Marc Stein, French Orientalist Paul Pelliot, and American archeologist Landon Warner. They bought antiques at lower prices from a local man and transported them back for further study. Some were lost on the return journey.
Whenever I encountered any lonely statues of Buddha in British museums that people seldom pay any attention to, I would wonder how these exhibits arrived. They left their original cultural context, being displayed in grand rooms, alongside Ganesha, Shiva and Tara, to demonstrate a fragmentary face of the Orient.
All I know was that the empire which created the Mogao Caves was extinct, leaving the statues of Buddha and his disciples, Ānanda and Mahākāśyapa, in dark caves, lost in their contemplation. The Buddha was always at that epiphany moment: hands in mudras; face in an omniscient smile. If you could look into his eyes, you would see all the reflections of what he had seen.
‘Painters used lazurite, cinnabar, gold and other minerals as their pigments. However, the lead powder on fleshy parts oxidised into black colour, thus some characters you’ve seen now turn black.’
We stood in Cave 322, listening to our guide’s soothing illustration. Dressed in business attire, she had an unnoticeable make-up and her black hair was knotted into a chignon.
My eyes moved with the flashlight cast on the caisson ceiling, like a phototropic fish following a glow of marine searchlight. Thousands of small Buddhas sat in recesses like mosaic bricks, shuffling between turquoise and vermilion. A group of Feitians wove into an inner circle, executing the lute dance. Their buoyant long ribbons flapped behind. Floral petals drizzled over them.
‘In the cosmology of Mahayana Buddhism, there would be one thousand Buddhas co-existing in the past, the present and the future in ten directions, thus covering the whole universe. It’s called trayo ‘dhvanah (three times), disah dasa (ten directions) in Sanskirt, a concept that refers to an eternal, ideal model of world in Buddhism.’
The guide switched off her flashlight, leading us to leave.
On the road to Cave 231, she started another story: ‘From Cave 17 British archaeologist Marc Stein brought dozens of scrolls back to Britain which could be dated back to around 1000 C.E., and some of them documented Jing Jiao in Tang Dynasty.’
‘Is this Jing Jiao the Nestorianism?’ I asked, recalling the name I’d heard in the course of Christianity.
‘Yes,’ she answered. ‘Jing is another name of Nestorianism in Tang.’
In 431 C.E., the Council of Ephesus defined Nestorianism as a heresy because it denied Jesus as being a theanthropic person. The missionary, dislodged by jurisdictions, had to preach beyond the sphere of influence of Catholic Church, to the unconverted who had no picture of resurrection, sewing mustard seeds in this sterile land. Although his doctrines saw a short period of popularity in the Tang Empire, he failed in the religious battle with Buddhists at last. The pioneer died, and his voice left marginal lines on bamboo slats.
In my first year at university, I made a solo trip to Tibet. Eager to prove my independence, I rejected my mother’s proposal of finding a traveling companion.
I had suffered a long-lasting altitude sickness there. I couldn’t run or climb staircases without feeling dizzy. I spent half of my trip sleeping in the hotel, never had a chance to see stars at night. I sent photos to my father and suggested he should visit this pious prefecture. But I didn’t tell him the fear I felt when I tried to pull myself back from the edge of faintness on the train to Lhasa due to my altitude sickness.
In Jokhang Temple, I wrongly queued in the line for locals and went on a pilgrimage. The temple’s hall was as dim as a medieval castle, except for the sparkling light of butter oil lamps. The prevailing scent of incense stimulated my sense of strangeness. I proceeded with dark-skinned Tibetans along the aisle clockwise, lowering my head from time to time to avoid scaffolds and examining the gilded statues of Buddhas sitting cross-legged on the lotus throne. I imitated others and tapped my forehead against the sunken area on a silvery recess. Uncountable touches had polished the pot to be shiny and smooth and warm. Then I stepped away from the recess, leaving the place of prayers for the next.
‘Do taste the yellow noodles topped with donkey-meat sauce; it’s the speciality of Dunhuang.’
‘Check the nightly market. You might find some interesting craft shop.’
My father liked to send me the reviews he pasted from tourism websites whenever I traveled without him. Some restaurants earlier tourists wrote about had already moved to elsewhere. I absent-mindedly scanned through them and replied to him. Dunhuang was the only place that both he and I had visited but in different time. When I told him that I didn’t eat the yellow noodles he had recommended, he said pitifully: ‘It’s a great loss.’
‘Well, maybe next time we can visit there together,’ I said. ‘There’re so many caves in Mogao I haven’t seen.’
Here we are, the last cave in our journey, Cave 231, the Buddha’s death.
The door was ajar and through it natural light shot in. Faded patterns were tattooed over the walls. Some characters’ faces were hollow, exposing the wall’s clay. The faces and torsos of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas were tarnished into indigo black by oxygen, yet the pigments on their clothes remained vivid. No matter how crafty those strokes might have been, stains and blanks obliterated them, thus I was unable to see the artistry behind the disappeared strokes.
‘It’s a Jataka tale about Buddha’s previous incarnation,’ the guide trained her flashlight upon it. ‘This narrative art appeared within the Buddhism’s expansion in China. Painters drew these pictures to ingrain religious doctrines in even the least educated people.’
The story started with a carriage in a woodland. Wind blew up its curtain, revealing the King and the Queen sitting inside. Their beloved youngest son, Prince Sattva, was riding on horseback. The light moved forward, illuminating the young prince hunting with his two brothers.
‘They bumped into a family of scrawny tigers. Prince Sattva asked his two brothers to leave first. Then he stripped off his clothes and lay in front of those tigers, but they were too feeble to move, or eat him. So, the prince stabbed his throat with a wooden splinter and jumped out a cliff.’
The mural ended at the moment the prince committed suicide. His dark aquamarine body waved in the air like a banner. His face was distorted like the man in The Scream. In the next frame, he was seen on the ground. Tigers approached, suckling the lukewarm blood springing from his throat.
‘When the news of this tragedy reached the royal family, they fell into great anguish. But then, the herald of the Western Paradise showed up, announcing that Prince Sattva was a previous incarnation of Buddha. People would memorise his great deed by building up a stupa for him.’
Different flashbacks resided in the same scenario, tangled up with each other like ivy vines crawling over an abandoned fence. It was a loop without start or end, each moment neighboured the next frame, constituting the Buddha’s Saṃsāra.
When the Buddha sat in meditation under a bodhi tree, the apple of epiphany hit his head. He saw the emptiness of this world, its illusory, ephemeral being of existence. Mountains are not immortal, as the earth’s crust is in movement every second. Seas are not everlasting, but will shrink, disappear without a drop. The universe alters itself in such a ceaseless motion, all particles exchange, linger, shape you and me, mountain and sea. But these formations are not random, behind them is Karma, the cause and the consequence of life circle, the force that push all gears to bite with each other, propelling incarnations forward.
‘“Your life ahead will be a broad one,” that’s what the lama told me,’ my grandmother said.
Last year, she visited a Buddhist monastery in our hometown and consulted the lama about her two grandchildren’s fates.
‘When I gave him your birth time so that he could tell your fortune, he looked pretty delighted. But when it was your cousin’s turn, his face turned gloomy and he said many troubles would await your cousin in years to come. Soon after this meeting, your cousin broke up with his girlfriend after four-year dating and went to Beijing to find a job.’
I stayed silent.
‘Last week, I went to the seafood market with my neighbour, the Buddhist granny. You’ve met her before. We bought three live fish, pregnant ones with big bellies. The vendors knew why we picked them and gave us a discount. We went to the lake in the park and set them free. That granny recited a lot of sutras while I was doing this, praying to the Buddha to bless you and your cousin.’
‘No wonder I feel so lucky this month,’ I joked. ‘Thanks for your prayer.’
‘Well, better than not.’ She, too, was amused.
All things, according to Buddhism, are not isolated from each other. An action will lead to a result – the secrets of my fate were written in the constellations the day I was born; my father’s trip would lead me to Dunhuang, and generate a shared experience between us; the little acts of kindness my grandma enacted could bring me luck; what I had seen in Dunhuang ultimately drove me to write this story; you, who are reading this story now, might want to visit this place yourself, or at least, start to understand Buddhism.
If we have to identify the cause of all these things, I think we should go back to where it begun:
The train had trekked westward for forty hours.
When I woke up, the view outside the window was different. The Gobi Desert extended to the foot of the sky. Crowns of windbreaks fluctuated backward in gentle undulations, as if there were a snake chasing after us. The audio of the monotonous mantra, Namo Amitabha Buddha, haunted our compartment. The radio’s owner, an old lady, was skinning peanuts and chatting with her fellow traveler about a hermit that they were about to visit.
Four seats away, June was reading Victoria Hislop’s The Sunrise. Earphones insulated her from her surroundings.
This sleeper was half empty, the sluggish passengers fatigued by a lengthy trip. I sat on the folding seat with one hand supporting my chin, eyes shifting between my ghostly reflection on the windowpane and the barren landscape. Below the vast, sepia-washed sky, gales from Taklamakan Desert blew past dunes, then dissipated in the air.