Experiencing the Silk Road in Dunhuang

I had the opportunity this past week to travel with a group of students to Dunhuang in western China. Some of the more memorable experiences for students were hiking through the Gobi desert, camel rides, and an evening BBQ dinner and bonfire amidst the sand dunes. These were all fun, especially the hike, but I most enjoyed the history that we experienced in such a magical location. Unsurprisingly, the ruins of the 2000 year old Han Dynasty Great Wall did not excite the students as much as it did me. However, most the students who traveled with me had either taken, or were currently enrolled in, AP World History. This trip offered some awesome experiential connections to the curriculum.

Mogao Grottoes

One of the historical highlights in Dunhuang are the famous Mogao grottoes, some built as early as the 4th century CE. Photos inside the individual grottoes are not allowed, as such, the image below of the interior of one of the grottoes is not mine. Buddhism in China has a rich and colorful history. It’s connection to the people, its struggles with and against ruling dynasties, and the nature of religious syncretism make for great content. Thankfully, the guide had much more detailed knowledge than I did, helping the students see the real-life evidence of what they had learned in the classroom. I wish I had experiential opportunities like this when I was in high school.

Many of the grottoes, like the one pictured above have a variety of statues and paintings, some of which are bodhisattvas. For many students this aspect of Buddhism and the roles of boddhisattvas can be difficult to understand. Visiting the grottoes and seeing everything in-person gives a real sense of awe and significance to them. I enjoyed recognizing the minor differences in art between caves from different dynasties. Likewise, I enjoyed showing students afterwords examples of Buddhist art from other countries to reinforce the fluid nature of Buddhism’s spread and the variety of syncretism produced. One of my favorite mini-activities to do in class is an analysis of Buddhist sculpture and art from around Asia. I’ll be using some of the images taken during this trip in the activity in the future.

Traveling the Silk Road

It is easy to lecture about the invention of the compass and other technologies and innovations that facilitated trade along the Silk Roads. However, students understand far better when they face a hike through the desert, ride a camel, or appreciate the difficulties of the landscape. There were great moments for reflection amidst the environment that created opportunities to build historical empathy. These moments don’t teach factual knowledge, but they help deepen understanding and give students experiences they can use to organize and make sense of future learning.

Yumen Pass

The Han dynasty is no longer part of the AP World curriculum, but that doesn’t mean its not interesting. West of Dunhuang, at Yumen pass, visitors can see the ruins of the Han Great Wall and other remnants of military installations. By the end of September, the weather is already fairly cool with the wind making it downright cold in the morning. The landscape in the pass is stunning, creating great moments for historical imagination to take over. This is when a history teacher’s innate ability to tell a story, and through it a larger lesson or insight, comes in handy. With a bit of passion, even a cold high school student can appreciate the moment.

This trip was not only about history and culture. It was meant to be an opportunity for fun, something that is too quickly forgotten about in the rush to cover curriculum. However, the experience creates moments for both immediate and future learning. History is more than just a skill or content from a book. History can be experienced; There is value in looking for connection to the past in order to understand the human experience. Trips like this can plant seeds for future historical interest and inquiry in ways that my classroom cannot.

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