SUC­CESS AS A TOURIST SPOT EN­DAN­GERS CAVES

Dig­i­ti­za­tion, in­ter­net traf­fic used to ease num­ber of vis­i­tors

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - FRONT PAGE - By DENG ZHANGYU dengzhangyu@chi­nadaily.com.cn

The pop­u­lar­ity of the Mo­gao Caves, which house the world’s largest col­lec­tion of Bud­dhist art, is prov­ing their big­gest threat.

The caves, in north­west China’s Gansu prov­ince, al­ready have re­ceived many more vis­i­tors this sum­mer than they can han­dle, and this is al­ter­ing their en­vi­ron­ment. But new tech­nol­ogy may help save the caves from their own suc­cess.

In July, 350,000 peo­ple vis­ited the caves, twice the monthly cap and 20 per­cent more than July 2016, ac­cord­ing to of­fi­cials at the Dun­huang Re­search Academy, man­ager of the caves, which have sur­vived for cen­turies.

The sin­gle-day peak num­ber of vis­i­tors in July ex­ceeded 18,000, triple its daily max­i­mum, said Li Ping, who is in charge of vis­i­tor re­cep­tion.

“The hu­mid­ity and tem­per­a­ture in­side the caves in­creases with too many tourists,” said Li, ad­ding the mois­ture and the car­bon diox­ide they ex­hale cause ir­repara­ble dam­age to the caves’ fres­coes and painted sculp­tures. Sand and wind also pose a threat. Archaeologists say the caves are de­te­ri­o­rat­ing more rapidly than in the past.

To re­duce the dam­age, a max­i­mum of 6,000 vis­i­tors in the caves are al­lowed

per day. Tourists can book vis­its a month in ad­vance on the in­ter­net. But this sum­mer, reser­va­tions have been filled up quickly and an ad­di­tional 12,000 tick­ets are sold ev­ery sec­ond day at the site to ac­com­mo­date vis­i­tors who did not book on­line.

The caves, 25 kilo­me­ters south­east of down­town Dun­huang, have seen an in­creas­ing num­ber of vis­i­tors since they were opened to the pub­lic in the late 1970s, es­pe­cially af­ter they be­came a UNESCO World Her­itage Site in 1987.

The dilemma be­tween preser­va­tion of the 1,651-year-old site and the de­mands of tourism has be­come more ur­gent, and the academy adopted a se­ries of mea­sures to try to strike a bal­ance, aside from lim­it­ing daily vis­its.

Zhang Xiantang, deputy di­rec­tor of the academy, said the dig­i­ti­za­tion of mu­rals in­side the Dun­huang caves is the most ef­fec­tive way to pro­tect them. Be­fore vis­i­tors start their tour of the real caves, they are led first to the vis­i­tor cen­ter, where 3D movies us­ing dig­i­tal tech­nol­ogy are shown to dis­play the fres­coes and sculp­tures in some caves closed to the pub­lic for preser­va­tion.

This has helped vis­i­tors get bet­ter back­ground knowl­edge and re­duce their stay in the ac­tual caves. The academy al­lows each vis­i­tor to ex­am­ine eight caves a day and lim­its the com­bined time in the caves to 75 min­utes.

Each cave has hun­dreds of fig­ures on its walls, mostly of the Bud­dha, in­clud­ing palm­size art­work. Vis­i­tors can­not get a good look at mu­ral de­tails, stay­ing in a cave, in dim light, for just a few min­utes.

But with high-def­i­ni­tion prints dis­played in mu­se­ums, peo­ple can see the de­tails clearly, Zhang said. The project has en­abled the “un­mov­able mu­seum on walls” to be shown any­where in the world with 3D tech­nol­ogy, he said.

There are 2,415 painted sculp­tures and 45,000 square me­ters of fres­coes in­side the 735 caves, the ear­li­est dat­ing back to 366.

So far, the academy has fin­ished col­lect­ing data on 119 caves, of which 30 can be viewed on­line, e-dun­huang.com, ac­cord­ing to Yu Tianxiu, who has worked for years on the dig­i­ti­za­tion of the caves. The web­site, which launched on May 1, 2016, will have an up­dated ver­sion by the end of this year of­fer­ing more pic­tures and in­ter­ac­tive ex­pe­ri­ences.

“It takes a month to pho­to­graph a paint­ing and process the in­for­ma­tion on­line,” Yu said.

The Dun­huang dig­i­ti­za­tion be­gan in the 1990s af­ter it be­came ap­par­ent that the fres­coes needed pro­tec­tion from heat, hu­mid­ity and car­bon diox­ide.

“The odor of per­fume can linger in a cave for days and harm the fres­coes,” said Bian Lei, a tourist guide at the caves. “The col­ors are fad­ing, too. I can see that.”

It will be dif­fi­cult to com­plete the dig­i­ti­za­tion of all the caves. A photo of a paint­ing on a wall now needs 60 gi­ga­bytes of stor­age space, sim­i­lar to that of a smart­phone, be­cause one photo of­ten has more than sev­eral thou­sands of parts.

In July, Sea­gate Tech­nol­ogy, a US data-stor­age com­pany, pro­vided the academy as­sis­tance and do­nated $78,000 to sup­port the dig­i­ti­za­tion of cave 307, which has many im­ages of chil­dren.

“Lots of high-tech com­pa­nies want to co­op­er­ate with us. But many soon leave be­cause they un­der­es­ti­mate the time and pa­tience that is needed for the preser­va­tion,” Yu said. “It’s a life­time ca­reer.”

Apart from tak­ing pho­tos and pro­cess­ing them over months, Yu and his team also use the data to repli­cate the look of sculp­tures and mu­rals through 3D print­ing tech­nol­ogy. Vis­i­tors to the caves can go to the repli­cas of eight caves in front of the real caves. They also are part of the academy’s dig­i­ti­za­tion project, and have been ex­hib­ited in many cities in China, and also in the United States, Ja­pan, Australia and Rus­sia.

CHEN BIN / XIN­HUA

Chen Haitao, a mem­ber of the de­sign team from the Dun­huang Academy, works in Cave 254 in the Mo­gao Caves, in Dun­huang, north­west China’s Gansu prov­ince, in 2016.

YAO JIANFENG / XIN­HUA

The art of Mo­gao Caves was dis­played with 3D tech­nol­ogy dur­ing the Sum­mer Davos Fo­rum in Dalian, Liaon­ing prov­ince, in 2015.

FAN PEISHEN / XIN­HUA

A vis­i­tor en­joys a du­pli­cate of Dun­huang fres­coes in Lanzhou, Gansu prov­ince early this year.

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