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Dunhuang, China: Your guide to the Silk Road oasis town

By Tautvile Daugelaite 16 September 2020

Arriving in Dunhuang (敦煌市), it immediately tells you a story about the desert, and the only proper way to do it is by stirring up one hell of a sandstorm as a welcoming committee. The weather fluctuates between scorching heat and sand-filled wind gusts, rarely letting you forget about where you have arrived at. Sounds uncomfortable? Well, it can be, but it is also absolutely worth it. Full of discoveries for history buffs, Dunhuang in Gansu (甘肃) is sure to let you in on some secrets, even if you are familiar with its history.

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The Silk Road is historically rich, but also ethereal. Camels crossing the dunes under a blazing sun, with saddlebags filled with goods—the scene exudes a kind of magical but stereotypical vibe. How much of that image still holds true may be difficult to pinpoint now, but when in Dunhuang, you will hear the phantom sounds of camel hoofs stepping on the hot sand and the buzz from an ancient market.

Your first stop in Dunhuang should probably be the Mogao Grottoes (莫高窟). The site is unique due to its colourful history, dug in 366 AD as a place for Buddhist worshipers. With the diminishing significance of the overland Silk Road trade, the maintenance of once significant Dunhuang town was abandoned, and many of the Mogao Caves were gradually clogged up with sand. Partially thanks to that, the artwork on the cave walls were able to be preserved.

When explorers and monks started showing interest in the ancient Silk Road back in the nineteenth and twentieth century, Mogao Caves once again got into the spotlight. One of the most significant discoveries was the Library Cave that has been well hidden by sand and unearthed by a local Daoist who followed a drift of cigarette smoke. Nearly 50,000 religious and literary scrolls have been found in the small cave, and the Tang dynasty version of a Diamond Sutra amongst them, which is the oldest printed book in the world.

Mogao Caves have also been home (and prison) to the White Russian soldiers fleeing their home country after the civil war. Given the damage they have inflicted on the frescos and sculptures, leaving graffiti around the inner cave walls, it seems they did not too much enjoy being in those caves. The writings on the walls are still visible when you visit now. Another impressive artefact is the giant female Buddha sculpture. Commissioned by the Empress Wu Zetian (武則天), the Maitreya (मैत्रेय), or future Buddha, is over 35 metres tall and is said to be modelled after the empress herself.

I avoided the city centre and stayed south of the town, in a holiday village that is built to resemble an oasis town with sand-coloured houses stretching along the street and restaurants with terraces covered with stacks of hay. Given the amount of Disneyland-style holiday villages that I have seen, this one was done quite tastefully and added mood to my quest for the Silk Road atmosphere. Also, just a stone throw away from it lies the Crescent Lake (月牙泉), which is one of the miracles of Dunhuang. Amid white dunes lies a crescent moon-shaped lake with reeds lining the shores. While all the surrounding environment seems empty of any hint of life, the crisp gusts of wind coming from the lake refresh the overheated, now tourists, then traders and explorers.

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Probably the best thing about the Crescent Lake tourism area, besides the out-of-this-world views, is that whatever your preferences for tourism are, there is a high chance you would be able to find it there. For those who don’t mind the crowds and get involved in whatever the core activity the specific spot offers, buy a red hooded dress with ethnic embroideries and rent a camel for those stunning pictures. Those who prefer to wander around and explore will have to visit through the scorching heat of midday. That is the time when the least of the other travellers come by. For the goofballs in the crowd, there is always sliding down the dunes. Just leave your phone out of it.

Besides the caves and the crescent lake, another trip that is worth making is to the furthest fort of the Great Wall—the Yumen Pass (玉门关), also known as the Jade Gate. It lies about 100 kilometres from Dunhuang and will put some extra sand in your desert experience. I was riding a motorbike to the Jade Gate, while the whole area was hiding under a wild sandstorm and winds were mercilessly whipping my cheeks with sharp sand. However you slice it, the Jade Gate itself is just one beacon tower and two sites of city ruins that are a bus ride away. It is also absolutely worth it. You are unlikely to encounter many other cars on the way, so it is only the straight road and desert around it. As you cross 60 kilometres of the desert landscape with no end in sight, it seems to bring back forgotten memories of ancient traders traversing long distances via the Silk Road.

The centre of the city lies around the central mosque and boasts food markets and bars that serve cold beers. Food in Dunhuang is mostly the noodle-heavy carb feast with some additions from Xinjiang. One of the local favourites is a bowl dressed in a plastic bag with cold noodles. Add shaved cucumber, chilli, and garlic, and you got yourself a perfect quick meal when the summer heat fails to raise the appetite. Another lady working a stall in the market swore that all the locals drink the sweetened apricot rind tea in the summer since it helps to cope with the dry heat.

My winner in the food section was Xinjiang shouzhuafan (羊肉抓饭; Uyghur lamb pilaf). I accidentally found it in the Shazhou food market, where a family from Xinjiang was cooking it up on the stall and instantly fell in love. Glossy rice with generous pieces of lamb and melt-in-your-mouth carrot bits are the perfect cherry on top for a real Silk Road expedition. Especially if you can picture the spices coming on the backs of a camel caravan, just to go deeper into the story.

After filling up on rice and noodles, head to the nearest bar around Shazhou market, where they serve decent cold craft beers to wash it down. The main party is at the Motorbike Club, a bar just by the river, which may be short of motorbikes but certainly has enough quality cocktails to offer. 

Dunhuang is the perfect ground for efficient exploring—you spend your days soaking in the history and stories of the Silk Road, and evenings trying out the foods in the street market and testing out the cocktails. From what I’ve heard, frozen pear is a local ingredient loved by mixologists in the modern oasis town, so remember to ask for it!

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Tautvile Daugelaite

Contributor

Tautvile Daugelaite is a Lithuanian living in Beijing, where she writes about culture, internet trends, travel, and eats her weight in vegetarian carb-loaded dishes.

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