Dunhuang (敦煌), Gansu Province
Dunhuang is located in the remote northwest of Gansu Province, near the border with Xinjiang. Despite the difficulty of getting there, however, it attracts a steady stream of tourists — though perhaps not even as many as it deserves. The draw is the world-famous Mogao Caves. Or more specifically, the awe-inspiring paintings therein.
Places to see
The Mogao Caves
I’m not sure I can really do justice to the caves, except to say that if they weren’t so far away, I’m sure they would be as popular with tourists as the Forbidden City or the Terracotta Warriors. The paintings themselves are astonishing for their beauty and the diversity of painting styles. We saw one cave painted with “traditional” Chinese landscapes, while others were covered in detailed, wallpaper-like patterns, thanks to an early form of printing. Almost more astonishing, though, was the simple fact that the paintings have survived for so long. The first paintings were done in 366 A.D., and for 600 years, painters came from all over China to add their work. Monks sealed the caves around the year 1000 A.D. to protect the art from potential invaders, and the paintings remained hidden until the end of the 19th century.
In addition to the caves themselves, the site boasts an exhibition center that presents artifacts discovered in the caves. There are documents printed in Uighur from the 13th century, a copper cross from 900 A.D. and a Persian coin from around 460 A.D. The objects testify to the vibrant Silk Road trade that passed through Dunhuang, which is also apparent in the combination of artistic styles in the caves themselves. The exhibition center also has meticulous replicas of seven of the caves, allowing visitors to get a closer, better-lit view of the paintings — and to take pictures.
The entrance ticket to the caves has a hefty pricetag: 160 RMB. Only those with Chinese student IDs can take advantage of the 80 RMB student ticket. If you want an English guide, prepare to cough up an additional 20 RMB. (Those with student tickets cannot get an English guide.) Chinese tours leave throughout the day, while English tours depart at 9, 12 and 3. We opted for a Chinese tour, partly because we didn’t know we had to elect the English tour when we first bought our tickets. We had a very detailed guidebook (The Blue Guide), so we didn’t miss the tour guide’s explanations. Our tour included about nine caves, including the famous Library Cave where a cache of historically significant documents and Buddhist texts were discovered in the late 1800s.
You can get to the caves by bus (8 RMB), which departs from in front of the Feitian Binguan on Mingshan Lu. It’s advisable to bring your own flashlight so that you don’t have to rely on the rather dim one used by the tour guide.
Western Thousand Buddha Caves
These caves, 35 kilometers outside of Dunhuang, can’t hold a candle to the Mogao Caves. But they are much less crowded, and you can take as much time as you want to scrutinize the paintings. They were painted around the same time as the Mogao caves, and the painting styles are similar to what you will see at Mogao, though they seem less refined and are not quite so well-preserved. Don’t be confused by the many Buddhas who appear to have black skin — they are not evidence of contact with Africa. The colors of the paints have simply changed with age.
A taxi is the only way to get to these caves. A round-trip to and from Dunhuang cost 70 RMB. Entrance to the caves was just 20 RMB (10 RMB for students), a relief in high-priced Dunhuang.
Mingsha Sand Dunes
These beautiful sand dunes and the Crescent Moon Lake are located a few kilometers south of the town of Dunhuang. They’ve been all gussied up for tourism, with camel rides, dune surfing and paragliding. Unfortunately, the entrance fee has been gussied up as well — the ticket price is a steep 120 RMB, and the 60 RMB student discount is available only to students with a valid Chinese school ID. We snapped a bunch of photos from the gate, but decided against actually entering the park. Should you choose to brave the entrance fee, orange plastic booties are the de rigeur footwear for visitors. You can rent a pair from stalls down the street from the entrance gate.
The sand dunes are located just down the road from Charley Johng’s Guest House. You can take minibus #3 to there from Mingshan Lu in Dunhuang.
We didn’t end up eating many meals in Dunhuang, since our hostel was located outside of town. The night market, on Yangguan Donglu in the north of town, looked promising, but we didn’t have time to check it out. If you get hungry while you’re visiting the caves, the restaurant across the street from the exhibition center serves a palatable “kuai can” (fast food) of one meat, one veggie and rice for just 10 RMB.
Charley Johng’s Cafe
This is a typical backpacker cafe, of the variety found throughout China and Asia. The menu has the usual mix of Western breakfast food (pancakes, French toast) and Chinese stirfried dishes. It’s a good place to recharge your batteries after a long bus or train ride. (The cafe is owned by the same people as the guest house, below.)
The cafe is located in Dunhuang at 21 Mingshan Lu.
The new train station is 10 kilometers east of town. The same bus that goes to the Mogao caves stops at the train station. A ride between the train station and town costs 3 RMB.
Relatively few trains stop at Dunhuang, so if you are not on a tour, it can be hard to snag a hard sleeper ticket back to Lanzhou or onward to Xinjiang. It is much easier to get tickets from Liuyuan, which was the transport hub for Dunhuang until the new train station opened. Liuyuan is just a two-hour van ride away from Dunhuang along bumpy desert roads (20 RMB). The vans depart from the bus station down the street from Charley Johng’s Cafe on Mingshan Lu.
Charley Johng’s Guest House
This cute hostel is located quite a ways out of town, near the Mingsha Sand Dunes. It has a mix of dormitories, located in the main building, and standalone cabins. We had originally booked a 3-bed dormitory on hostelworld.com, but when we arrived, the dorm room was not available. Instead, Charley put us in one of the cabins, which worked out to be slightly cheaper for us. The facilities are a bit run-down (the outdoor toilet and shower are particularly rustic), but the bedding was clean and comfortable. A cafe at the hostel serves food all day, and when we visited, it was a lively hangout for solo travelers. (Word to the wise: Don’t succumb to the 8 RMB glasses of red wine. It’s a mistake. Trust me.)
A dorm bed costs about 40 RMB. The cabin, with a huge kang-style bed that slept three comfortably, cost 100 RMB per night. Take minibus #3 toward the sand dunes and get off at the turning to Charley’s, just before the dunes themselves. It is about a 10-minute walk from the main road to the hostel. We were able to drop our bags at his cafe in town (in Eateries, above>) when we arrived in the afternoon, and Charley brought them to the hostel for us later that day.