16th-17th June 2010
Located in Gansu province, Dunhuang was a major stop on the Silk Road. Located in a rich oasis containing Crescent Lake and Mingsha Shan- a sand dune mountain. Dunhuang is known as the 'City of the Sands'. It was likely established around 104 BCE.
Geographically speaking Dunhuang has strategic importance in both a military and communication regard, although its importance has wained over time. It is is the major crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Road, leading to Lhasa, Mongolia and Southern Siberia. It is also the entrance to the Hexi Corridor.
After a 5-hour sticky coach journey through the desert, my arrival at the oasis of Dunhuang was a welcomed sight. Having only an outdated Lonely Planet guide, my knowledge of the cheap digs in town were clearly outdated- the first sure sign of this was the bus station had since print, moved all the way across town. But I still had the Chinese in tow and Rachel and Andy soon found a free taxi to the Feitian Binguan. Sadly the hotel was no longer 30Y (no surprises here). But we got a triple room for 180Y. This is still out of my budget, but it was pretty hot and I am feeling tired of late. The prospect of air conditioning and a good shower was too much to turn down!
After the shower I walked most of the major areas in town. As it was dragon boat festival, the river was alive with people. There was some traditional music being played, at the centre of which was a female vocalist. It was a very involved performance, indeed she had the serious look of a professional, but the quality didn't match. Still the locals seemed to be enjoying it! The river, meanwhile was filled with boats.
Wondering through Dunhuang you soon realise its whole industry is geared for tourism. The streets are vibrant and busy. Walking among the back streets its not hard to find the highlight. The night market is rich with handicrafts and an array of dried fruits and fresh vegetables. The smell of BBQ and rich spices, used by the muslim chefs, fills your nostrils. Lamb is the speciality here- its no secret the BBQs regularly have a Lamb skull adorning the hot grill!
Dunhuang does have something about it. Much as the bright neon lights, endemic across the city threaten to push it over the threshold. It stands firm. The quality of the Mogao Caves and the natural beauty and mystery of the sand dunes nearby, balance the Dunhuang equation.
The caves are quite remarkable. Set into the side of a sand dune. The vaults of time stand side by side for a few hundred meters. Each caves numbered and its contents meticulously studied and recorded. Its understood that Buddist Monks arrived in Dunhuang via the Northern Silk Road, which connected eventually with Kashgar. Over centuries the monks collected scriptures from the West and passing pilgrims painted murals inside the Mongao Caves or 'Caves of a Thousand Buddhas'.
The beautifully intricate murals are considered the finest examples of Buddist art, spanning over 1,000-years. Its believed the first caves were excavated in 366 AD as a place for worship and meditation. In total the murals cover 450,000 Sq.ft.
Later in the afternoon, as the summer sun sets below the horizon its possible to visit the dunes- any earlier and the scorching sun and fierce temperatures make movement out of the shades a bind. From Charlie Jongh's Dune Guesthouse you can easily wonder along the fence to its end and enjoy sunset over the dunes with a beer for free. Although distant, its also possible to make out the Cresent Moon lake and its surrounding buildings from a higher vantage point. The dunes are beautiful and well worth a visit.
Charlie Jongh's Dune Guesthouse
Free internet and good facilities make this a sure fire winner. Its location is a little out of the way. A 20-min steady bike ride or a short bus/ taxi make light of the distance. But its a quite and secluded spot just by the dunes, away from the hustle and bustle and the neon lights of Dunhuang.