Dunhuang - 敦煌
Theres a lot of hype out there about Dunhuang. For one this city features attractions such as the Mogao caves; one of the best collections of preserved Buddhist art in the world. People come from all over just to see the Mogao caves, and if you go you will understand why; Dunhuang has thousands of years of silk road history.
Mogao Caves - 莫高窟
The caves themselves are considered to be one of the greatest archeological finds of the last few hundred years. Upon consulting with the lonely planet for a read up, I noticed there were a few pages dedicated to explaining the caves. It was then I realized that this attraction in Dunhuang is a big deal.
For anyone debating: This attraction is a must see.
note: student IDs are not accepted from foreigners at the Mogao caves, so if you would like the English tour you must pay the full entrance price of 180RMB. I too was a little upset, however I will vouch that this is one attraction in China that is worth the entrance fee.
- English tours are offered at 9AM, 12PM, and 2PM and are strongly recommend participating in the English tour if you are going to the caves. Our tour guide was fantastic and did a great job explaining to us about the history of the caves. In total we visited about 7 caves on the tour.
- You can bring your own flashlight into the caves – make sure you bring it because the guides light was not very bright. You should have already packed one if you've followed our packing list advice.
- You may continue exploring other caves with other Chinese tour groups after your tour is over.
Mingsha Shan (Echoing Sand Mountain) - 鸣沙山
Driving towards Mingsha shan you will believe that there are mountains south of Dunhuang. These mountains are the giant sand dunes and they are unbelievably big; I now understand why they call them "mountains". We stayed at Charley Johngs Dune Guesthouse which is located at the foot of the sand dunes. The local government fenced off the dunes and now charges a 120RMB admission ticket at the main entrance. Before it was easy to enter the dunes from behind Charley Johngs Guesthouse, but now there are lots of written letters of guests who had run-ins with the police while climbing the fence behind Charley’s. After speaking with some guests, I learned there is a much easier way to enjoy the dunes away from the tourists for free.
Directions how to enter the dunes for free: (See the diagram below)
- Walking out of the main building at Charley’s Dune Guesthouse turn left.
- After walking through the main gate outside of Charley’s Dune guesthouse, make your immediate left and head West.
- Follow the road / path for about 30 - 40 minutes walking distance following parallel to the dunes.
- This path will take you through some local villages / homes.
- There are some barking dogs, but they are all tied up.
- Eventually make another left and head directly towards the dunes and enter after the fence has ended. There are no police here and these dunes belong to the villagers and you are free to explore / enjoy a sunset all to yourself.
You can rent camping gear / sleeping bags from Charley’s Dune Guesthouse and spend a night out in the desert! Pick up some firewood along the way and enjoy the quietness of the desert and great stargazing.
Desert Camel Trek
If you want to venture far into the dunes and have the real desert experience than arranging a camel trek is the way to go. Charley’s Dune Guesthouse can help you arrange 1 to 60 night camel treks into the desert. In season the charge was 400 RMB per night per person; a bit steep if you ask me. However for one night it was a good experience.
We set our around 6pm and were driven by Charley himself to the home of Mr. Li; our guide. Mr. Li was extremely friendly. Unfortunately he did not speak any English, but I was happy to translate for other travelers. The group consisted of 6 people total including myself. We set out around 6pm and spent about an hour and a half trekking across barren strips of desert featuring lots of sand and graves of locals. Once we reached the camp site, we were free to explore the surrounding areas while Mr. Li set up our camp. We climbed to the top of the highest sand mountain in the area and watched the sunset while chatting with the other travelers.
Upon return, Mr. Li had made us dinner which consisted of hot dog, ramen noodles, and home-made bread. Surprisingly it was not too bad, but I did however expect more considering the 400 yuan charge. Sleeping in the desert was very comfortable as the temperature dropped considerably during the night.
In the morning we were once again greeted by Mr. Li and made our way back via camel.
Impressions of Dunhuang
Dunhuang is definitely worth seeing. On the scale of things Ive seen / done in China Dunhuang is near the top. The Mogao caves were spectacular, and the camel trek is worth it. You can easily enjoy the quietness of the desert. If I was doing the silk road again and I was pressed for time, I would probably consider skipping over Jiayuguan, but would definitely make time for Dunhuang again.
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