Dunhuang: Desert Travelers at the End of China

Saturday the 28th was a largely wasted day spent on the train from Xi’an to Dunhuang, where I arrived at about 09:30 on Sunday morning.   I immediately went to query the ticket office for trains from Dunhuang to Turpan, but their mei you said it all: there are no trains to Xinjiang from Dunhuang.  As a foreigner, they could have been lying to me, but they said the same thing to a nice group of independent Heliongjiang travelers.  They asked if I wanted to join them in hiring a car the next day bound for Urumqi.  I politely declined, explaining that I wanted to stay in Dunhuang longer than one day.  This disappointed me a bit, since independent traveling Chinese would be much more interesting than those traveling in tour groups which seem to make up the vast majority of tourist traffic.  They even looked more interesting than tour groupies; the woman had long dyed-red hair and the man was decked out in desert gear.

I caught a cab to the famous Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse, and I stepped into the cozy courtyard just in time to meet two French folks, Murielle and Mattieu, who have been cycling the Silk Road from France since April and will continue to points beyond through April 2011.  We caught a bus to the Mogao Caves for 9 kuai in front of Charlie Johng’s Cafe, which is in town unlike the duneside guesthouse.  The caves are interesting but very expensive: 180 kuai with an English guide, which is practically necessary since they can get you into some caves you would not see otherwise.

At the caves I saw the first real Tang Dynasty art I had ever seen with my own eyes.  It was brilliant and superbly detailed, an evident example of why the Tang Dynasty is so revered in Chinese culture.  That painting covered the walls and roof of the cave with a reclining Buddha shaped like a coffin.  My favorite cave, though, was Cave 237, which had a super-psychedelic Song Dynasty mural which centered around a guy (a Buddha?) playing a guitar behind his head like Jimi Hendrix, while other Buddhas played in a concert surrounding him, and a supreme Buddha glowing with cool colors pontificated over the scene.  I want that as a poster.  This cave was partially ruined by White Russian refugees who were locked in the caves by the locals after the Russian civil war.  The museum at the Mogao Caves is sharp, but not nearly as interesting as the actual caves.

Mogao Caves Main Hall
Mogao Caves Main Hall
The Dunhuang / Mogao Caves Bus
The Dunhuang / Mogao Caves Bus

We took the bus back to town and ate some food near the market, which is at once interesting and orderly.  I was pleased by the Dunhuang market for simply being the best of both clean / modern and ethnic / interesting; usually in China it’s all blown out to one end or the other, and even the ethnic part is rarely that authentic (except in Hotan). I also began to work out bus transportation to Turpan when I discovered that I would have to go to the other bus station.  I planned to leave the 31st, two days later, to meet Arnab in Turpan.

I tried to walk with a few hostel-mates into the desert behind the guesthouse, but there is heavy risk of a high fine so we didn’t cross the fence.  After all, it’s not possible to hide from the authorities in the desert like it is in the forest.  I wrote some emails that afternoon, and while at the computer I met a fellow traveler named Nathan from Geneva.  He was at the caves with us, and we discussed the possibility of going to the Jade Gate the next day.  Unfortunately, I never got to do that due to time and money constraints.  Two South African fellows, Rudi and Adriaan, became pals of mine for the duration in Dunhuang.  They met a girl at the next hostel named Eva from El Paso, and we all went to town to eat in the market.  The open-air atmosphere made up for the lackluster food.  Rudi wants to get involved in politics in South Africa, which provided plenty of good conversation.  Upon returning to the hostel we enjoyed some peanut cakes, had a couple more beers and retired just before midnight.

Desert Fence
Desert Fence
The Sizzling Dunhuang Night market
The Sizzling Dunhuang Night market
Rudi Can't Fail
Rudi Can't Fail
Eva and the Local Goods
Eva and the Local Goods

The next day I went into town to buy a bus ticket to Turpan, set to leave at 18:00 on Tuesday the 31st to arrive at 05:00 the next day.  Nathan and I ate lunch at a tasty Sichuan place; he mentioned that he will study for a year in Osaka. I informed him of my favorite restaurant to have a nice kao ya sendoff in Beijing the next day before he went back to Geneva.

That evening Rudi, Adriaan, Eva and I made reservations to ride camels and camp in the desert dunes.  It cost 300 RMB total, with 100 RMB up front at the Dune Guesthouse.  A van took us away at five in the evening to the house of Li, the handler.  I downed four bottles of water before mounting the camel, which made me stop twice to micturate before we got to the campsite.  Li had a good sense of humor and sang a lot, even giving instructions in a sing-song voice.  The camels did not run, only walked, and were much more enjoyable than the horses in Inner Mongolia.  The desert sunset fantastically exploded in the sky like an engine of creation and widsom.  We scrambled up the top of an exquisitely seductively curved dune ridge to watch the Sun dip down farther along the Silk Road.  It is a highlight of my trip, although the wind blew and sand got everywhere.  From the top of the ridge, we descended into the dune valley where Li had set up the tents and was cooking our basic dinner of noodles and hard bread.  This valley’s vibe made us feel we could have been anywhere on Earth, even off Earth.  There were no sounds, not even the wind, and we laid back for a few hours to stare at the stars.  I saw a few meteors and several satellites.  Li sang songs and Eva played her guitar a bit; though she did not know that many songs, I was able to teach her “California Stars” and “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door.”  We hit the sack around 11:30. I used my camera bag as a pillow.

Desert Shack
Desert Shack
Desert Graveyard
Desert Graveyard
Adriaan's Third Eye
Adriaan's Third Eye
Desert of Legend
Desert of Legend
God's Rays over Dunhuang
God's Rays over Dunhuang

Li woke us just in time for the sunrise, then we rode our camels back to his place.  We payed Li the remaining 200 RMB directly, so it’s clear that he gets his fair cut.  That day I chilled out and read some in Catch-22 before going into town for a quick dinner with Rudi and Adriaan to prepare for the bus ride. Thirty minutes before bus left, I decided to stay one more day in Dunhuang to relax rather than be stuck waiting for Arnab in super-hot Turpan.  I easily transferred the bus tickets to next evening, the First of September.  We walked along the market area while eating an ice cream and caught the bus back to the guesthouse, where we reviewed Adriaan’s pictures form the desert on his iPad.  As the day grew long, we returned to town to eat an extremely delicious rou jia mo.  A few Portuguese travelers invited us to drink some beers with them in the open air market, after which I made the stupid suggestion to go to KTV at Babyface.  It was the worst KTV I have ever experienced: bad song selection, the sound was too quiet, the beers were expensive and worst of all the experience forever tainted the image of KTV to the Portuguese first-timers.  When we left the KTV part of Babyface, we spent two minutes in the pitiful dance club downstairs which had twelve people in it besides we laowai.  As we left, a young shirtless Chinese guy ran after us desparately yelling “Wait! Wait!”  I guess we were the most interesting thing to happen there in a long time.

Li the Camel-Man
Li the Camel-Man
Dunhuang Crew
Dunhuang Crew

I relaxed and read some Catch-22 the next day, then hopped on the sleeper bus to Turpan after eating more delicious chao mian.

All of my photos from Dunhuang can be found here.

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Preston

Agent of Change, Former of Entropy, Seeker of a Stateless World.

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