I looked out at the scene in front of me, speechless. Yes, the sand dunes were impressive but that wasn’t what had left me speechless. Instead it was all of the Chinese tourists walking around in bright orange plastic covers to protect their shoes from sand, and it was the long line of hundreds of camels plodding a short circuit through the dunes with more Chinese tourists sitting atop the camels. Overhead gliders with tourists inside buzzed back and forth. This was the Singing Sand Dunes just outside of Dunhuang, the largest and most impressive sand dunes in China, and it was the craziest and most bizarre form of Chinese tourism I’d seen so far on my travels. Oh, and did I mention it cost 120RMB (just over AUD20) to see the sand dunes as they’d fenced them off!
The oasis at Dunhuang was an important safe haven for those travelling the Silk Road across the desolate deserts of Western China. Those who had safely navigated their way here gave thanks for their safe journey by commissioning caves to be carved into the nearby hills and filling them with murals and statues. Known as the Mogao Caves they comprise the largest, most richly endowed and longest used treasure house of Buddhist art in the world!
Almost 500 caves are preserved today. Cut into the cliff face with a series of ramps and walkways connecting them they can only be visited with a guide. As my guide unlocked the first cave and I entered the cool darkness within I felt like we were entering a sacred and special place. The guide’s torch flashed onto the walls revealing the most incredible murals. The walls of the cave were completely covered in paintings and the colours were still so bright despite being hundreds of years old. Statues stood in niches. My guide led me to cave after cave, including two caves where huge buddhas consumed the space within. The caves were really amazing. Unfortunately I’ve no photos to share of these incredible caves as photography is strictly prohibited.
Mogao Caves also once held one of the biggest collections of oldest manuscripts in the world. First discovered in the year 1900 the infamous european explorer, Aurel Stein, heard of the treasures in Dunhuang and mounted an expedition to the oasis. Stein carried away thousands and thousands of manuscripts after having only paid GBP130 for them!!
Back in Dunhuang the streets were abnormally quiet for a Chinese city. It felt like the city was languishing in the heat. However as evening approached the night market started getting ready with deck chairs, tables and barbecues starting to be set up. By nine the night market was in full swing and the streets were finally crowded and noisy.
I stayed at New Dragon Gate Inn Hostel with great terraced common area and a central location it’s a good choice. However, service didn’t appear to be a priority for those working here and the lack of an English sign makes it hard to find!
Train Jiayuguan to Dunhuang = 158.50RMB for a soft sleeper and took approx 5 hours
Entrance to Singing Sand Dunes = 120RMB
Entrance to Mogao Caves = 160RMB