Dunhuang, a Beacon from History

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The name Dunhuang means beacon or light and reflects the city’s thousand plus year history as a western frontier town along the Silk Road. ?

?? Modern Dunhuang is a prime Western China travel destination for beautiful desert landscapes, important historical sites and one of the major depositories of Buddhist cave art in the world, the Mogao Caves. ??

Mogao Caves
The Mogao Caves are the main tourist attraction in Dunhuang by a wide margin and are so popular the number of visitors is restricted daily.

The process of visiting the Mogao Caves thus involves booking and buying a ticket in advance and then proceeding to the visitor centre at the appointed time where visitors watch two movies introducing the caves and their 1500 year history. The second introductory movie is on a domed screen that puts visitors inside a virtual cave. After watching both movies, visitors board buses to the site, where they are divided into groups of about twenty five and are guided through a selection of the caves with a professional guide. English language guides are available for an extra 20RMB.

The surviving sculptures and art are rich in detail and meaning. The aesthetic of the caves developed over several centuries, and due to the location being on a major trade route, the art has influence from many different cultures. Buddhism is the main theme, but different schools of Buddhism are represented and the stories that are told in the art are fascinating.

One cave, named the Library Cave, was discovered very recently in the Caves’ history and had been filled with manuscripts from the 4th to the 11th centuries, mainly in Chinese but in other languages as diverse as ancient Tibetan, Hebrew and Sanskrit.

Visitors can get a sense of how faith, commerce and innovation drives travel and cultural exchange and how traffic along the Silk Road and the spread of Buddhism left its influence on modern day China.


Yumen Pass
Yumen Pass, about 80 km from Dunhuang, is at a strategic point with long views: it marks the western point. Not far away are the remains of the ancient Han Great Wall, which protected caravans from robbers from the north.

At Yumen Pass, visitors can walk around a 1500 year old square castle and through a small museum with a few artifacts from the site. The drive out passes a lot of scrubby dessert landscape. There are other ruins dating from the era around the area.

Yadan Geological Park
Yadan is a national geological park around 180km from Dunhuang which displays the art of nature on a grand scale, with landforms created by wind and water erosion making a stunning landscape. The bus tour takes visitors around several unique rock formations that have been shaped by time and weather, giving visitors a set amount of time at each spot.

People who want more freedom or who wish to spend more time at the park can book a jeep inside. The environment gives a sense of space, peace and of being at a moment in time among millenia.

Mingsha Mountain
Mingsha Mountain is the site of some lovely desert landscape, with sand dunes surrounding a small crescent-shaped spring fed lake, a precious source of water in the dessert. Visitors who want the desert experience can arrange to ride on camels here. Sliding down the sand dunes is another popular activity.

Shazhou Night Market
This downtown night market is easily walkable from many of the downtown hotels and is a well-known place to eat barbecue. We passed on the local specialty ‘yellow donkey noodles’ that everyone was selling to eat excellent grilled chicken and the best rou jia mo (chopped meat sandwich) we’ve had anywhere. We found at Li’s stall near the centre of the market.

The place is definitely touristy but also looks like a good spot to gather for tea. Several of the stalls are open during the day, and the market is a good place to pick up souvenir dried fruit and nuts; we found the prices were the same as in the supermarkets. Pears, grapes and melons grown from this region have a concentrated sweetness due to the low water content.

Most hotels will arrange tours to several of the sites of interest around Dunhuang (not including the Mogao Caves) for 100-200RMB per person. Seeing Yadan at sunrise or sunset is the prime time, so these tours will leave either early in the morning or in the afternoon.

We found the majority of taxi drivers unwilling to use the meter and always on the lookout for other passengers to share your route, so negotiating skills will pay off, but we got reasonable rates by Chengdu standards for a driver that would take us around to a few sites. Expect to pay 400-500 yuan for a private driver to see Yumen, Yadan and a few other sites around the town.

Riding on camels is possible, and there are some who are willing to give guests the Silk Road experience and go on a camping trip on camels. Dunhuang is a good spot for a three day trip or a stop on a journey towards Tibet, Xinjiang, Qinghai or other western destination.

☀️? All these sites and more make Dunhuang a prime Western China travel destination & 1 of the world’s major locations Buddhist cave art ??

By Susan Johnson

Source: MORE Magazine November 2015

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