The ancient city of Dunhuang keeps interesting company – you'll note when looking at it on a map – that the entire city is surrounded, not unlike an oasis, by some 1.3 million-square-kilometre of stark golden desert. When in Dunhuang, you can step back in time two thousand years to when the Silk Road was first established, linking traders, pilgrims, monks and soldiers from Europe to Asia and Dunhuang is right at the crossroads of the Northern and Southern Silk Road route – a desert oasis of inspiring golden vistas.
Come with us as we explore 9 of the most amazing things to do in Dunhuang.
Mogao Caves or Caves of the Thousand Buddhas
The incredible UNESCO-listed Mogao Caves date back to 366AD and are carved into the cliffs above the Dachuan River, and make up what is quite easily the largest treasure trove of Buddhist art in the world – revealing the development of Chinese art over a period of 1000 years. Exploring these caves is like taking a series of private glimpses into China's past, however to do so fully takes quite some time as there are 492 preserved caves in the network with an astonishing 45,000 square meters of murals and some 2,000 painted sculptures. There are literally thousands of works of interest including a work from the Sui dynasty, which shows vivid scenes of cultural exchanges along the Silk Road. In 1900, a library within the cave system was discovered with tens of thousands of manuscripts, paintings, documents and relics inside – it had remained unseen for almost a thousand years. Though perhaps one of the most striking features of the caves are the mural art styles – which sees an amalgamation of artistic styles from China, India, Turkey and Tibet, much of which was completed by travellers passing along the Silk Road.
Nighttime Camel Trekking
Spending a night in the sand dunes of the Goby Dessert, riding atop a camel beneath a completely unpolluted, incredible, beautifully clear night sky is quite possibly the most wonderful experience you'll have in Dunhuang. There are various treks available from Dunhuang, many start in the late afternoon and end a couple of hours after sunrise the next morning – and will include a nights camping – and of course your own camel. Remember it gets cold in the evening, and there is no bathroom – but if you need any more convincing just think of the sky, the stars, the universe above you…as it was always intended.
Hiking Yadan National Park
The Yadan National Park is a vast, 400 square kilometres landscape, shaped by various abstract rock formations – the product of lake erosion millions of years ago. Many of the formations have been likened to famous arts such as the Sphinx and the Great Pyramid in Egypt as well as an assortment of ancient Roman relic lookalikes.
The White Horse Pagoda
The quaint and unique White Horse Pagoda is a memorial to Tianliu, the white horse who carried Buddhist scriptures from Kucha through mountains and through waters to Dunhuang in 384CE for his owner the Buddhist monk – Kumārajīva. The legend says that after the pair reached Dunhuang they stopped so that Kumārajīva could preach the scriptures they had brought, and just before they were due to leave – Tianliu fell ill and died soon afterwards. Kumārajīva was so devastated that he built this nine-story pagoda as a memorial to Tianliu and filled it with relics of the Buddha.
The Night Market
Though not quite the busy trading town of old, the Dunhuang night market will help you feel as though you are at least a small part of the legacy of the Silk Road. Head over to the market between 6pm and midnight and try a little bargaining over trinkets and souvenirs – (actually the Dunhuang night market is the only place to buy such things), take a look at jewellery stands and artisans as they hand-carve engravings and paint desert landscapes on the street. Lookout for the food stalls too as they have some very good meat and vegetable skewers, as well as noodles and soups – great after a day in the dessert, especially when the nightly cold begins to descend on the town.
Watch The Sunset (or rise) at Crescent Lake
The Crescent lake is a little piece of utopia in an otherwise barren landscape, and when the sun sinks beneath the sand dunes, the desert hills seem to expand casting an otherworldly haze of shadow and shimmering light in the sky and the waters of the lake. If you visit Dunhuang during the busy season then be prepared for some crowds here, as it's rather small, however, the morning sunrises are no less magical – and often that little bit quieter – making for perfect opportunities for a photo or two. If you're especially daring then you should take to the skies in a paraglider to get a unique birds-eye perspective of the sand dunes – it's only then, high up in the sky, when the true size of the desert will dawn on you – as the vast golds of the dunes roll away deep into the horizon.
The Dunhuang museum is housed within a modern and surprisingly large building just outside the city centre. It contains many original artefacts tracing the city, and the province's history back to the times of the Silk Road and beyond. Some of its most interesting exhibits are the written sutras from Cave 17 of the Mogao Caves – the Library Cave, as well as relics excavated from Han Dynasty graves, and several exhibits illustrating Dunhuang's once prosperous culture. If you're interested in learning more about the Silk Road then take a look at the museum's permanent collection of silk road products – such as fabrics, carpets, clothes jewellery and ancient Chinese weapons. On the modern end of the scale the museum houses a collection of contemporary photographs showcasing the town's history through photography from the last 110 years.
Take An Early Morning Camel Ride Through Mingsha Shan
The Echoing Sand Mountain is a series of vast sand dunes that wrap around Crescent Lake, distinctive because, as you ride through the sand you'll note that echoes can be heard as the wind blows over the dunes – making for an oddly ethereal experience. The sand dunes here rise upto 250 metres in hight so it's best to go by camel – if you go early enough you can watch the sun rise from above Crescent Lake and then head back down to the lakeside gardens to recuperate. We don't recommend going later in the day as it can get busy, and sadly, there are now numerous activities such as quad biking and 4×4 rentals in the area – which take away a lot of the ambience of the desert.
The Great Wall
The Great Wall in the north of the Gobi desert is somewhat unique – as it was built almost 1,000 years earlier than much of the Great Wall of China – between 206 BC – 220 AD (opposed to 1368–1644). The greatest characteristic of the wall is that, unlike the other parts that were built using bricks, this one was built using sand, weed, straw and wood. Little still stands, but what is still there shows more than 2,000 years of erosion – with the best preserved sections in the Yumen Pass which in some places, rise up to 3 metres in height.
Have you visited any of these sites or do you have something to add to our things to do in Dunhuang? Let us know in the comments!