I wrote the following piece for CNNGo. Full article here
With nothing but 1.3 million-square-kilometer desert for company, Dunhuang (敦煌) really feels as though it’s in the middle of nowhere.
But it’s the desolation that makes the desert town so attractive.
The air is crisp; there’s not the slightest hint of light pollution at night; it’s one of the few places in the world where anyone can rent a camel and camp out in sand dunes.
With a population of 180,000, Dunhuang (the name means “big and grand”) is located in the Gansu province of western China.
As a town, it was a frontier defensive bulwark in the Han Dynasty and a major stop on the ancient Silk Road.
The city’s history dates to approximately 2000 BC.
Today, the wildest activities in and around the old trading hub revolve around accessing the desert that travelers once feared.
1. Horseback riding to Yangguan Pass
This fortress once marked the border between China and uncharted Western land.
A textbook staple for Chinese students, the Yangguan Pass was immortalized in Chinese history by Wang Wei (王维), a Tang Dynasty poet.
The pass once protected Dunhuang from invaders coming from the west; and though it has been reduced to a heap of rock with traces of design and architectural details, the view near the pass remains breathtaking: bleak but beautiful desert stretches as far as the eye can see.
Admission is RMB 50 (US$8), which includes a guided tour of the Yangguan Museum.
Visitors have the option of going up to the Yangguan Pass on a tram or by horseback. The horse, of course, feels far more epic.
Yangguang Pass (阳关道), 70 kilometers southwest of Dunhuang. There’s no public transportation between Dunhuang city and Yangguan Pass. A return trip by taxi costs around RMB 300 (US$47) for up to four people.
2. Hiking amid eerie rock formations at Yadan National Park
Mission in Yadan: spot the rock formations that resemble the Sphinx.
Yadan National Park is spead over 400 square kilometers and littered with various rock formations that are analogous to abstract art — they’re actually the product of lake erosion millions of years ago.
Now arid desert, the entire area was once underwater.
Visitors can jump on a tour bus to various sites with rocks that resemble the Egyptian sphinx, Great Pyramids and ancient Roman relics.
Awesome photo ops are everywhere. Nothing says desert nomad more than a midair jumping photo in the middle of nowhere.
Yadan National Park (敦煌雅丹国家地质公园), 180 kilometers northwest of Dunhuang. There’s no public transportation between Dunhuang city and Yadan National Park. A return trip by taxi costs around RMB 500 ($63) for up to four people.
3. Touring Mogao Grottoes
Shutterbugs should think twice before passing this gate.
The Mogao Grottoes are a series of Buddhist caves with amazing detailing.
There are 492 caves that contain some 2,100 colored statues and 45,000 square meters of murals. If joined together, they would cover a length of 30 kilometers, or the equivalent of 1,000 basketball courts.
Staff and tour guides are adamant about enforcing the area’s photography ban. Bags have to be checked in before their owners can embark on the hour-long tour.
The grottoes are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and each cave has its own unique character.
The area was a pilgrimage site and venue for ancient scribes. The fact that it’s intact today (after the destruction of so many other historic sites in China) is testament to its cultural value.
Admission is RMB 180 ($28) during high season (May 1-October 31) and RMB 100 ($15) the rest of the year.
Mogao Grottoes (莫高窟), 25 kilometers southeast of Dunhuang. Take the green shuttle bus in front of Silk Road Hotel (丝路宾馆) in Dunhuang. The journey takes around 30 minutes and costs RMB 8.
4. Bargaining at Dunhuang Night Market
Modern bazaar on ancient Silk Road.
Dunhuang was a major stop on the Silk Road. Today, it remains a trading town.
The best way to feel like part of the legacy is to try bargaining at the Shazhou Night Market (敦煌夜市).
Dunhuang is a small town, so the night market is the only place to stock up on trinkets and souvenirs.
Local merchants sell their personal items (mostly jewelry) and artisans hand-carve camel engravings and paint desert landscapes.
Piles of dried fruit and nuts (juicy apricots, mammoth pistachios) are also available.
Bargain hard. Merchants will purposely hike up prices for foreigners. Even a little Chinese helps the bargaining process.
The market is in the center of the town and accessible by bus or taxi.
Shazhou Night Market (敦煌夜市), Shazhou Lu, Dunhuang 敦煌沙洲夜市. The night market runs from around 6 p.m. till midnight every day.
5. Camel riding and paragliding at Echoing Sand Mountain and Crescent Lake
Legend has it that the water in this Gobi oasis has a high medicinal value.
It may be overpopulated with tourists and reminiscent of a giant sandbox, but this is where visitors can experience all of Dunhuang rolled into one convenient spot.
Echoing Sand Mountain is a series of sand dunes that surround Crescent Lake, which is named for its distinctive shape. Echoes can be heard as the wind blows over the dunes.
Visitors ride camels up sand dunes, which rise to 250 meters. With gardens blooming on the banks of the water, Crescent Lake offers a lovely visual counterpoint to all that sand.
The attraction is also suitable for those with a daredevil edge. Paragliding is available; you can traverse the hills via dune buggy; or grab a sled and slide down the giant mounds of sand.
Admission is RMB 120 ($18) during peak season (May 1-October 31) and RMB 60 ($9) in low season.
Echoing Sand Mountain and Crescent Lake (鸣沙山和月牙泉), six kilometers south of Dunhuang. Bus No. 3 goes to the attraction from Dunhuang. The journey takes around 10 minutes and costs RMB 1 (US 15 cents).
6. Overnight camel trekking
Coolest transportation for Gobi explorers.
A night in the sand dunes with camels and a completely unpolluted night sky is the quintessential Dunhuang experience.
Located on the outskirts of the Echoing Sand Mountain, Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse arranges overnight camel tours for RMB 400 ($62).
The trek begins at 5 p.m. and ends at 8 a.m. the following morning.
The all-inclusive trip includes a tour guide, dinner (ramen), breakfast (bread), accommodations (tent) and, the best part, transportation (camels).
Guides don’t speak much English, but they’ve had their share of foreign customers, so they know the basics.
Be sure to put on a few layers before crawling out of the tent to go to the bathroom at 3 a.m. The temperature difference between night and day is up to 30 C.
There are no toilets. You dig your own holes.
Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse, Mingsha Shan, Sha Sheng Zhi Wu Yuan, Crescent Lake 鸣沙山沙生植物园, 月牙泉. Call +86 13893763029 or +86 937 885 7298 for details. A half-day notice is required.
Getting there: Dunhuang Airport (敦煌机场) is located 13 kilometers east of the city. China Southern operates a daily return flight between Xi’an Xianyang Airport and Dunhuang Airport. Air China flies between Beijing and Dunhuang once a day.
Dunhuang station is served by trains only from cities in northwest China. However, Liuyuan station (柳园站), approximately 130 kilometers from Dunhuang, links to Beijing, Shanghai, Nanjing, Chongqing and Chengdu. Shuttle buses and taxis connect Liuyuan station and Dunhuang.
Dunhuang Tourism Service Center, 32, Mingshan Lu, Dunhuang 敦煌鸣山路32号, +86 937 8851 518