The frescoes of China’s Dunhuang caves on the ancient Silk Road have survived 1,600 years of sandstorms, wars and Mao Zedong’s red guards. Now, caretakers are turning to computers to save them from half-a-million tourists a year.
Officials examine frescoes in the caves in Dunhuang, China, in this undated handout photo, released to the media
Officials will scan 45,000 sq.?m of frescoes, or about the area of 10 football fields, and 3,390 Buddhist statues. The images will form a virtual-reality tour for visitors to see before they enter the grottoes.
The project, a collaboration with the Mellon Institute in Pittsburgh, may take five years to record the first 20 of 492 caves, said the Dunhuang Research Institute director Fan Jinshi.
“Because tourists must use flashlights when they enter the grottoes, they get vague impressions of what they see,” Fan said.
“The digital displays give them a better-informed tour and save them the trek to caves?they’re?not?interested?in.”
Reducing the time that visitors spend inside the caves helps cut down the levels of carbon dioxide and moisture, emissions that break down the delicate dye-on-plaster of the murals and statues.
Dunhuang was a trade hub on the Silk Road during the Sui Dynasty (581-618) and Tang Dynasty (618-907), when caravans bearing Chinese tea and silk for Persia and Europe stopped at its oases.
The area was also a religious centre, where the aesthetics of Buddhism, Islam, Tibetan sects, Sogdian and Tangut cultures were displayed in clay sculptures and cave murals.
“I’ve been pushing for this for the past four years to divert the flow of visitors in order to reduce pressure on the precious relics and frescoes,” Fan said in an interview at Mogao, 25 kilometres from Dunhuang city in western China’s Gansu province.