Dunhuang – history in a desert oasis

I spent several days this week in Dunhuang, an oasis town in northwest Gansu province. I’m travelling with two friends from Australia (they are very close friends of my parents, and I’ve known them for 15 years). Dunhuang is the first of three stops of our trip together.

In earlier times Dunhuang was called Shazhou (Sand Province) which is appropriate. The town is surrounded by deserts – with the Gobi to the East and the Kumtag Desert (a sub-section of the Taklamakan) to the West. It is also surrounded by mountains. A ridge of “megadunes” called the Ming Sha Shan (singing sand mountains) border the southern edge of town. Behind the sand dunes are the tall rocky San Wei mountains, and behind that are the snow-capped Qilian mountains. (The Qilian extend 800km southeast along the southern border of Gansu province and form the northern edge of the Tibetan plateau and contain several peaks over 5,000m.)

Watching the sun set over the megadunes around Crescent Lake

Watching the sun set over the megadunes around Crescent Lake

Dunhuang was important in ancient China because it sat at the crossroads of two trade routes. One began in India then went through Tibet to Dunhuang, and on to Mongolia and southern Siberia. The other was the traditional “silk road” leading from Xi’an in central China through a narrow land corridor (north of the Qilian mountains) to Dunhuang then on to Central Asia and Eastern Europe. These trade routes made Dunhuang a place where people of different races and cultures mixed, and also a place of strategic importance. There are a LOT of relics dating back 2,000 years and more which makes Dunhuang an interesting place to visit.

We saw a LOT in three days! The Mogao Caves (Thousand Buddha Caves); West Thousand Buddha caves; Yumen Pass scenic area (2,000 year old relics of the Great Wall); Yangguan Pass (reconstruction of a fort near the remains of a 2,000 year old beacon tower); White Horse Pagoda; a local Taoist temple; a local Buddhist temple and monastery; and sunset over the Min Sha Shan (megadunes) at Crescent Lake. You may already see there’s no way I can adequately recount all of this in a single blog post! I’ll have to fill you in on the details later.

The cliff face at Mogao Caves.

The cliff face at Mogao Caves.

We also ate a LOT of good food. We tried a lot of “local specials” which meant a wide variety of flavours and styles. We ate two local donkey meat specialities – cold sliced meat with fresh coriander dipped in a sauce of vinegar, chili and garlic; and fresh noodles with a light sauce of tofu, mushroom, and donkey mince. We had spicy kebabs, both lamb and vegetables, and a LOT of my favourite 烤馕并 [kao nang bing] – Xinijang baked flat bread. Our favourite meal, however, was in a small restaurant among the grape vines in the valley below Yang Guan. I decided to go with the local specials rather than dishes that were familiar to me, although I asked for some garlic stir fried beans to go along with it all. While we waited there were fresh green sultanas from the vines outside – dry and full of flavour.

First came a lamb dish – lamb on the bone, potato, capsicum [green peppers], onion and fried flat bread in a dry hot pot. It was heavily spiced but not very spicy-hot – and totally morish! Next came an amazing chicken dish – the whole chicken splayed on a bed of lettuce, succulent meat under crisp-ish skin, with a non-spicy salsa-like topping. Then there was a local hotpot tofu dish with a gingery sauce. All of it was wonderful! And the green beans were so young and fresh we wondered if they’d been picked to order.

2,000+ year old relics in the desert near Yumen Pass, and the vineyard where we ate our lovely lunch.

2,000+ year old relics in the desert near Yumen Pass, and the vineyard where we ate our lovely lunch.

A big reason for the good food was our driver, Mr Lu. He gave us some great recommendations and really looked after us. If you’re ever in Dunhuang let me know so I can send you his number! Mr Lu is a Dunhuang native; he says that without the income from tourists who come to see the Mogao Caves, Dunhuang would be a very poor place. His little sister runs a shop at the night market with her husband (they mostly sell rocks and gems, including jade items) so their income depends on tourists as well.

It was a lovely few days in a very different part of the country. What struck me most was the colour of the place. The light was different, as if a yellow-grey filter was over the whole town. It reminds me of the quality of the light when there is a dust storm in Beijing – somehow more white than yellow, yet making things look more… sepia. It’s hard to explain, but I think it is what I will remember most strongly about Dunhuang.

That and the literal mountains of sand…


4 thoughts on “Dunhuang – history in a desert oasis

  1. Pingback: Visiting the old city of Xi’an | Tanya's Stories

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