The Mogao Caves in Dunhuang — “Art Museum of the East”

Mogao CavesThe Mogao Caves

“In the West there is the Louvre; in the East there are the Mogao Caves.”

The Mogao Caves are famous for their exquisite murals and Buddhist statues. The Mogao Caves were included in UNESCO’s world cultural heritage list in 1987.

Artists from different periods of the Middle Ages left their work there. All kinds of works spanning over one thousand years complement each other.

Standing out in the desert, the Mogao Caves are like a glittering pearl that adorns the Silk Road.

  • Location: 21 kilometers (13 miles) from Dunhuang Mogao International Airport — about 25 minutes’ drive
  • Open: 8am–6pm (from April to November); 9am–5:30pm (from December to March)
  • Touring time: 3–4 hours

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In this article you can find out about:

What to See in the Mogao Caves

These caves are carved out of the sandstone cliffs. The 1,600 meters (1 mile) of grottoes were constructed during 10 dynasties from the 4th to the 14th century.

The Mogao Caves' 45,000 square meters (480,000 square feet) of mural paintings and more than 2,000 colored statues are regarded as the greatest treasures of Buddhist art to exist in the world.

dunhuang mogao caveStatues in Mogao Caves

Impressive Buddha Statues

There are more than 2,000 colored statues that were carved 1,500 years ago. More than 1,400 statues are well-preserved so they can still be appreciated. You can see statues of Buddha, Bodhisattva, students of Buddha, monks, flying apsaras, God of heaven, God of Earth, and guardians.

The exquisite sculptural skills and elegant Buddhist styles attract people from all over the world.

Enlightening Mural Paintings

dunhuang mogao caves muralsMurals in Mogao Caves

The mural paintings in the Mogao Caves can be found on walls, roofs, and in the shrine for Buddha. The paintings contain Buddha's image, sutra illustrations, stories about Buddhism, images of guardians, and beautiful flying apsaras (Hindu nymphs).

In addition, you can learn about various aspects of medieval life through the murals, such as hunting, farming, textiles, transportation, war, architecture, dancing, marriage and funerals.

The total length of mural paintings is 25 kilometers (16 miles) if we estimate the paintings as being 1.8 meters (6 foot) on average in width (that’s over 13,000 murals

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Caves You Should Not Miss

There are only 40–70 caves open to the public in Mogao due to cultural relics protection measures.

The Mogao Caves management open different caves each year. Here are some of the wonderful caves to look out for:

dunhuang mogao caveExquisite statues in Cave 45
  • Cave 45: Its exquisite statues and murals are rated as the most superb works of art in the Tang Dynasty (618–907).
  • Cave 57: See the Mogao Caves’ most beautiful statue of Guanyin — the goddess of mercy.
  • Cave 220: “The composition and color of the murals are comparable to Italian Renaissance paintings and decorations in churches,” said the first president of Dunhuang Academy. 
  • Cave 257: It has one of the most beautiful murals in the Mogao Caves, telling the story of a deer of nine colors.
  • Cave 259: See the “Meditating Buddha Smile” — painted one thousand years earlier than the Mona Lisa Smile

The Library Cave — It Made the Mogao Caves Famous

The Library Cave (Cave 17) is open to visitors. Its discovery made the Mogao Caves begin to be famous all over the world.

Due to the changes of dynasties, wars, and other unknown reasons, 1,100 bundles of scrolls, including over 50,000 manuscripts covering various fields, were sealed in a cave in the vast desert and forgotten for over 600 years. It wasn't until 1900 that a Taoist priest stumbled on it while cleaning up the dust.

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How to Visit Dunhuang Mogao Caves

Your trip to the Mogao Caves will be partly led by the staff in the scenic area and you will be helped by the staff when you go inside the caves.

1. Enjoy 2 Videos Before You Enter the Caves

You will see two short videos first.

The first video tells you about the history and development of the Mogao Caves. You will see how the desert area transformed into caves.

The second video is played in a dome theater, making it feel like you are in the caves. This video will surprise you as you can see the mural paintings and sutra illustrations clearly and vividly. The statues and paintings appear to be all around you and you can enjoy the treasures up close.

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2. Visit 8 Caves

After you exit the theater, you will take the shuttle bus to visit eight caves that are opened at random every day. There will be professional staff to introduce the caves to you via your earphones.

Each cave will be closed once you’ve finished visiting it. This is to prevent the humidity, temperature, and brightness from destroying the treasured paintings and statues.

To protect the mural paintings and statues, visitors are not allowed to touch anything or take photos in the caves.

There is no light inside the caves so the staff members take a flashlight with them to assist with the tour. You will hear stories about the figures on the wall, the sutra illustrations in the paintings, the structure of the caves, and so on.

3. A Small Museum After Visiting the Caves

There is a small museum near the caves, and you can see some artefacts, books, and paintings about the Dunhuang Mogao Caves.

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Why Travel with Us Rather Than Independently

1. A normal visit to the Mogao Caves includes eight random caves, but if you would like to see some special caves, we can arrange for you to visit some that are not open to the general public.

mural paintingMural painting

2. Get some hands-on archaeological experience. We can take you to the Dunhuang Research Academy. There, you can linger over copies of murals created by masters and can copy a sample mural on a mud slab with your own hands under the guidance of the teacher.

3. There are typically 20–30 visitors following a guide in the Mogao Caves. It is difficult for the guide to take care of everyone. With us, your private guide will follow your pace and explain the stories more carefully to you. You can ask questions at any time for a better understanding.

Mogao Caves Ticket Booking

In order to protect the fragile murals and paintings, the number of daily visitors to the Mogao Caves is restricted and your entrance ticket(s) must be reserved on the official website, which is in Chinese.

Tickets are difficult to get hold of, especially during the tourist peak season (July to October). Although we can guarantee tickets at least 5 days in advance, early booking is still recommended.

You can combine your trip to the Mogao Caves with other attractions in Dunhuang. See our suggested itinerary for a Dunhuang in-depth trip:

  • Day 1: arrival
  • Day 2: the Mogao Caves and Dunhuang Museum
  • Day 3: mural study and desert scenery
  • Day 4: the ancient Great Wall and Yadang Landforms (‘Ghost City’)
  • Day 5: departure

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If you want to visit the Mogao Caves or have difficulty booking tickets, please contact us.

Who Built the Mogao Caves and Why?

According to a legend, the first grotto was chiseled out in 366 AD by a monk called Yue Zun.

Yue Zun saw the top of a mountain glinting with golden light, as if there were thousands of Buddhas shining, when he was traveling home past Dunhuang, and hence believed that the Mogao area is a holy land of Buddhism. So, he decided to stay in Dunhuang and start to dig caves.

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The Mogao Caves’ Benefactors

Gradually, Yue Zun’s caves attracted more and more people including businessmen, rich families, officers, and monks. They hired craftsmen to build their own grottoes there in the hope of incurring a holy land blessing. You will find benefactors’ images in the murals when visiting.

The construction of the grottoes in Dunhuang continued for about a thousand years. Most of them are preserved as today’s Mogao Grottoes.

Have a Date with the Mogao Caves to Know More Stories

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The Mogao Caves are not only a Buddhist holy land, but are also the epitome of China's medieval history and culture, not to mention a palace of art and beauty.

If you are interested in visiting the Mogao Caves, please see our popular tours below for inspiration. Our tours can be customized — just tell us your interests and requirements, and we will help you tailor-make a tour.

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