Gansu Travel Guide

Dunhuang

 
Printed textles, Dunhuang market
Printed textles,
Dunhuang market

A small oasis town, Dunhuang once prospered as the last stop on the Silk Road before it split north and south to skirt the Taklamakan Desert. It is a pleasant settlement that has achieved a certain level of prosperity, primarily through acting as a base for visiting the famous grottoes at Mogao, a short distance away. The town caters for its foreign visitors and has several restaurants and budget hotels. The only items of interest at the Dunhuang County Museum (Xian Bowuguan) are a few Chinese and Tibetan manuscripts, from Mogao’s famous Cave 17, which escaped the looting of explorers and archeologists. The museum also has examples of traditional silks and domestic items found near the beacon towers that were once part of China’s outermost line of defense. There is a souvenir night market every summer evening along the town’s main thoroughfare, Dong Dajie. The range of items on sale includes leather shadow puppets, Chinese scroll paintings, jade items, coins, Tibetan horns, and Buddha statues. Just 3 miles (5 km) south of Dunhuang is Yueya Quan (Crescent Moon Lake), a small freshwater lake that has been a vital source of water here for thousands of years. It lies adjacent to the Mingsha Shan (Singing Sand Mountains), which tower several hundred feet high. The dunes were named after the sound of sand being crunched under foot. For some remarkable views, visitors can climb the dunes – preferably in the cool of the evening. There is also a range of activities, including paragliding, sand tobogganing, and camel rides. A small folk art museum lies nearby.

A camel ride across the dunes at Mingsha Shan, Dunhuang
A camel ride across the dunes at Mingsha Shan, Dunhuang

Situated in the middle of fields about 2 miles (4 km) west of Dunhuang is the nine-story Baima Ta (White Horse Pagoda). This Tibetan-style pagoda was built in memory of a horse belonging to the monk, Kumarajiva, who came from the Silk Road kingdom of Kuqa. The horse died here in AD 384.

Yueya Quan and Mingsha Shan dunes, Dunhuang
Yueya Quan and Mingsha
Shan dunes, Dunhuang

Dunhuang County Museum

  

  • Yangguan Dong Lu.   
  • 0937 882 2981   
  • 9am–6pm daily (closed winter)

    Yueya Quan
    About 12 miles (20 km) southwest of Dunhuang lies Dunhuang Gucheng (Dunhuang Ancient City), a film set built in the 1990s that was never dismantled. Its location and panoramic views are impressive, but it is rather dog-eared on closer inspection. However, the set has become a regular tourist stop with souvenir stores and even accommodations in yurts.

    Lying 50 miles (80 km) west of Dunhuang are two Han-dynasty gates, Yu Men Guan (Jade Gate Pass) and Yang Guan (South Pass). Separated by 3 miles (5 km) of desert, they were once linked by the Great Wall. Abandoned over 1,000 years ago and under constant attack by the desert, the two towers remain quite impressive. The huge cube of the Yu Men Guan with its 33-ft (10-m) walls is the only discernible man-made structure in sight.

    The Cave Paintings of Dunhuang
    Protected by their relative isolation, the cave paintings at Dunhuang form the most fascinating repository of Buddhist art in China. For over 700 years, between the 4th and 11th centuries AD, Buddhist monks excavated and painted these caves, until invasion and the encroachment of Islam brought work to a halt. The paintings were all but forgotten until 1907, when the explorer Sir Aurel Stein stumbled across the caves and the Daoist priest who guarded them, Wang Yuanlu. Among the many thousands of items uncovered by Stein is the Diamond Sutra, the world’s earliest printed book (in scroll form), and many of the patterns used by the monks to reproduce paintings at will.

    Cave 272: Sixteen Kingdoms 366–439 Cave 275: Sixteen Kingdoms 366–439 Cave 419: Sui 581–618
    Cave 272: Sixteen Kingdoms 366–439
    These Devas (Buddhist angels) are in rapture as they listen to the Buddha’s teaching.
    Cave 275: Sixteen Kingdoms 366–439
    This early cave of the Northern Liang Period is dedicated to the Maitreya or Future Buddha, who is depicted in wall paintings and statues.
    Cave 419: Sui 581–618
    Under the short-lived Sui dynasty, China was reunified with both the north and south adopting Buddhism as their religion. This harmony allowed the development of a more Chinese artistic style and was a highly fruitful time for Dunhuang. This cave portrays the good prince on a hunting trip with his brothers.
    Cave 220: Early Tang 618–704
    Rich patrons would often feature in murals. This cave portrays ten generations of the wealthy Zhai family.
    Cave 17: Late Tang 848–906 Cave 217: Early to High Tang 618–780 Cave 275: Sixteen Kingdoms 366–439 Cave 428: Northern Zhou 557–580
    Cave 17: Late Tang 848–906
    A detail from the famous cave where the massive library of sutras was first found by Abbot Wang.
    Cave 217: Early to High Tang 618–780
    Detail of the Western Paradise of Amitabha Buddha. This cave contains some wonderful, unfinished paintings of Bodhisattvas.
    Cave 275: Sixteen Kingdoms 366–439
    This early cave of the Northern Liang Period is dedicated to the Maitreya or Future Buddha, who is depicted in wall paintings and statues.
    Cave 428: Northern Zhou 557–580
    Stories of the good prince, an earlier incarnation of Buddha, abound. Here he offers himself to a starving tigress so she may feed her cubs.
    The Dunhuang cliff face, home to 1,000 years of Buddhist history
    The Dunhuang cliff face, home to
    1,000 years of Buddhist history

    Mogao Caves

    • Mogao, 15 miles (25 km) SE of Dunhuang, Gansu Province
    • 0937 886 9071
    • 8am–6pm

    The caves at Mogao were dug into cliffs that rise out of an otherwise largely flat and featureless desert landscape. Getting there is relatively easy, if you are travelling independently, as Dunhuang is crawling with minibuses. As usual, the drivers wait until every seat is taken before setting off, but the half-hour journey is cheap. Remember that the caves are closed between 11:30am and 2:30pm.

    Façade of Cave 96, covering a 100-ft (30-m) statue of Buddha
    Façade of Cave 96, covering
    a 100-ft (30-m) statue of Buddha

    Of the six hundred surviving caves, only about twenty are open to the public. The entrance fee includes a Chinese-speaking guide, although it is worthwhile, for an additional fee, engaging an English-speaking guide, since the tour party is likely to be smaller and the choice of caves less rigidly laid down. The caves that include portrayals of tantric sex can also sometimes be opened for a supplementary payment. The guides are generally fairly knowledgeable about the history of the caves and the paintings and sculptures within. You are, however, recommended to take your own flashlight and to remember that photography is not allowed in the caves (unless you have a very expensive permit), a rule that is strenuously enforced. The standard tour lasts half a day, and includes about fifteen of the caves, as well as the museum, which exhibits some of the ancient manuscripts found here. It is also worth visiting the Research and Exhibition Center, where seven of the caves have been reproduced, permitting far closer scrutiny of the paintings than is possible in the original caves, albeit without the same atmosphere of antiquity. There is a simple guesthouse for those wishing to stay overnight; otherwise, the return journey to Dunhuang is by minibus, the last one leaving around 6pm.

    For more details, please visit China Tours and China Travel Information.