Day 122: Dunhuang Sand Dunes, Sand Storms and the Mogao Caves

The town of Dunhuang turned out to be a pleasant little place, without much of a built-up town centre and thankfully without the massive, wide and soul-less streets that have greeted me at every town I’ve visited in China thus far.

I’d heard from a few travelers about some massive sand dunes on the outskirts of town, so I rented a ricketty old Chinese bike and rode out there one afternoon.  The gigantic Sahara-esque dunes loomed up hundreds of metres above the desert floor and were an impressive sight to ride towards.  Of course there’s a but tho…  What I wanted was an empty stretch of desert to take some cool sunset pics, but what I got was a Chinese theme park!  First up there was the 80 yuan entry fee just to get in (to climb up some dunes?!?), which at $10 might not sound that steep but when it’s double what I’m paying for my accomodation it seemed like a bit of a rip-off.  I first tried to ride my bike around the edge of the dunes to find the end of the fence, but they seemed to have thought of that as it keep going and going.  I grudgingly paid the entry fee, along with just about every Chinese person on vacation in China it would seem .  The place was packed.

I wandered around for a while, amused and slightly miffed at how well the Chinese can fuck up an otherwise beautiful place.  Everywhere I looked I saw groups of tourists on camels being dragged across the dunes by a guide, each of them wearing the most ridiculous bright orange booties to stop any sand from entering their shoes.  And each slope of the sand dunes has been converted into an amusement park by some entrepreneur or another who all charged ridiculous prices to slide down the slopes on a sled or inner tube.

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I love the orange booties and the numbered camels – very “authentic”.

I climbed up one of the larger dunes to get away from the tourist scene; it was tough, slow going in the deep sand and I’ve still got about a kilo of sand in my shoes even as I write this.  As I neared the crest of the dune the wind started to pick up – cool pics of the sand but not so good for the camera!  I also noticed an ominous looking darkish cloud on the horizon.  At the top I snapped off a couple of pics of the desertscape but couldn’t help noticing that the same cloud was much closer and coming my way.  I remembered a huge sand storm that blew into Melbourne when I was a kid and this looked just like that, so on that hunch I started legging it down the dune.  Sure enough it turned into a wild sandstorm with whipping winds, choking dust and visibility down to about 20 metres.  With nothing at all left to see I rode back into town – which was an experience in itself!  I knew my mujaheddin headscarf would come in useful somewhere…


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(L) See the two specs on the dunes?  These guys picked a bad day to get adventurous!  (R) Uh oh looks like trouble brewing…

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(L) Argh it’s coming my way!  (R) Chinese tourists. Hilarious.

The real highlight of a trip to Dunhuang are the Mogao Caves, and they were OUTSTANDING!  Well worth the effort (and the price of 120 yuan!!) to visit, which is a first for this trip in China – everywhere so far has been overpriced and has underwhelmed.

The hundreds of Buddhist caves line the cliff of a shallow valley about 25km south-east of the town.  Historically the caves were an important centre of Buddhist learning and worship, and from around the 4th Century AD to the end of Silk Road trade (around the 1400’s) many wealthy merchants and officials sponsored the creation of new caves on the site.  In its day, traders and caravans would take a long detour to visit the caves to either give thanks for a safe return, or to pray for a safe journey through the dangerous lands to the west.

The only way to visit the caves is on a two-hour tour, no cameras or bags permitted (doh!), and the tour guides take groups around and open up some of the hundreds of caves to see.  The artistry within the caves was truly incredible, with hundreds and hundreds of elaborate statues, carvings, beautiful frescoes and paintings, most in fantastic condition after more than a millenium.  You could also easily pick out the different influences (Indian, Tibetan etc.) in caves from different periods, even though I find Buddhism really difficult to get my head around because it’s so complex and minutely nuanced.

The biggest statue there is a 35m tall seated Buddha, which we were told makes it the third largest in the world (not including Bamiyan in Afghanistan which the Taliban destroyed).  It was damn impressive!  My favourite cave, and we saw about ten, had a large reclined Buddha (Nirvana we were told) with 72 statues representing the disciples surrounding it.  We were also shown some of the many thousands of important manuscripts and exquisite silk paintings plundered by western archaeologists in the early 20th century (which you can now find in Britain, France, the USA etc.).

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The gigantic sitting Buddha is built into the cliff face, behind the temple structure shown here.

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