Into the desert


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Asia » China » Gansu » Dunhuang
June 27th 2015
Published: August 21st 2015
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Dunhuang was never on our original itinerary, infact we had never even heard of it before arriving in China. We only heard or rather seen pictures of it from our Korean dorm mate back in Xingping. As he swiped through pictures of this desert - A desert. In China!! - clear blue skies, standing on a mountain of sand with what looked like an oasis in the background. We were in awe, China's diverse scenery never fails to amaze.

We said to ourselves "maybe we could squeeze this in our itinerary somehow"

We couldn't believe our luck, looking at the map of China it actually seemed possible. A reroute here, take a day off there, we were going to the desert.

Roll on the 23 hour train ride.

Side note: 23 hours on a train is not actually as bad as it sounds. With sufficient enough food/snacks, reading material and blogs to catch up on, its not that bad at all. That's as long as your in a sleeper cabin. A few travellers we'd met in Xi'an had the unfortunate experience of a 24hr hard seat (sat upright with limited leg room) due not to booking their
The impressive Magao cavesThe impressive Magao cavesThe impressive Magao caves

This 'pagoda' holds one of the largest Buddha structures here
train in advance. #Fail

Arriving in Dunhuang, it seemed the wet weather from Xi'an had followed us there too. It was raining and the skies were grey. Not the same images we'd seen on Choi's ipad a week earlier. Our hostel was outside of town positioned right next to the sand dunes. From our hostel however we could barely see beyond the closest dune due to the fog.

Its not supposed to rain in the desert is it?? We hoped it would clear before we left at least.

One thing we noted was that there's only one entrance to the dunes, there's a barbed wire fence that goes around most of the other potential accessible routes. So even though our hostel was right next to it, we couldn't just casually walk in without paying. The price they charge for entrance is again quite high. We cant imagine that preservation and maintenance of a desert was worth the high fee.

As the weather was a bit miserable we decided to visit another popular site in Dunhuang called the Magao Caves. The story goes: A travelling monk was trekking across the desert. One night he dreamt of 1000 Buddhas, when he awoke he was inspired to carve out a cave in the huge face of a sandstone mountain. In this cave he painted his vision of Buddha, thus creating a shrine.

Over the many years between the 4th century until the 14th century thousands of people came via the silk road to carve their own shrines out of the rock, decorating it with beautiful pictures, some telling stories, others depicting Buddha amogst other buddhist deities, some even containing Buddha statues over *30ft**.

In total there are over 600 of these caves with 5 levels created in the face of the rock. Only around 30 of these are open to the public the others bolted and locked.

Today the whole rock face is covered with cave entrances (slightly reminiscent of the cartoon The Flintstones), all containing some of the oldest preserved Buddhist paintings in the world.

Unfortunately all the cave entrances now have doors on them, making it look a bit like a stucco clad hotel. The doors are needed however to control the visitor viewings and the humidity levels in order to preserve the paintings. We felt privileged to be in the presence of such important history and were completely lost for words by the impressive nature of the site.

Apologies to our readers for the lack of pictures at this site too. We could not take pictures inside the caves of any statues or murals. Take it from us the statues of buddha were magnificant and many of the murals had been well preserved with visible golds, blues and reds, many interesting murals inspired by buddists who travelled from India.

We would certainly rate them among the best we have ever seen in China or South East Asia.

We also like and respect the no camera rule here as we have seen far to many previous cases of exposed ancient paintings being ruined by people touching them and cameras flashing. Much more effort is taking here to protect and preserve its history.

Prior to our guided tour of the caves, visitors are shown 2 short films regarding the history and cultural significance of the Magao caves. The 2nd film was shown in a planetarium 360degree like cinema. The screen covered the whole wall, the ceiling and the wall behind us. It gave the feeling that we were actually IN the short film - hovering at certain points before zooming out and floating to the next scene.

Maybe we'll get one of these cinema rooms when we purchase our next house - donations accepted.

Returning back on the bus towards our hostel, the skies had cleared and the sand dunes stood in all their glory. Mountains upon mountains of sand stretching far into the hazy distance. Feeling slightly under the weather, P went straight back to our hostel for a lie down. Chris however decided to scale the peak of Mt *Mingsha* to catch sunset (our only chance to capture it before we left).

It took just under an hour to reach the peak, luckily due to the time of the day the worst of the sun's heat was over. We imagined the dunes would be full of people, on camels or ATV's turning the whole place into some sort of desert theme park. But it was fairly quiet with just a few small groups of people dotted about resting, taking in the views waiting for sunset. It was no where near crowded within the vast expanse of desert. Either way despite small numbers Chris still couldn't escape the small groups all wanting a picture with him. Life as a celebrity hey!

Finally getting to the top he was treated to amazing views of the city - surprisingly flat and green. To the left was the crescent lake, an actual oasis at the foot of the desert and behind him was the smooth, angular mountainous desert.

The sand was so fine it penetrated every fibre of clothing and stuck to skin relentlessly.

The following day with P feeling better, we both scaled Mt Mingsha. The weather was much better today and a lot warmer. We both had to stop at times for a breather, the sand almost scorching hot and our bottle of once cool water now fit for green tea. Walking up soft sand mountains is a lot more strenuous than it looks. Trekking along a longer route than the previous night, we walked along the ridges of the dunes, amazed at the sheer scale and contrast to the city below.

Getting down the dunes is the fun part. You can actually toboggan down it for a fee but we decided to run it. The soft sand the only thing stopping us from taking a tumble. Big kids we know.

At the bottom we paid a quick visit to the crescent lake and walked around it. Its quite picturesque with the desert backdrop and recently built pagoda beside it. Apparently the lake has never been submerged by the sands over the many many years its been there. Impressive hey. Shoes filled with sand and a camera full of pictures we headed back to our hostel to get cleaned up and grab our bags to catch the train.

Back on the silk road we go.



Travel info
From Xian hostel to Xian train station- City bus (2y each) -5 minutes

Overnight train-hard sleeper from Xi'an to Dunhuang 353y (23hrs)

Green city bus (number 12) to centre of Dunhuang last stop (3y 30 minutes)

Walk through market and catch blue city bus (number 3) to last stop sand dunes (2y 20 minutes)

Accommodation - Charley Johngs Dune Guesthouse


Additional photos below
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Crescent lakeCrescent lake
Crescent lake

An oasis in the desert




21st August 2015
Crescent lake

Go for it!
Brilliant to have an itinerary and then chuck it for the promise of more adventure! How amazing that the most beautiful Buddhist paintings and statues you've seen so far are in a place few have heard of. I love that the Chinese are protecting the cave art as well as the dunes. So many dunes are full of those ATVs, which take away the peace of the place. You two stumbled into another heavenly place. Well-done!
23rd August 2015
Crescent lake

Go for it!
Thanks Tara. It was an amazing place not ruined my tourism. Tourism still made it mark but in no way near the same numbers as elsewhere in China. After travelling for a while we would probably say that China was the most impressive with preserving and protecting its history and beauty. There and Japan.

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