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Moving to China

Out n About


Category: Out and About

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dunhuang01

Holidays in China are anything but relaxing. In the peak holiday times, the major attractions are not only booked out and overpriced, attractions like the Great Wall, Xi’an and Dali all feel like the 306 bus during Monday morning peak hour. If you’re stuck with having holidays along with the rest of us, then the trick is finding the least desirable tourist destination worth visiting. This is how we came to visit Dunhuang.

Dunhuang seemed as remote a place as possible to get to, while still being accessible. An old city on the Silk Road, it’s on the edge of the Gobi Desert, snow capped mountains, ancient ruins and stunning, though desolate scenery. Our decision to go to Dunhuang was made in Xi’an, a few days before the October holiday really kicked in. We heard it was a 13 hour train trip from Lanzhou, so we took a deep breath and bought plane tickets. One way from Xi'an was around ¥1,500 (this is peak holiday prices). The plane flies over some impressive mountain ranges, then a desert. It took about two hours (screw a 13 hour train ride). A few days earlier, I was climbing down Huashan Iooking up with envy at those in the cushy chairlift. From my plane seat I looked down for the trains filled with standing room only tickets every backpacker in Dunhuang moaned about. No schaudenfraude for me.

The airport is small, and out of town. There were no taxis so we took the minibus to the Dunhuang Fandian (not the Dunhuang Bingguan). From the hotel to Charlie's hostel was about ¥15 for the 15 minute ride. We could later bargain for ¥10.

Charlie's was perfect for someone escaping the holiday hordes. Out of town, off the main road, but only a 15 minute walk to the sand dunes. The hostel is old style, dormitories in the main house, and bungalows out the back. The shared amenities are basic, but not filthy. If you made it this far out of Beijing, you've surely seen worse. They also run Charlie's cafe in town - the meeting point for all trips. They also have all the essential information in english, which pretty much makes them your one stop Dunhuang shop.

The Sand Dunes
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Moon Crescent Temple. Rebuilt when tourist dollars replaced revolutionary zeal

The sand dunes are fun. It's a strange feeling being on the edge of nothing - behind is a bustling little town, in front, the barren dunes. The times to avoid the sand dunes are between 1-4 when the sun is beating down and the dunes feel, as well as look, like a desert. Sunrise would be better than sunset. The moon crescent temple is easy to get to, just behind the dunes. We found that out half way up a sand dune. If you come for the sunrise go for the first, largest dune. If for the sunset, see the temple first, then make your way up the dunes for the sunset. The temple would be nice for those travelers not sick to death of the site of reconstructed temple.

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Dunhuang night markets: Nice, though nothing worth travelling 12 hours in a train for

The night markets in town are fun, and food is fairly priced. For vegetarians, my wife ate a cheap "caijiamo" 菜夹馍 - fried vegetables in a bun with lots of chilli. It looked good and made her happy.

The Gobi Desert
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Sunsets in the deserts are worth all that money you spent on camera equipment

The day trip to see the Han wall, Gobi desert land forms and contemporary Chinese queue formations is worth it, especially the afternoon sunset trip. The bus is about ¥80, but this doesn't include entry into the different parks, meaning queueing up for tickets in the the desert sun. Tickets will cost an extra ¥160. Also, there is little food and water for sale. It's a long day, so be prepared.

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Remains of a guard tower (or was it a gate?) A very different experience to Badalang

The fences around the ancient walls testify their authenticity. Perhaps "the last authentic pieces of the Great Wall"? In this environment it's hard to understand what the walls could be  guarding or protecting. Who would be attacking, and what would be worth defending in this bleak location?

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Remains of a Great Wall in the middle of nowhere

The gobi desert is god forsaken, but a majestic ancient seabed. Emptiness is a rare experience in China, even with the tourist hoards like me. Silk must have been worth a fortune for anyone to want to cart it across this landscape. The park buses took us to a few nice snapshot locations before the sunset over the flat horizon. Totally worth it. When the sun goes down, the night comes chilly, and we all make the long journey home.

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The Gobi desert was an ancient ocean bed.

The Dunhuang Grotto
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Dunhuang Grottos: A boring photo of one of the most interesting places in China.

Everyone who has been before me said the grottos were a must. i believed them, but they didn't excite interest in me...until I saw them. They truly are a must see, and one of the best places I’ve been in China (A big call!). An early start is highly advisable, long queues and the desert sun aren't a good combination. Bags and cameras are not allowed, so leave them in Dunhuang (but free storage is provided at the grottos).  The similarities between these and early christian art is eerie. I didn't believe they survived the cultural revolution, but the guides assured me.

The grotto is easy to get to. A green mini bus leaves near Charlie's cafe every 30 mins. They cost ¥8 for a half hour ride. When there, it's a ten minute walk to the ticket booth (and the queue). Bags and cameras are not allowed, but phones, iPads and bottled drinks are ok. Torches can be hired, which is a good idea, and I wish I knew that before I went in. There is so much to see. Two hours seemed a reasonable time, but longer is warranted. ¥160 well spent. Try to avoid the midday sun.

Overnight camel rides
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Overnight camel rides are interesting, though food is crap

There are plenty of camel ride options, from two hour, up to a week. A camel ride wasn't high on our list of things to see and do. I had bad experiences in sichuan on a similar trip, cold hungry and very badly sunburnt. but Dunhuang was booked out and we had little choice. It's good...especially if you can't book a bed in town. Camels are friendly, the guides speak little english, but are characters. The sunset isn't worth killing yourself climbing up the dunes to see, but still a beautiful view.

Dinner is two minute noodles, sausage, bread, water and beer. The sunrise was lovely, and the last sunrise I plan to wake up for. It's only a two hour camel ride each way across a cemetery on the flat desert. It was a little distressing getting back home a week later to read the Dunhuang camels were dying of exhaustion through over work during the holidays, so it my be worth reconsidering this if your going during peak times.

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It was easy secretly pretending being Lawrence of Arabia

Western Grottos
We had an afternoon to kill before our flight, so we spent it seeing the things not worth seeing. First up were the western grottos. ¥150 taxi peak time. Only worth visiting if you have a few hours to kill before your train or flight, or if too tight to pay for the big one. ¥20 for locals, ¥30 for laowai, for some translation fee. The white horse pagoda was every bit as boring as expected. Built in the early 1990s, it was more a reminder of what has been lost. We walked around town a bit, but while pleasant, it’s also boring.

My tips for Dunhuang

  • Dunhuang is pleasant, but ordinary. Charlie's Hostel is a great option if you don't mind backpacker conditions.
  • The Grottos and the Gobi desert sunset are a must.
  • Only mad dogs and Englishman go out in the midday sun.

The Verdict

I loved Dunhuang. It's laid back, and reasonably priced, even at peak holiday time. Charlie's was a great backpacker's, and the luxury hotels out of town looked pretty impressive. The Grotto, Sand Dunes and Gobi Desert are worth travelling to, especially after the sites of Southern and Eastern China.

It was great fun, but unless you're an art lover, probably not worth coming to China for. I think Dunhuang is good for expats working here wanting a getaway with limited time (just fly), or backpackers doing the long haul from Beijing to Xinjiang (catch the overnight train).

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