The last few days in Beijing occupied us with many last minute activities which had to be done when leaving a place: Moving, checking out at work, apartment, etc. At the very end we could enjoy a delicious dinner at the Opposite House, courtesy of the Swiss Society Beijing. Finally on Saturday, August 30 at 8:40 we sat in the airplane which should bring us to Xian from where we would connect to Dunhuang in the far West of Gansu Province. The goal was an experience in the desert, which I had left out three years ago when passing through the area in winter…
Just as my last big trip, this journey also started with a few surprises: The first one was the announcment in the airplane the the flight has not yet been released for departure. The flight ended up being delayed by almost 2 hours, such that we already started thinking about how to deal with the fact that we would not reach Dunhuang on the same day. However China Eastern had another surprise for us in store: the bus which usually shuttles people from the plane to the terminal had a special VIP mission for people headed to Dunhuang. We were dropped off directly in front of the airplane to Dunhuang. While passengers typically make these short connections, their luggage usually doesn’t. So another contingency plan started forming of how we deal with the fact that our luggage might arrive a day late and we couldn’t even give the airline the name of the hotel we were staying, because we had no reservation. No need to worry! Much to our surprise our luggage appeared almost first on the luggage carousel.
Happy to have all our belongings, we left the small terminal of Dunhuang airport and caught the next shuttle bus into the city. Since we couldn’t give the driver an exact address of where we were headed, since we had no hotel reservation, he offered to drop us off at a good hotel. Of course we accepted his offer, unfortunately however the hotel was way above our price range, such that we headed off on foot to look for a place to stay. Already the first hotel we checked out had a good offer, with a little bit of negotiation. We spent the rest of the day exploring the city of Dunhuang, which had a coupe of night markets and a food market to offer near our hotel. With this offering, we filled our stomachs and our backpack with snacks for the next day.
Sunday was a typical tourist day in Dunhuang: we started with the Mogao caves in the morning only to enjoy the sand dunes in the late afternoon. The city bus to the Mogao caves leaves every half hour, such that we decided not to take the next, but the bus after the next in order to have time to enjoy a healthy breakfast in the little snack street.
The Mogao cavs are the most important and best preserved Buddha grottos in all of China. While other places have much more impressive statues to offer, the Mogao caves impress with the quality of the murals. Our excellent English speaking guide led us through eight of the caves explaining the different motives of Buddhist paintings. For example we learned that the sleeping or reclining Buddha is actually not sleeping, but has already passed into Nirvana.
We almost ended up in Nirvana as well when we went off wandering around the touristic area onto the nearby hill. We intended to get a nice view of the oasis around the caves from above and followed a narrow path up the hill. We had almost reached the top of the hill when we heard a voice behind us. Our following action was based on our experience living in China: we ignored the voice. Once on top of the hill we took the intended pictures and enjoyed the view across the desert. Soon after our arrival, a fellow dressed in olive-green however politely yelled at us to come back down the hill. Politely we followed, it was just too unfortunate we had not been able to read all the characters at the bottom of the hill letting us know that entering the area was strictly prohibited…
After a short stop at the hotel, we got into the next set of troubles. We tried to circumnavigate the tourist area near the sand dunes to go for a walk on the dunes on our own. However we happened to enter the tourist area through the camels stables which was not exactly appreciated by the caretakers. The area has been very well secured in order to make sure that everyone pays the hefty entrance fee. Just to put the entrance fees into relation: we paid three times as much money on tickets during the two days in Dunhuang than what we spent on accomodation and food. The excuse for the high entrance fees we have heard should help regulated the number of domestic tourists. We believe there are other means to achieve that goal though.
While the sun was still burning down on the desert, we let time pass in the shade, before we decided to head up to the top of the sand dunes. Fortunately there are only very few places in China where there are no stairs to climb something, so we made use of the ladder to climb the sand dunes easily. We enjoyed the different effects the setting sun had on the sand and started staging some pictures. This didn’t go unnoticed by a Chinese photographer who happily took his own shots of our motives.
Back in the city we enjoyed another delicious dinner on the night market, before we hid away with all of our electronics equipment in our hotel room.
For the next day we had planned a trip to the Jade Gate Pass, an important passage on the ancient Silk Road which led to Hotan and their jade reserves. Asking for the best option to visit the area, the owner of the hotel recommended a tour bus which took us to almost all the sights in the area. With Chinese efficiency we were given the opportunity to see the Dunhuang Old Town, the West 1000 Buddha Caves, the Jade Gate Pass, the Han-Dynasty Great Wall as well as the Yardang Geopark. We spent about 80% of our time in two different buses, although we have to admit that these places lie rather far apart and the time that can be spent at each of them is quite limited.
Since the tour bus arrived back in Dunhuang around 5pm, we had plenty of time to purchase a couple of tickets for the next morning 8:40am bus to Jiayuguan, the Western end of the Great Wall during the Ming dynasty. Finally we also managed to visit the White Horse Pagoda. However the walk back to the city center through farmers settlements and fields in the oasis was much more interesting…
For dinner we split the meal: We had both our ideas of what we wanted to eat, however no restaurant offered both of the dishes. So we first sat down for Yellow Donkey Noodles, before we enjoyed a vegetarian noodle pot. Both of them were delicious!