Dunhuang is different things to the various travelers who either arrive by private car, bus, train or plane into this “City of Sand”. Some come here seeking to concur the Gobi Desert by camel and others are simply looking to view what’s left of the ancient Silk Road. There is enough here to please both groups.
The Mogao Caves
Dunhuang is currently one of China’s top domestic tourist destinations and currently under construction. The Mogao Thousand Buddha Grottoes just outside of town is getting a complete makeover, like much of China’s top tourist sites and cities these days. According to our tour guide, the ancient Buddhist caves dating back to the 5th century. A.D. get up to 6,000 visitors a day during the high summer season. Carbon dioxide has been taking a toll on the interior paintings that have been open to the public since the 1980’s. The damaged cave doors will soon close when the brand new Mogao Caves Museum opens in a year or so giving the public a shiny new camera friendly scene to witness.
The current ticket price to tour the caves is ¥160 + another ¥20 for a guide for Non-Chinese. Was it worth it? Yes, now it is even though no pictures are allowed. In the long run, the site will get a rest and hopefully will be properly preserved. At least some will be may happy with the change. I’m sure many welcome the chance to be able to take pictures despite the fact that they aren’t the real thing.
The Yardung Geological Park
To some, the desert areas that make up the Yardung Geological Park west of Dunhuang is just a bunch of rocks shaped supposedly like Chinese mythological creatures and leftovers from the good old days of when this area was the gateway of the Silk Road. It was once the area where dinosaurs roamed, a very large lake once stood. Centuries later, trade masters, maybe even Marco Polo, lead their camels through the Jade Gate. It was a place to refuel and pay taxes before continuing west to Central Asia and east towards Chang’an. Little has been left behind but there is still much to see here in the Gobi Desert even if it’s a rock shaped like a Phoenix.
The Buzzing Sands
The dunes resting next to fruit tree groves at the western edge of town where once a place where travels could rest and enjoy a sunset while listening to the wind pass through the orange sandy hills. They have long been known as Mingsha Shan or the “Echoing Sand Mountain”. Today, the luxury Silk Road Hotel Resort, cranes and workers building more resorts, thousands of camels and all types of recreation vehicles all can be found in amongst the dune landscape. The buzz of paragliders drowns out any singing going on here.
A ticket ¥180 gets visitors though the gates, into a rented a pair of orange booties and away off to explore the dunes on the back of a camel or inside of a less than safe looking paragliders. Many visitors can skip all of that. There are roads that lead into the apricot groves and end where the desert is less crowded. It is still possible to see the dunes minus the tour groups and hubbub of the theme park it has become.