Because of the sand which is there

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July 1st 2007
Published: August 9th 2007
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Though the aircon on the bus to Dunhuang was non-existent, it was gratifying to see the landscape changing more to the type of desert I'm familiar with - flat expanses of sand and scrub like the Outback or Saudi.

Dunhuang hotels that looked similar to the places we'd been staying in recently were all charging twice as much, and we ended up in a hotel that was a sensible price but rather stuffy due to the noisy but weedy portable A/C unit.

There were several reasons why we'd come to Dunhuang, the most pressing being that we needed to extend our visas for the second time. Unfortunately we had no common language with the woman at the PSB but, using a phrasebook specialising in visa-related sentences, she informed us that we would have to go to either Hami or Jiuquan for the extension. This was a blow, as not only had I seen online that the Dunhuang PSB was generally good for hassle-free extensions, but we were also right up against our visa expiry date hence would have to act fast. We chose Hami (blogged separately) then returned to Dunhuang to fulfil our tourist obligations.

Dunhuang actually lies in the Gobi Desert, and there are some large sand dunes at the bottom of the main street. Despite the questionable 80 yuan entry fee to see them at close quarters (the facilities and maintenance to justify such an amount being non-existent), and the accompanying circus of camel rides, paragliding, sand tobogganing, quad bikes, noisy tour groups, etc, they were the first sizeable dunes I've seen in my life and hence I was impressed. In order to protect your shoes against sand damage/penetration, you could hire bright orange knee-length overboots - an opportunity taken up by many of the domestic tourists and lending a slightly surreal air to the scene.

Our weather luck continued, with the sun going in almost as soon as we'd arrived, and then a sandstorm hitting once we'd crested one of the larger dunes. The storm lasted for a good 15 minutes, the stronger gusts driving sand grains painfully into exposed flesh. The orange booties suddenly seemed like a great idea. I was picking sand out of things (bag, socks, ears, etc) for the next couple of days, though the sand-blasting my shoes received seemed to make them a good deal cleaner.

Dunhuang is most famous for its proximity to the Mogao Caves, site of the first Buddhist temples in China around the 4th century AD and containing 1,000 years of religious artwork bearing the hallmarks of not only the various Chinese dynasties that ruled during that millenium but also cultural influences brought down the Silk Road from Central Asia, India, and successive points further west all the way to Europe.

The religious community at the caves reached its peak during the Tang dynasty (roughly 7th - 10th centuries AD), with over 1,000 temple caves in use and armies of craftsmen sculpting and painting, but, as sea-based trade routes were established and the Silk Road became marginalised, the caves gradually fell off the radar until they were sealed in the 14th century. Though never truly forgotten, they aroused little interest in anyone until 1900 when a Chinese monk decided to dedicate himself to their restoration.

The monk's most significant find was a small hidden chamber, now the unremarkable-looking cave 17 aka the Library Cave. This contained many thousands of manuscripts and paintings, all virtually undamaged, encompassing many subjects and many languages, and across many centuries.

The rest of the story will echo numerous similar tales of discovery in undeveloped countries. Over the next few years, explorers from England/France/USA/Japan/Russia carted off a good chunk of the treasures, paying the monk trivial amounts for what would form the basis of those countries' Oriental collections. The Chinese government is now pursuing the return of these, via an Elgin Marbles-style campaign.

We'd received a cheap offer for lifts to/from the caves and a wait-time of 3 hours, which was barely more than getting the bus each way but without all the concomitant waiting and discomfort. Unfortunately on arriving at the caves we learned that the first English language tour would be 1.5 hours hence and would last 2 hours - we quickly returned to the carpark to see if our driver could wait a bit longer than planned but he'd already left. After we'd done the tour, he wasn't in the carpark (not surprising as we were about an hour late) so we had to get the bus back - more expenditure for us and no doubt he was pissed off too.

Like our transport, the whole experience turned out to be poor value for money. The entry fee of 180 yuan challenged even Jiuzhaigou's, and this was with one of the main attractions - the exhibition centre containing replicas of several of the caves with accurate detail and colour but significantly better lighting - closed. The caves are locked so you only see the ones your guide wants you to see - you can't even take photos.

What we did see, however, was impressive, despite all the above and the fact that the frontage of the caves had been shored up with some extremely ugly concrete. I was really surprised at the good state of preservation, especially of the colours, as many of the paintings/sculptures were over 1,000 years old, but it turned out that quite a bit had been touched up during the Qing dynasty (i.e. during the last 3-400 years).

The most impressive "cave" contained a 35.5m high Buddha, wearing robes and in much finer detail than the one at Leshan (though half the height). This one had also originally been exposed to the elements but the government had seen fit to protect it with a pagoda.

Overall I would say that the caves were interesting, but the ones I saw in Ellora/Ajanta in India were superior in value for money and accessibility. There are 3 other major Buddhist cave sites in China, and it will be interesting to see (at some point, though probably not this trip) whether they are a better experience than Mogao.

Dull but possibly useful info
Getting there: Take a bus from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang (several through the day - we took the 9:30AM), costing 70 yuan and taking about 6 hours 15 minutes.
Coming back from Hami, we took a train to Liuyuan (several through the day) at 7AM costing 21 yuan for unreserved class and taking about 3 hours 15 minutes, then a minibus from Liuyuan to Dunhuang (many through the day) costing 20 yuan and taking about 2 hours.
Stayed at: Five Rings Hotel. Cost 80 yuan for a double. Stuffy as hell. Would not stay here again.
Electricity Hotel. Cost 120 yuan for a double. Would stay here again.
Notes: i. Though we couldn't figure out why, it would appear that the PSB here doesn't do 2nd visa extensions.
ii. Avoid the Internet cafe on the main street - they tried to double-charge us.
iii. The exhibition centre at the Mogau Caves will apparently be closed until at least September 2007.
iv. The staff at the railway ticket office were the least helpful I've encountered in China - you'll probably do best if you have all your requirements written down in Chinese on a piece of paper.

Additional photos below
Photos: 31, Displayed: 26


View towards DunhuangView towards Dunhuang
View towards Dunhuang

Note incoming sandstorm

18th July 2007

Your photos are gorgeous! Thanks for sharing your adventures. I think the orange boots are catchy!

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