Silk road

I had heard about the Buddhist caves of China for a while through articles in travel magazines. However, since India and the visit of the Ajantha and Ellora sites, I always wanted to visit these caves to follow the traces of great vehicle of Buddhism through the Silk Road. The article on the Dunhuang caves in the National Geographic of June 2010 was the last bit that made me book a ticket for the end of July.

I am not sure I know why after having completed two full visits of the caves (One in Chinese language to watch and one in English to listen), I signed up for a private visit of eight special caves the next day. First, I guess I wanted to see more caves. Second, the English guide of the second tour was quite passionate. Hence, I suspected that more time with a good guide on a one-to-one basis might provide additional opportunities of interesting explanations and eye opening interactions. As I had mentioned I was French, but open to both French and English speaking guides, the manager of the visiting centres signed me up with a French speaking guide, fairly surprised by the fact I could have settled for anyone else.

I had no idea.

The guide for this special tour took a bit of time to warm up. However, from the first sentences on, it was clear his French was perfect (Although, as I learned later, he had never been to France). As we walked towards the grottoes, he asked for a few language clarifications for terms like “knuckle” and “facetious” in a way that appeared random. But when we entered the first cave, the tone of the visit was set. Generally, he would leave the cave obscure to touch with the beam of his flashlight the details he wanted to emphasize and discuss. Hence, out of the darkness, he would bring up to life the soldiers and their floating flags, the wild animals, the criminals in their prisons, the deities on their lotus flowers, the kings and their entourages, the flying asparas and the donors who had been paying for the caves. He used words that would touch on the creative work, the style, the historical context and the spiritual dimension. His flashlight made a selection for which there was no appeal. Once, he spent more than half an hour describing a wall that was full of the miseries of life. Those included a prisoner in jail and the traders on the silk road attacked by bandits. There was also a man sentenced to death about to have his head cut off by the executioner while two assistants would pull his hair on one side and his pony tail on another to stretch the vertebras along his neck spine and facilitate the decapitation. But after that long description, he quickly walked past the opposite wall that represented the Western paradise to say: “Oh, this one has nothing special”. He referred to extraordinary historical details, like the king in the 10th century who decided to add large lateral “ears” to the hats of the mandarins so that he could spot those who spent time chatting with each others during official meetings. He clarified the various influences, like Apollo and his cart brought from Macedonia by Alexander the great via the Surya of India, the seating position of some statues that originated from Persia and the drapes around the half-naked Boddhisatvas reminiscent of India. However, when he described the animal gods of the sky, the dragons on the pillars or the phoenix on the walls, he would get closer, speak more slowly and conclude his explanation with a “It's very Chinese” that would end the paragraph. Everything had a purpose: I came to understand how well he had mapped out the visit when he marveled at the knuckles of protector god and laughed at the facetious asparas flying through the open roofs of the palaces. But although he had anticipated meticulously the words he was going to use, he welcomed like golden coins the few additional words of vocabulary he did not know that came up in the conversation. He would stop, take out his notepad and write immediately the new treasure on a piece of paper. “You must be tired” he said. “We have seen four caves. We should have lunch.” Nothing in China, not even the passion for art, could ever delay lunchtime by a minute. At 11h30, it's time to eat.

As we were walking together towards the exit, he kindly asked me what my lunch plans were, what I liked to eat and how much time I would like to relax. As he learned that I liked the Lanzhou pull noodles, he said that those were not available in the dining hall and that only he had a bowl prepared specially for the staff by the canteen. “Why don't I invite you at the restaurant?” He said. “You can eat my pull noodles and I will order something I like for myself”. Seated together, we talked about his life and how he had arrived from Lanzhou with his father when Western China started to develop. Then I learned he was called “张世军”, that is Zhang Shi Jun. “Jun” he said “as in the word army”. It was a fashionable name for boys in the seventies during the Cultural Revolution, as per Chairman Mao's recommendations.

As we resumed the visit for the afternoon, the dynamic had evolved. It seemed now that he was guiding a friend through what he liked. But he would try to find out what I was interested in to lead the descriptions. We came across Ganesh and his brother, so far away from home. However, they were with their father Shiva, while the opposite pillar had Vishnu. I could share a few stories gathered from the Indian comics “Amar Chitra Katta” on the great epics and that made him smile. Still, he was very proud when he could point to the male and female creators of the world, the man with a compass to draw the circle of the sky and the woman with a ruler to draw the square of the earth. He paused again. “It's very Chinese.” We went through a series of musicians, and he knew the names of four different types of flutes. As the visit was coming to and end, he initiated me to the art of discovering the right point of view to admire the statues: “See, from here, the reclining Buddha has an ordinary expression, but if you walk towards his head, you will progressively see his eyes closing and his face pacifying” or “Look, if you come in front of the group and kneel down humbly, everyone looks at you, the Buddha, his protector gods, his Boddhisatvas and his two disciples”.

Enjoying a cold drink under the shade, we shared a few impressions after the vist was over. I talked to him about how the Swiss travel author Nicolas Bouvier had been marveled by the language of a Francophone guide in Xian to the point that the chapter he wrote about the city did not have a word on the terra-cotta warriors but turned out to be a portrait of that extraordinary character. “You would love Nicolas Bouvier” I said “He uses a light, unpretentious grammar but chooses unusual words from his exceptional lexical resources”. Those actually stand out not so much for being esoteric, but rather for being used slightly out of the usual context so that the imagination of the reader is triggered. As I had one of his books, “L'usage du monde” in the pocket of my cargo short, it was easy to read a few examples to which he smiled. “L'usage du monde” is a sort of Silk Road road-movie of the 20th century written in delightful French. Hence, I had no choice but to leave it to him with a thank you note for having brought back to life the Tang dynasty with the most delicate choice of words.