Dunhuang is located within the Gansu Province in the People’s Republic of China. The area was only populated after the Chinese gained victory over the Xiongnu in 121BC. From there Dunhuang became a key ‘pass through’ city with a growing population of its own. Many would travel through the city on their travels as it was a hub of the eastern Silk Road route in ancient times, and stop for supplies. In time the Great Wall of China was also extended here.
It has become fondly known as the City of Sands with its fantastic sand desert oasis and also well known for the famous Mogao Caves also known as the “Caves of a Thousand Buddhas”. The Silk Roads led early Buddhist monks to Dunhuang, however it wasn’t until the vision of a thousand Buddhas entered a monk’s thoughts that the caves were excavated and furnished with the many manuscripts and treasures in the 4th Century. Pilgrims who passed through would often paint murals or bring scriptures to the Caves.
Today the Dunhuang Mogao Caves is one of China’s chief Buddhist spots and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. While there are many caves which are not open to the public, a guided visit will let you experience about ten different caves and two public exhibition centres. You will need to organise to join a tour group as individual touring is disallowed. To get to the caves you will need to travel 25km southeast of the city, most choose to book a package which includes transport to and from the site. The total tour is likely to take just over two hours.
The other tourist destination which should be high up on your itinerary is the Echo-Sand Mountain. This sand mountain can be found a mere 5km south of Dunhuang City where you will find an accumulation of sand that you can explore. It is recommended that you take the somewhat strenuous journey up the mountain on foot to slide your way down for some amusement. The locals will tell you how brilliant it is when the wind sweeps through the sand creating as it sounds like singing hence the name Echo-Sand.
Nearby is another attraction that should be added to your list; Crescent Lake. It is a peculiar lake that sits in the middle of the sand oasis surrounded by quicksand. What is remarkable about this lake is that through the wind and travelling sand, it is never covered up and remains a lake in the shape of a crescent moon. If you have the time, it is a definite must-see for your trip.
If you are enjoying the sand and wish to explore more, the best idea is to arrange a camel trek with a local company. On Mingshan Road you will find Charlie Johng’s Cafe where you can book camel treks that last from two to seven days. This way you will be able to experience first hand what the desert is really like. If you nominate for a longer trip, often they will include a trip to the Mogao Caves so check these treks out before you make a special trip to the caves. Otherwise, if you are only interested in spending a night on the desert, you can camp out by yourself if you have all the equipment with you, however be cautious about the many sandstorms that sweep across the Gobi Desert. One last note about camel trekking is to bargain hard as prices for foreigners will often start out very high, so try and bring them down to a more reasonable rate.
So all in all Dunhuang is an absolute must-see destination for tourists to get an insight into the culture and history of the area. Luckily places like Dunhuang that used to be quite isolated, are now much more accessible and transportation has become a lot more efficient. You can now enter this area through the Dunhuang Airport which lies just 13km from the city centre, take the train that stops just 12km from the city centre, or the bus.
While Dunhuang continues to be an evolving archaeological project, its magnificent stone caves and desert experiences make it an indispensable tourist city. Because the months around December and January are very cold averaging around -10°C and between June and August is the city’s highest temperatures, the months between May and September are optimum times to visit.