If you look at a map of China, it’s clear to see that the major cities are all located in the East. There are comparatively few settlements across the vast steppes and mountains of the west.
The Tibetan plateau occupies much of the west of China. To the north the Silk Road wound its way from Xi’an into Central Asia and beyond. Dunhuang was an important stop for caravans travelling the silk route, as well as those travelling from Lhasa in Tibet to Mongolia.
What to see and do in Dunhuang
Crescent Lake and Pavilion
Crescent Lake, which is considered a natural wonder of the Gobi Desert, is an oasis located 6km south of Dunhuang in China’s western Gansu Province. The lake is something of an enigma as it has existed for thousands of years and was considered a special place during the Han Dynasty (202BC to 220AD).
Because the lake is dwarfed by the surrounding sand dunes, it’s a wonder it hasn’t filled up and been covered over many times, but due to a natural depression, the winds blow the sand across the nearby singing sand dunes and away from the spring.
Echoing Sand Mountain (Mingsha Shan)
Legend dictates that during the height of a large battle, the wind blew sand over the amassed warriors. The soldiers fought beneath the sand thus producing Echoing Sand Mountain!
There is another theory that the static produced by wind changing direction over the sand makes the dunes echo, but I know which version I prefer to believe! Either way, a hike up to the top of the dune provides wonderful views across the desert and down to Crescent Lake.
To get to Crescent Lake and Minsha Shan from downtown Dunhuang, take bus number 3 or jump in a taxi which should cost no more than ¥20.
Entrance to Dunhuang Scenic Area
A three day ticket to the scenic area which includes crescent lake and the echoing sand mountain costs ¥110 in peak season (May – Oct) and ¥55 in low season. Children shorter than 1.2 metres go free and kids between 1.2 and 1.4m pay half price.
Camel rides cost ¥100 for a round trip.
The park is open from 05:00 to 20:30 7 days a week.
There are cafes and public toilets at the entrance to the park as well as at the pagoda next to crescent lake.
Shazhou Night Market
Located on East Yangguan Road, Shazhou night market is a great place to try local speciality food. As Gansu is not far from Xinjiang, the food here is more similar to Central Asian cuisine than say Cantonese.
Lamb and mutton are popular, but one of the most famous dishes from the region is yellow noodles with donkey meat. Vegetarians need not break out in a cold sweat as plenty of vegetable and noodle dishes are free of meat.
The night market is also a great place to browse and pick up authentic handicrafts, including locally made carpets, pottery and paintings.
Similar to the Longmen Grottoes in Luoyang, the Mogao Caves are a treasure trove of Buddhist art and sculpture. Built in 336AD, the caves are home to different paintings and statues representing Buddhism from India and China. There are 735 caves in total with wooden plank walkways leading up and around the site.
The caves are located 25km from Dunhuang and tickets must be reserved in advance from the ticket Digital Exhibition Centre.
From May to October tickets cost ¥220 or ¥120 off season. The caves are open from 08:00 to 18:00.
To get to the Mogao caves you can a bus from Dunhuang Train station.
Tips for travelling in the desert
It goes without saying that deserts can be hot places, so sunscreen and plenty of water are a must. You can buy water, hats and sunscreen at the entrance to the scenic area.
It would also be wise to buy a face mask, especially if you suffer from asthma or other respiratory illnesses. I came down with flu-like symptoms after two days in the desert thanks to the amount of dust I inhaled.
Avoid visiting the desert during the middle of the day and instead opt for cooler early mornings or evenings. The sunrise and sunsets across the dunes are fantastic!
Keep all electronic equipment sealed in plastic bags if possible. You can buy special protective coverings for cameras at the entrance to the park.
Where to stay in Dunhuang
There are many hotels and a couple of hostels in Dunhuang town and closer to the scenic area. Check Booking.com to view available rooms.
How to get to Dunhuang
The closest major Chinese city to Dunhuang is Urumqi, but don’t let that fool you because Urumqi is one of the most remote places on the planet and geographically as far as it’s possible to get from any coastline.
However with China’s excellent rail and domestic flight services, it doesn’t have to take weeks/months by camel to reach Dunhuang these days.
Dunhuang by Air
Routes are operated by Air China, China Eastern, China Southern and a few smaller carriers. Visit the Trip.com website for great deals on domestic flights in China.
A flight from Beijing will take 3.5 hours and cost ¥2,440 (€325/$365) which is a little expensive, so consider taking a train if time allows which costs 10% of a flight.
Dunhuang by Train
East to West: Dunhuang is located at the end of a branch line, so there are no trains passing through. That said, it’s possible to take a train direct from Beijing. If you were to take a train direct from Beijing the journey is 36 hours.
There is one train per day leaving Beijing at 20:45 and arriving two days later at 09:06 (Seat: ¥273.50 Hard Sleeper ¥496.50 Soft Sleeper ¥767.50).
However, it would make more sense to stop somewhere along the way to break the journey up. Xi’an or Luoyang would make a good option.
There is one train a day from Xi’an to Dunhuang leaving at 10:27 and arriving the next morning at 08:38.
Seat: ¥206 Hard Sleeper ¥377 Soft Sleeper ¥582.
West to East: If you are coming from Urumqi (or Kazakhstan) you can take a fast train to Jiayuguan. The journey time is 6.5 hours and there are 4 fast trains per day between 08:43 and 11:06. A second class seat costs ¥336 and first class is ¥538.
If you miss the morning fast trains, there are also 20 slow trains so you can opt for a bed on one of these if you want to save on overnight accommodation (¥272.50 for hard & ¥458.50 for soft). Journey time varies between 11 and 14 hours depending on the train you get.
From Jiayuguan it is another 4.5 hours to Dunhuang. A hard seat costs ¥53.50, hard sleeper is ¥115 and soft sleeper is ¥175.50.
Once you have travelled this far West in China, you are very close to the beautiful but troubled Xinjiang region. There is not much to see in Urumqi but it’s a useful jumping off for point for discovering Kazkhstan. Nearby Turpan has more to offer such as the Bezeklik Caves.
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