Gene Thagard ’15 and Kento Yamamoto ’16 describe the group’s adventures in Dunhuang:
Gene, June 28: Today, we awoke nice and early at 3:30 AM and departed Shiyan High School at 4:15. We drove about an hour to the Beijing airport on the outskirts of Beijing. The Beijing Airport was absolutely massive. It took almost 10 minutes to walk to our gate, which was also one of the closest. From Beijing, we had a quick 3.5 hour flight over to Dunhuang. You should have seen everone passed out over one another! As we made our way to the hotel, everyone was in awe of their surroundings. Dunhuang is literally an isolated oasis in the massive Gobi desert surrounded by gigantic sand dunes. Between the farms and incredible architecture, Dunhuang easily topped Beijing as our new favorite city.
We had the afternoon to rest since we could not go summit the sand dunes until sunset. The hotel is beautifully designed and has rugs and tapestries hanging all over the walls. It is exactly what you would imagine of a desert hotel. The hotel also has a map that shows where we are on the silk road.
After a delicious dinner, including many dishes that are traditional in Dunhuang like the noodles, we headed out to the camel company to ride up the sand dunes. Although some people were very nervous at first, the camels were extraordinarily cool. Everyone was laughing as they mounted the camels and on the way up the dune. Many camels even had names by the end of our excursion. The camels actually only carried us up most of the sand dune. The last little bit you must climb. The struggle was very real. Attempting to climb up a sand dune with very fine grains of sand is very very very hard. Once we made it to the top, though, the view was breathtaking. We overlooked the oasis and got a glimpse at the sheer size of the desert. It seemed to endlessly run on. At the top the girls took the sleds back down to the camels, and the sleds fly. You have to close your mouth and shut your eyes because the wind was blowing so fast, so you are without your senses speeding down a sand dune…pretty exhilarating. The guys, though, felt compelled to walk over to a higher peak to see a better view of the sunset and do something cool. So they hiked from one peak to 3/4 of the way up another in a mere 25 minutes, only to have a few moments rest before we realized that we were holding up to group. The boys then ran and tumbled down the steep slope, up the other slope, and back down the girls sledding path to return to the other camels. Afterwards, we remounted our camels and rode to a natural spring that lay in the middle of this desert.
To conclude our full and adventurous day, all of the students went up to the roof of the hotel for several hours to stare at the sky. Without smog or any artificial light, the sky was a spectacular beauty. It was a phenomenal way to end the day, and it portends a great rest of the trip.
Kento, June 29: As the second day in Dunhuang unfolded, we had a fantastic breakfast at our hotel. From American bacon and black coffee to homemade noodles that were made right before your eyes, everything tasted fantastic, particularly after the great expedition we had in the Gobi desert yesterday. Today, we only had one item on our schedule: the Mogao grottoes.
At first, I had thought that we would be exploring caves with our backpacks and flashlights, but I was a little off. The Mogao grottoes, or the Mogao caves, consisted of 492 little temples all connected in a 25 kilometer-long area. Our tour guide had taken us around to see the different caves, all of them containing different styles of wall paintings and sculptures. Right off the bat, I was speechless due to the beautiful statues and carvings of Buddha. It was literally breath-taking, and I quote Mrs. Kelly, “I’m not religious, but whenever I visit the Mogao caves, I feel some kind of divine connection.” Now, imagine that kind of god-like connection to a Buddhist. I’m not a verious serious Buddhist, but I do know a lot about the history of Buddha and Buddhism from my freshman Asia and World History class with Ms. Friends. All of that knowledge I learned flowed back into my brain as the tour guide explained what each painting symbolized. We even went into the fusion of Chinese and Indian gods that were painted on the walls of these temples.
I was by far the most impressed after seeing the greatest sculpture of Buddha. It was 34.5 meters (113 ft) tall, but the scary part was that the tour guide had told us that the greatest statue here was only the third largest in the world. Apparently, the largest statue of Buddha is approximately 72 meters tall. My brain still can’t comprehend how much time and energy it must have taken to build such enormous monuments. It’s just unbelievable! When I was younger, I thought that when the Egyptians built their pyramids, aliens must have helped them because I had thought that raw human power could not create such colossal creations. Now that I am older, I realize that that’s not the case. Viewing the 113-feet tall Buddha has opened my eyes. I realize that anything is possible, as long as you are determined. The people who created these temples were not half-hearted amateurs who just wanted to build to kill time; they had a goal. I’ve come to the conclusion that if you have a goal that you want to reach, you have to keep that in sight and muster all of your energy, determination, time, and knowledge to make it happen, just like the sculptors and creators of the Mogao Caves.