If you had made a visit to Dunhuang more than two thousand years ago you would have witnessed a flourishing city of traders, pilgrims, and soldiers. It was also home to monks who migrated from all over Asia and even as far as Europe.
The original city of Dunhuang existed during the Golden Ages of Silk Road. Lying east of Jiayuguan and the last outpost in the Ming Dynasty, it created a fundamental crossroad between the northern and southern route on the Silk Road. Dunhuang was an important trade stop until the year 1272 when the city was conquered and destroyed by the Mongols.
Dunhuang continues to thrive in 2016 as one of the most popular destinations in Western China for foreign tourists. While visiting this western region you may take a trip to the legendary desert oasis “Crescent Lake”, head out to the Kumtang Desert on either a short day trip or longer trips that require sleeping out in the desert or visit the UNESCO World Heritage site at the Mogao Caves.
My personal favorite sight in Dunhuang was the Crescent Lake Oasis. Although I have embarked on Desert Safaris in other countries, this location was a highlight. It isn’t often you can see a real Desert Oasis which is believed to have existed for approximately 2,000 years.
The Crescent Lake´s beauty came with a cost back in 1960 when the lake was only 5 meters deep. In 2006, the lake was close to completely drying out before the Chinese government decided to refill it.
As with other typical famous attractions, this location is extremely overcrowded with domestic tourists. Taking a 10 minute camel ride or climbing to the top of one of the biggest sand dunes and sliding down on a sandboard are two of the most popular activities here.
I found Crescent Lake to be the most impressive sight in all of Western China but do yourself a favor and head there EARLY in the morning, before the hordes of domestic tourists arrive in bus convoys.
However, if you decide to visit the Crescent Lake later in the evening, the dunes surrounding the area create an excellent place to watch the sunset. I, on the other hand, did a camel safari trip out into the desert.
The sunset in the desert was absolutely stunning, but riding camels was just as boring as in India. Likewise, only a small portion of this trip will be in the sand dunes.
While riding through India you spend most of your trip close to the highway. Here, however, you will find yourself walking across old graveyards and garbage dumps for the first part of the safari.
The last sight in Dunhuang is a tourist must-see. The Mogao Caves are the most famous of the 4 Buddhist Grottoes in China; the three others being the Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi Province, the Maijishan Grottoes in Eastern Gansu Province, and the Longmen Grottoes outside Luoyang City in Henan Province.
The Mogao Caves date back to 366AD and were used for a period of 1,000 years. It was a place for Buddhist meditation and worship. According to the legend, a monk had a vision of thousands of Buddhas under showers of golden rays. Thus inspired, he started the caves construction work that spanned ten dynasties. Mogao Caves are commonly known as the Caves of a Thousand Buddhas.
New structures were built outside the caves to protect them.
Rich in history and architecture as well as home to the World’s largest collection of Buddhist art, it is no surprise these fascinating caves made the list of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites. Over 50,00 ancient documents were found here including the world’s earliest dated printed book.
The Mogao Caves were highly impressive but make note of the very strictly enforced “no photo policy” inside.
Due to its popularity, the government has limited the maximum number of visitors allowed to 6,000 per day. It is necessary to reserve a ticket in advance, especially during the high season (May 1 to October 31).
Additional Information about Dunhuang.
Dunhuang can be reached from Beijing with train K43 and the trip takes 36 hours, from Xian with train K369, takes 24hours.
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