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AsiaQuest is an interactive expedition developed by Classroom Connect. For five weeks a team of scientists and explorers will take a journey of discovery, following Marco Polo's footsteps along China's Silk Road. Follow along here for daily reports on the Quest.

A View of the New and the Old in Dunhuang

asia quest
Wang Zhenhong is a 20-year-old who runs an Internet cafe  

October 27, 1999
Web posted at: 3:11 p.m. EDT (1911 GMT)

By Dan Buettner

On our way to Zhangye, we stopped in Dunhuang, a major site on the ancient Silk Road. When Marco Polo was here, he called it Sachiu and wrote "After you have traveled 30 days by desert, you come to Sachiu ... These people are Idolaters and live by their agriculture."

But he somehow missed the most incredible sites at Dunhuang -- 492 Buddhist caves that honeycomb the side of a cliff. Ever since 366 A.D, desert travelers have paused here to ask for safe passage, adorning caves with Buddhist imagery and sculpture to help assure safe passage.

Report: Day 18

After Sunday's experience in the Buddhist town of Toyuq, I had visions of exploring these caves, or scaling cliffs and getting the first Web pictures of ancient art and sculptures. This was not to be.

The outside Caves of 1000 Buddhas, as they're called, looks more like a motel than a romantic site of exploration. A cement facade covers the cliff's face and metal doors seal most cave entrances. Inside the few caves are truly incredible, with life-like sculptures and delicately drawn paintings. The oldest printed book in the world, The Diamond Sutra, was found in one of these caves. It dates to 868 AD. Tourists, however, are allowed to see only a handful of caves and most of the walls are behind glass. And there's NO photography allowed.

The good news is that this site is being well preserved for the future. The bad news is that seeing them is about as much fun as visiting your local museum.

asia quest
Lai is a 20-year-old rickshaw driver. He normally does the pedaling while the customers sit in back!  

Disappointed at my attempt to see ancient Dunhuang, I decided to explore modern Dunhuang by visiting some of the young people who live here.

I started with a 20-year old bicycle rickshaw driver named Lai de Feng. Instead of having him give me a ride, I gave him a ride. I am, after all, a cyclist.

Lai makes about 20 Rmb a day giving people rides. He has to spend about 70 Rmb per month on rent and he feels like he is not very well off. In spite of the new freedoms in China and the ability to make money in new ways, Lai said he'd rank his level of prosperity a 4 on a scale of 1 to 10. "I would have made less 5 years ago, but money went further then."

Wang Zhenhong is also 20 but his job couldn't be more different than Lai's. Wang runs an Internet cafe, the first in Dunhuang. The cafe looks amazingly modern, with new computers and clean desks. Wang makes 500 rmb per month and has no rent since he lives with his family. But he still only ranks himself a 4 on the prosperity scale.

"I want to use the Internet to develop my skills and look for a better career," he told me.

More on AsiaQuest
from Classroom Connect:
     • Myths and Legends
     • Get a Clue!
     • Quest Map
     • What's New
     • xxxxxxxx

I told him that I thought that the Internet in China is a huge tribute to the Chinese government's willingness to open up. Wang agreed, saying that though it's still very new in Dunhuang that it will bring China into the 'global village.'

Then I asked him if he could reach any site on the Internet, even politically sensitive sites like that of the Falun Gong religious sect (the Chinese government just arrested 100 more Falun Gong dissidents Monday in Tiananmen Square). Wang's eyes darted around the room and rested on one of his colleagues. "I could," he responded. "... but not right now."

The most interesting visit came last. I stopped at a fashion salon in the center of town where ultra-hip men and women cut hair, gave massages, and did make up, all to the beat of the Backstreet Boys). It was outfitted with modern chairs, high-tech hair gels and pictures of European models with the latest hairdos on the wall. The hair cutters all looked like fashion models themselves.

I talked to 22-year old Zhang Xiaoyi there. She makes 30 per cent of whatever she brings in cutting hair. It amounts to up to 800 Rmb per month. She rents a place with 6 other single people for 60 Rmb per month.

Zhang's boss and his friends traveled here from Szechuan because they figured tourist dollars (from cave visitors) would support a cutting-edge hair salon. There's no way either the fashions or economy would have supported them five years ago. "We're probably a little bit ahead of our time, actually," she added, looking at the empty chairs. "But it's better to be ahead of our time than behind."

Zhang and her friends were honest about their opinion of Americans. "China and America have never gotten along so well," she replied. "Americans are too proud and they come here and flaunt their money." This response surprised me because she and her friends were so nice to me. They spent over an hour talking with me.

Before I left, I wanted to know if China's openness and economic prosperity was going to last.

"China has been evolving into what it is today ever since the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911). As long as there is no social unrest, we'll continue along the path we're on. It's really all up to our government and their willingness to let Chinese people be themselves."

Pedals Up!


P.S. Wang's favorite web site is; you can see his

CNN In-Depth Special - Visions of China

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Asia Quest
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