The first inkling that we were getting close came toward the end of our flight from Beijing into northwestern China when snow-blanketed mountains suddenly appeared above the beige miasma of the desert floor. Morning sunlight sparkled off the grand Kunlun range that borders the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau and the southern rim of the Gobi Desert, a welcoming note on our journey to a distant world of Buddhist art painted and carved in grottoes centuries ago.
We were a group of seven — an American gallerist in Beijing, a Thai publisher of art books, a Singaporean businessman, among others — connected by our interests in Chinese art and history.
Our intrepid leader, Mimi Gardner Gates, a specialist in Chinese art and the former director of the Seattle Art Museum, raises funds to support the preservation of what we had come to see: the Dunhuang caves where delicate, brightly hued wall paintings and carvings depict religious and social life from the fourth to the 14th centuries during the height of Buddhist culture in China.
我们无畏的引领者是米米•加德纳•盖茨(Mimi Gardner Gates)。她是一位中国艺术专家，曾任西雅图美术馆(Seattle Art Museum)馆长，为我们前来参观的这座石窟募集保护资金。在敦煌的石窟中，技法精湛、色彩明亮的壁画和石刻，描绘了4世纪至14世纪中国佛教文化巅峰时期的宗教和社会生活。
The city of Dunhuang, a hodgepodge of cheap stores and a mediocre night market, was once a thriving oasis on the Silk Road, beckoning caravans of pilgrims and merchants from Central Asia and India with their Buddhist beliefs, and fabulous jewels and gold. As we arrived at the modern airport, it was hard not to think about more recent intruders: European and American scholars who visited the caves in the early 20th century, fell in love with what they found, and snatched priceless sculptures, manuscripts and frescoes for museums in London, Paris and Cambridge, Mass.
Theirs had been arduous treks compared with ours. The Harvard art historian and archaeologist Langdon Warner endured more than three months on an ox-drawn cart as he headed back to Beijing from Dunhuang in 1924 with a three-and-a-half-foot bodhisattva wrapped in his underwear for his patrons in Cambridge. In contrast, our journey was a comfortable three-hour flight from Beijing on Air China.
And while some of these early scholars — it is tempting to call them scoundrels — spent months in Dunhuang, recovering from their journeys, dodging diphtheria and other diseases, we spent four days in a pleasant hotel on the edge of the dunes. Over breakfasts of dumplings and Chinese porridge on the roof deck, we watched the sun rise and the sky change from flamingo pink to lapis blue. At sunset, we drank local wine pressed from new vineyards coaxed out of the sandy soil.
And, of course, our gear was far less elaborate than that of our predecessors. In a display near the caves that is devoted to the travesties of the Western scholars, a photo of Warner depicts him in knee-high boots, his hat at a rakish angle and a shovel in his right hand, ready to dig for antiquities. We, on the other hand, wore running shoes for the easy trek along the outdoor passageways that connect the caves, and carried little more than cellphones and cameras. (No photos, however, are allowed in the caves, to keep visitors moving swiftly since the carbon dioxide in our breath damages the wall art, and camera flashes don't help either.)
As we learned from Ms. Gates, those earlier Western scholars were dazzled for good reason. She never let us forget that we were seeing original art in situ, about which there was no question of authenticity.
When Warner and others like him arrived, they found 1,000 years of art that told the story of China's imperial dynasties and their long relationship with Buddhism, which seeped into China from India in the first century. In A.D. 366, according to legend, a monk named Yuezun arrived in Dunhuang, and had a vision of a thousand Buddhas. He was so overwhelmed he chiseled a cave for meditation in a vast sandstone cliff about 15 miles from the city center at a place now known as the Mogao Caves. Master artists and their apprentices began painting images of Buddha and his life story in murals that stretched across cave walls, and, in some cases, onto the ceilings.
The monk sparked a trend; over the years, about 1,000 caves were carved out of the mile-long escarpment as shrines or living quarters for monks, or the equivalent of private art museums where rich families could show off their wealth. By 1400, the exuberant show of art and religion faded as maritime routes supplanted the Silk Road.
When the caves were abandoned, the sweeping desert sands took over, ruining some, damaging others, but preserving many. Today, 735 caves remain, and nearly 500 are decorated.
These days, streams of Chinese tourists arrive in great numbers — 14,000 on one day this summer. The biggest challenge for theDunhuang Academy, the institution that manages the site, is crowd control, as we learned at the new visitors' center, a building designed by the Chinese architect Cui Kai to blend into the desert dunes.
With a theater that gives a 360-degree digital representation of one of the caves, the center is an important tool in the battle to keep the Dunhuang caves intact. Since the center opened last year, tourists who are not on a private tour like ours are required to go there first, and watch the digital show, a substitute for lengthy tours that are no longer allowed for most visitors.
Most of these tourists are limited to the hustle of a 75-minute visit that covers eight caves. We, however, had almost unfettered access thanks to Ms. Gates, who has visited the caves for 20 years and whose Dunhuang Foundation has raised significant funds for their maintenance.
On our first morning, a shuttle bus dropped us in a grove of aromatic pines, and soon we were at the foot of the rock face that inspired the monk, Yuezun, nearly 1,700 years ago.
Looking up, we could see a honeycomb of dark holes where the caves pierced the rock. Much of the rock is now buttressed with concrete, a utilitarian reinforcement devised in the 1960s when China was short of cash and architects.