Lovely Dunhuang - An Oasis in the Gobi Desert

Trip Start Oct 07, 2007
Trip End Nov 05, 2007

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Dunhuang Silk Road Hotel

Flag of China  , Gansu,
Monday, October 22, 2007

Canadian friends Gary and Gwen Spinks who recommended our stay in Zhongdian, Yunnan Province were keen also for us to spend some time in Dunhuang in Gansu Province. They had always regretted not spending more time in this lovely oasis city. And after our stay, we could well understand their point of view. We loved Dunhuang and its surrounds, and would recommend it as a "must go to city" on the northern Silk Road.

On a map, Gansu is the strangest looking province. It is squeezed into its long, narrow and contorted shape by the Longshou and Mazong ranges to the north and the Qilian Shan in the south. The western area housing the oasis city of Dunhuang is linked by a narrow strip of land - the famous 1,000 km natural land passage of the Hexi (Gansu) Corridor - to the eastern bulge and capital city of Lanzhou. The Province simply oozes with the history of the Silk Road trading routes and is famous for its Buddhist grottoes, paintings and sculptures, military garrison remains, tombs and beacon towers of the old Great Wall.

With a population of 26 million, comprising mostly Han Chinese (91%), Hui, Donxiang and Tibetan peoples, the province covers an area of 454,000 square kms, most of which is over 1,000 meters in altitude. It is flanked by the Gobi and Taklamakan Deserts and endures a semi-arid to arid continental climate. 

  Dunhuang city (Blazing Beacon) lies in an oasis setting at the far edge of the Gobi Desert with a gorgeous backdrop of the Mingsha Shan (Echoing Sand Mountains) and the beautiful Crescent Lake. Historically, Dunhuang commanded a highly strategic position at the cross roads of the ancient Southern Silk Route and the main road leading from India via Lhasa to Mongolia and Southern Siberia, as well as controlling the entrance to the narrow Hexi Corridor which led to the heartland of the north Chinese plains and ancient capital cities of Xian and Luoyang. It was at one stage the sole western passage in and out of the Middle Kingdom.

Our hotel The Silk Road Dunhuang was located out of the city and only some 2 kms from the lovely Mingsha Shan sand dunes. We never tired of watching these dunes from the hotel, with the fascinating desert light patterns and the ever changing razor sharp contoured sand ridges. No matter how many human and camel foot prints there were left in the evening, by morning the desert sand hills were always wind smoothed to perfection.

Looking more like an ancient garrison, our hotel itself was beautifully designed and in total harmony with its setting. The rooms were tastefully appointed with slate floors and beautiful local rugs. You could easily get lost though trying to find the restaurant. The hotel covers a deceptively large area and to find the restaurant you need to negotiate a labyrinth of long outside corridors and various building entrances. The October desert nights were bitterly cold and we were very pleased when we eventually found the restaurant. The hotel food was some of the best Chinese food we had ever eaten, although we must admit that we gave the "donkey with lump" and "three cooked blood" a miss. Perhaps they were just whimsical names. We remembered with some amusement our earlier experiences at a Beijing restaurant when we ordered a dish called "Farmer Buttons up the Duck". It was delicious. Perhaps best not to think too much about the origin of these names.......

We would strongly recommend The Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel. It was quite luxurious and friendly, without being over the top. Perhaps, that is with the exception of our drinks in the hotel foyer on our last evening.

Our hotel was some distance from the main centre of Dunhuang but the local bus to and from our hotel only cost us 1 Yuan each. The service was every six minutes. It was very convenient and we found ourselves doing quite a number of trips to Dunhuang and back each day. We were surprised that there were virtually no foreigners in this very pleasant city. The markets were colourful and were filled with a mouthwatering array of fresh and dried fruits, vegetables and spices. How I wished I could have bought some to take home.  A large meat market was thriving. Dunhuang has a strong Muslim presence and the breads, kebabs as well as the fresh and dried fruit were wonderful. 

We also had a great time in Dunhuang trying the local wines. We took a liking to Mogao dry red which was very good. And the excellent Chinese brewed beer in Dunhuang was just 2.7 Yuan per can. Not surprisingly we had a great time there wandering around the city and local markets. 

When we met with Tashi Tenzing in Tibet, he had obligingly written in Mandarin for us the words "cold beer" and "whiskey". We thought it was a god send. I had hoped that my Mandarin accent would have been adequate but we soon realised it was far from so. When I carefully asked shop attendants about purchasing whiskey (weishiji) the staff looked somewhat startled and for some reason escorted Alan (not me) to the sanitary napkin department (Chinese supermarkets stock a staggering amount of sanitary napkins). When this happened twice I knew my pronunciation had gone a bit astray. It was quite hilarious with lots of giggles from the locals. Goodness knows what I really said in Mandarin. We eventually found the whiskey though.  Finding cold beer was fortunately no problem. Supermarket shopping was as always a real buzz for Alan and me. It was such fun trying to work out what foods and drinks to buy. And as usual it gave us quite an insight into how local people shop and live.

We also enjoyed the opportunity to wander down our hotel's rural road toward the Mingsha Shan Hills. On each side of the road were small farmlets with flourishing apricot and almond orchards. The houses were small but well kept with ramshackle flowering gardens. There was a feeling of mild prosperity with friendly families and children greeting us on our way. A very relaxing way to again observe how the local people live.

Before we left for our China trip I became obsessed with a romantic notion of riding camels through the Gobi Desert. Was it wistful recollections of that great old movie Lawrence of Arabia (not that the movie was about the Gobi Desert of course) and the wonderfully exotic Omar Sherif? But by the time we arrived at Dunhuang Alan was resigned to The Camel Ride.

Late in the afternoon when the shadows were long and the huge crescent shaped dunes looked even more spectacular and hauntingly beautiful we walked to the Mingsha Shan Hills, some two kilometers from our hotel. We arrived to see long trains of camels plodding their slow way up the very steep dunes and then onto the spectacular Crescent Lake. It was all very touristy but we had to admit it looked pretty impressive. Well, I did.

Anyone who knows Alan (who has religiously held horses outside women's toilets for years when I competed in dressage events) would know just how much he was looking forward to The Ride. I am astonished to this day that he actually agreed. We watched with great interest as one by one a huge queue of Chinese tourists mounted the obliging camels and made their way up the crescent dunes. But suddenly there was a thwacking thump, then a resounding thud. A poor woman somehow fell off her camel flat on her back. She looked dead, remaining motionless for a disturbing amount of time. Not a great start. As you can imagine this did nothing to encourage our Alan.

Alan's camel was predictably like his Tibetan horse - a camel with attitude. The poor animal looked to be far too small for Alan and kept trying to lie down, making pitiful wailing noises. It was distressing and we were very pleased that after a short time our guide asked us to swap camels. My Bactrian camel was a beautiful animal - huge and sort of a champagne colour with gentle eyes and two enormous humps. And it was much better behaved than Alan's...

It took some time to reach the summit of the Mingsha Shan Dunes and by then there was no way Alan was going on to Crescent Lake. And so I had the dubious pleasure of riding his camel back to the home base. Despite my horse riding experience I was absolutely out of control. This little guy kept trying to skid off the narrow trail on the side of the dunes that went down some huge distance. It was nerve wracking to say the very least. I was somewhat disappointed at how uncomfortable camels can be. Even my long experience of riding my own horses did not equip me at all well for camel riding.

The next day we visited the Mogao Caves or as they are also known "The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas" with the accompanying excellent museum. In its prime, the site housed 18 monasteries and over 1,400 Buddhist monks and nuns as well as artists, translators and calligraphers. The traditional date ascribed to the founding of the first cave is AD 366. The series of 492 temples extends for 1,700 meters along a treeless buff canyon wall some 25 kilometers south-east of Dunhuang. The caves contain a magnificent collection of artworks that are beautifully preserved, some almost in their original state. They are regarded as some of the finest examples of Buddhist art spanning a period of some 1,000 years.

Wikipedia writes: "According to local legend, in AD 366 a Buddhist monk, Le Zun, had a vision of a thousand Buddhas and inspired the excavation of the caves he envisioned. The number of temples eventually grew to more than a thousand. As Buddhist monks valued austerity, they sought retreat in remote caves to further their quest for enlightenment. From 4th until the 14th century, Buddhist monks at Dunhuang collected scriptures from the west while many pilgrims passing through the area painted murals inside the caves. The cave paintings and architecture served as aid to meditation, as visual representations of the quest for enlightenment, as mnemonic devices, and as teaching tools to inform illiterate Chinese about Buddhist beliefs and stories"

Due to the encroaching sands of the Gobi Desert the grottoes lay unknown for centuries and only in the 20th century were they rediscovered. In the early century a Chinese Taoist named Wang Yuanlu appointed himself as guardian of some of these temples. Rumours of this discovery brought several European expeditions to the area by 1910, including the British-Indian group led by well known expeditioner Auriel Stein. Sadly a huge amount of the original works, containing documents, calligraphies and anthologies were sold to Stein for the paltry sum of 220 pounds. Thankfully, the Chinese government was later able to reclaim many of the manuscripts. Wang then embarked on the refurbishment of the temples which was funded partly by donations from neighbouring towns and by donations from Stein and other European expeditioners.

In 1987 the Mogao caves became one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. A further 248 caves were discovered between 1988 and 1995. Today the site is the subject of an ongoing archaeological project. 

You come across the Mogao Caves quite out of the blue after a 25 kilometer drive across the sheer nothingness of the arid desert, From the outset the caves are breathtaking in the massiveness and beauty of their external sculpture. We had to wait some hours until an English speaking guide was available. But it was worth every minute of the wait. It also gave us time to explore the interesting and beautifully appointed museum.

Our guide was a young Chinese university student with an infectious passion for the Mogao site. We were fortunate that there was only another Canadian couple with us on our tour and the two hours we spent looking at a selected number of caves was fascinating.

In all honesty we had not heard about the Mogao Caves and its wonderful art until we began to organise our trip and read about Dunhuang. In fact we were slightly reticent to visit the site because we had no idea just how magnificent the works are and how significant the site is. Another example of our Australian Anglophilic education system and our inherent bias toward European culture and art, we suspect.  

We intended on having a relaxed time on our last day in Dunhuang as we were catching the night train to Turpan. In the morning we decided to wander around a very impressive display of silk carpets in our hotel. Some of the works were exquisite and we were particularly taken with a gorgeous huge Chinese red and cream silk hunting scene rug adorned with patterns of chariots, camels, birds and tigers. Fortunately for us, it was the last day of the carpet display as it was nearing the beginning of the winter season when most of the tourist industry closes down. We would never think to buy a rug from a hotel display but we did - and we did get a great bargain. Despite our reservations in having the the rug air freighted home, and having no measurements of the only place in our house it could possibly fit, we had absolutely no problems. The rug arrived just a few days after we came home and it did fit beautifully into our lounge room.

That afternoon we had time to take the bus back into down town Dunhuang and wander around the local shops and friendly markets. To my surprise Alan found a liquor shop where we replaced my whiskey and at local street stalls we stocked up on kebabs and flat breads for our evening rail trip to Turpan. The food looked and smelt delicious. Well, it did then....

We didn't realise when we organised this trip that a lot of hotels and tourist facilities in the north and far north-west close for the winter. And the cold weather had apparently come early. We were getting anxious also about our planned trip later on to Tashkorgan near the Pakistan border as we had just found out that our hotel closed early, even though we had booked it some considerable time ahead. Similarly, the newly constructed Dunhuang railway station closed the day before we were supposed to leave for Turpan and so we had to make the 150 km trip by bus to Liuyuan the closest town connected to the railway.

We were early for our guides Robin and Sophie who were to escort us to Liuyuan and while waiting in the hotel foyer we decided that a gin and tonic would go down very well. The drinks cost us the equivalent of AUS $18 which is by Chinese standards was extraordinary. We decided that one can of tonic would suffice the two of us.
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