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Dunhuang: City of Sands E-mail
Reviews - Travel
Written by Bro Fan
The dry-mouth, red-eye 5am wake-up, the manic shower, the sudden realisation that you haven’t packed any underwear - and then out the door before you really resolve the pressing matter of how many pairs of shoes to take. One long cab ride, a characteristically stressful check in, and a mad dash for the gate: it could only be an early morning flight from Beijing airport.

An hour or two later, my eyes open and out the window I can see nothing but sand - as far as the eye can see, miles and miles of nothing. China may well be the most populated country in the world - but a rather large percentage of it contains a huge amount of nothing at all. I had a sneaky feeling that this trip out to the North West would confirm this suspicion of mine. As the plane came in to land, there was still nothing to be seen. “What the hell are we doing here?” I heard someone ask - excellent question, but I was very excited to be finding out the answer.

Dunhuang airport is a complete no-nonsense airport. You land, you walk off the plane, pick up your bags and go. No shilly-shallying, no hassle, not even a horde of rabid taxi-drivers queueing up to charge you ludicrous sums of money to take you just around the corner.

Catching a glimpse of the mountainous sand dunes in the distance, I suddenly felt a lot further away from Beijing than the couple of hours’ flight might suggest. I had no idea what to expect from Dunhuang. It had an airport, and made an appearance on even the smaller maps of China - so it couldn’t be all that shabby a place. But trundling down the dusty, single-carriageway to the town in the distance, it became clear that, by Chinese standards at least, Dunhuang is nothing more than a large village. A little self-important, isn’t it, to have a mini-airport with direct flights to the capital?

Well, apparently not. An important stop on the Silk Road that ran from Eastern China, through Xi’an and all the way to Constantinople in the West, Dunhuang is no stranger to travellers from all walks of life wandering through its dusty streets - indeed it seems these days it owes its existence to tourists with their wads of red notes. For a town in the middle of the desert, in Gansu province, it’s a remarkably pleasant place to spend some time. Perhaps that’s precisely because it’s geared towards the camel-hungry, sand-dune searching tourist - but Dunhuang is refreshingly free of tat and kitsch - such as all the crap on sale at the Great Wall, Qufu etc.

I suppose when you’re in the middle of the desert, people can’t be bothered to pump up “I’m lovin’ Dunhuang!” soft toys, although furry camels in a range of various sizes do tend to make somewhat over-eager appearances. But hey - if you could retain water for a week on the trot and skip along the scorching sands all day, wouldn’t you be bigging yourself up to the city-dwellers? I know I’d be right up there, all cloved feet and cleft lip, strutting my funky humps to all and sundry. Wait ’til you hear me roar!

At a glance:

Mogao caves: Some of the finest collections of Buddhist cave painting are located just outside Dunhuang, and are very impressive, despite being pillaged by various Europeans and Americans who basically carted off all the best bits to show their mates back home a couple of hundred years ago. Sadly, these days the experience is a little jaded by the hordes of Chinese tourists you have to visit with as part of a group. There is an English guide at 10am and 2.30pm, so it’s worth getting involved with that unless you enjoy being in a sea of identical yellow baseball caps all afternoon. I can’t say I did.

Hire bikes. Walk the City. It’s not big and is great fun, if you can hack the sun.

Climb the dunes

It’s seriously hard work but worth the view from the top, particularly at sunset. Crescent Moon lake, another tourist trap, is pretty, but dunes are dunes - and you can see a lot more of them without the outrageous 80 kuai entrance fee and trussed-up camels.

Go into the desert

With Xiao Lin and his camelid buddies. A little steep at 300 kuai each, but sleeping under the stars and waking up to sunrise in the desert is a truly amazing - dare I say cleansing? - experience.

How to reach Dunhuang from Xi'an

Click here for train schedules and fares from Xian to Dunhuang!

More Information

Dunhuang is situated in a rich oasis containing Crescent Lake and Mingsha Shan (鸣沙山), "Echoing-Sand Mountain". Mingsha Shan is so named for the sound of the wind whipping off the dunes, the singing sand phenomenon.

It commands a very strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Route and the main road leading from India via Lhasa to Mongolia and Southern Siberia, as well as controlling the entrance to the narrow Gansu Corridor which led straight to the heart of the north Chinese plains and the ancient capitals of Chang'an and Luoyang. Click here to learn more (Wikipedia).

Our valuable Editor Bro Fan has been with us since Sunday, 06 June 2010.

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0 #1 Stevian 2010-09-03 03:38
Wow, nice! Thanks a lot guys for this review!

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