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Experiencing the Gobi Desert and the Start of the Silk Road in Dunhuang
by Margaux Schreurs - Jun 26, 2015
One of my favorite trips through China was that along China’s ancient Silk Road. The Silk Road connects Asia to Europe, and was a popular collection of related trade routes that were active throughout 2,000 years, and still are today in many ways. It wasn’t only goods that traveled this road, as the Silk Road is also particularly famous for the ideas that crossed it. Especially religious ideas, both Islamic and Buddhist, were brought to and from China along this road back in the day.
Dunhuang (敦煌), in China’s northern Gansu Province, is the gateway to popular travel routes to the rest of China’s Silk Road treasures, namely Turpan, Urumqi and Kashgar. It was founded in the Han Dynasty, in 111 BC, at the cross roads of two popular trading routes, the Northern Silk Road and the Southern Silk Road.
To get to Dunhuang, we flew from Lanzhou (兰州), the capital of Gansu Province, a flight which only takes about an hour and a half. Flights are available with multiple carriers, but we flew China Eastern Airlines for around 500 RMB. This was definitely worth saving time and being more comfortable than a bus or train – our entire trip through the Silk Road we spent enough time on various modes of public transport!
The desert is easy to spot
Arriving in Dunhuang it was pretty easy to see why this city is one of the gateways into a different type of world: the city is surrounded by desert, and provides an entrance into the desert. It is still a safe oasis from the Gobi desert, to this day.
The gate to the Gobi Desert in Dunhuang
I was fascinated by the desert. Being Dutch and growing up in Singapore I had never really seen that much sand, as my family hadn’t traveled much in the other sand-rich nations of the world. It seemed amazing to me that you can just walk down a normal road in Dunhuang, with shops and restaurants lining the way, and then end up in the desert, just like that!
The vast desert
In Dunhuang itself, we stayed at Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse (敦煌月泉山庄青年旅舍; Phone: 138 9376 3029), a short bus ride away from the city center but right on the edge of the desert. If you’re looking for relaxing travel, this is the place to stay. There are only a few rooms, its surrounding area is extremely quiet, and there are so many stars in the sky at night! Again, living in huge cities, this is quite the difference. The staff at the hostel was friendly too, and the facilities are basic but decent.
The city is small, but there are two famous tourist attractions that we absolutely didn’t want to miss: firstly the Gobi desert and Crescent Lake (月牙泉) oasis in the desert, and then secondly, the Mogao Caves (莫高窟). We decided to visit the attractions in this order. First, we went to see the desert. Getting here was easy, we just took a taxi from the main road, it wasn’t very far and taxis in Dunhuang are very cheap. Of course we had to ride a camel in the desert too, which you can easily get from all the camel stands by the entrance. We bargained hard for it though, but it was worth it. Riding a camel through the desert in China is something I will never forget.
Our camels were extremely friendly
After that, we walked to the sand dunes by Crescent Lake, located around 6 kilometers from Dunhuang city center. The depth of the lake has been declining in recent years, and the government is currently trying to help the lake restore back to its original size (a depth of around 7.5 kilometers). There is also a little pagoda by the lake which made for some great photos.
A view of Crescent Lake
The next day we decided to take a pre-arranged tour from the hostel to the Mogao Caves. The caves are a UNESCO Heritage World Site and filled with Buddhist art and manuscripts, demonstrating just how much history has been passing through this city for more than 2000 years.
The caves are just under an hour away from the city center, and we decided to visit them the easy way: with a tour guide in a small group. Our tour took about two hours, and we visited 10 caves. The amount of caves you’ll see per tour changes with time, and it is sometimes different caves too because of the risk of damaging the paintings as a result of overexposure. We were allowed to take photos, but not flash inside.
One of the many walls painted with thousands of Buddhas
It was amazing to see all the different types of cave paintings and sculptures in the different caves. My favorite cave was the library cave, where 5th-11th century manuscripts were sealed for years. When the caves were opened up and excavated, archeologists found Buddhist manuscripts in a bunch of different languages including Tibetan, Uyghur, Sanskrit, and Khotanese. This place really was a hub of activity back in the day, and it still shows today.
Cave paintings in one of the Mogao Caves
Some of the caves were covered in thousands of little seated Buddha figures, replicated using stencils. This makes for some pretty remarkable scenes and was the perfect way to end our short stop off in Dunhuang, and kick-start the rest of our Silk Road travels!