Midnight at the Oasis

Dunhuang Travel Blog

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Camel commuting

Though not strictly speaking an oasis town Dunhuang feels like one.  The town is perched on the edge of a line of huge sand dunes and to the north stony semi-desert disappears into the distance.  The town would probably be nothing more than another small desert crossroads and might even, like many of the ancient silk road towns in this area, have fallen into ruin, if it were not for the discovery of the Mogao caves about 15km away.  The caves have some of the finest buddist art anywhere in the world and to add to their distinction about 100 years ago a sealed cave was discovered with thousands of ancient documents, including the oldest printed book in the world.  This has placed Dunhuang firmly on the tourist trail - it has a new railway station and even a small airport.

Sand dunes near town

The advantage of all this tourism is that the town has a good range of hotels and the level of competition ensures that the prices are reasonable.  We check into one in the centre of town which is possibly the best place we have stayed yet. There are 3 cafes within 100m all offering identical breakfast menus and internet access. 

The downside of the commercialism is that the sights here are expensive.  Access to the sand dunes, and that is just entrance, the activities (everything from camel riding to microlite flights) are extra is 130Y.  That seems too much for something we don't really want to do, so we walk around to the edge of the village to take some photos of the dunes, but even here they are fenced off.

We only plan to spend a day or 2 here so toss up whether to visit the famous Mogao caves or the less well known Western Thousand Budda caves which we can reach by local bus.

Near the Western caves
  Having already been to Datong we will try the road less travelled and skip Mogao.  The local bus turns out to be not very frequent, we turn up at 10am and find the next one leaves at 1:30.  The driver and passengers are helpful and direct us to get off at what looks like the middle of nowhere and gesture for us to walk down the track to the left towards the dunes.  I'm a little surprised at the lack of signage, but the one Chinese sign confirms we are in the right place and 10 minutes walk brings us to the edge of the river valley and the entrance to the caves.  These caves date from a similar period to those at Datong and seem to be of a similar style, but the caves here are quite small with no large statues.
Mosque in Dunhuang
  Also no photography is permitted inside.

Onward travel here is also a little harder to organise than I had expected.  The train booking office and bus station have both moved since our LP was published and we find that there are actually no trains running north from here; Dunhuang is the end of a branch line and trains only run south, the trains to Urumqi leaves from Liuyang a town 2 1/2 hours north of here by bus.  The only train we can buy a ticket for is at the less than ideal time of 1:03 am and the last bus leaves here at 17:00 so we will have a few hours to kill in Liuyang, I hope it has a restaurant or two. 

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Camel commuting
Camel commuting
Sand dunes near town
Sand dunes near town
Near the Western caves
Near the Western caves
Mosque in Dunhuang
Mosque in Dunhuang
Western caves
Western caves
Dunhuang
photo by: Deats