The Ancient City of Dunhuang

The Ancient City of Dunhuang

The city of Dunhuang, in north-west China, is situated at a point of vital strategic and logistical importance, on a crossroads of two major trade routes within the Silk Road network. Lying in an oasis at the edge of the Taklamakan Desert, Dunhuang was one of the first trading cities encountered by merchants arriving in China from the west. It was also an ancient site of Buddhist religious activity, and was a popular destination for pilgrims, as well as acting as a garrison town protecting the region.

The Silk Road routes from China to the west passed to the north and south of the Taklamakan Desert, and Dunhuang lay on the junction where these two routes came together. Additionally, the city lies near the western edge of the Gobi Desert, and north of the Mingsha Sand Dunes (whose name means ‘gurgling sand’, a reference to the noise of the wind over the dunes), making Dunhuang a vital resting point for merchants and pilgrims travelling through the region from all directions.

Echoing-Sand Mountain (Mingsha Shan)

Have you ever heard of a mountain that echoes to the sound of sand as you slide down its slopes? Can you image a perennially limpid lake in an area of desert sand? Here in Dunhuang, Gansu Province, you will have the chance to enjoy the wonderful spectacle of the Echoing-Sand Mountain.

The mountain is five kilometers (about three miles) away from the city of Dunhuang. Seen from afar, the mountain is just like a golden dragon winding its way over the horizon. As you approach you become aware that the sand has many colors ranging from red to yellow, green, black and white. On days when a strong wind blows, the fast shifting sand roars; but when the wind is little more than a light breeze, the sand produces gentle, dulcet sounds akin to music. It is the same when you are sliding down the mountainside. At first, the sand under your feet just whispers; but the further you slide, the louder the sound until it reaches a crescendo like thunder or a drum beat. Some say that the sand is singing, while to others it is like an echo and this is how the mountain gets its name.

You may wonder why the sand makes these different sounds. An old legend said that a general and his soldiers meet a fierce battle with their enemies here. As the two sides were deep in fighting each other and the battle was at its height, a large wave of quicksand suddenly came with a great gust of wind. All the warriors were buried in the sand and the sand mountain was formed. Thus, the sound you hear is said to be the roar of the soldier ghosts who have gone on the fight for such long beneath the sand. However, the real cause is the friction and static created as the wind shifts the sand or you slip down the mountainside.

Yueyaquan (Crescent Moon Lake)

Easily reached from Mingsha Shan, Yueyaquan is an oasis surrounded by sand dunes and naturally shaped like a crescent moon. Along with Mingsha Shan, Yueyaquan is one of Dunhuang’s Eight Great Landscapes. Next to the lake is a traditional pagoda where visitors can stop for a short break, stock up on refreshments and purchase some souvenirs.

Mogao caves

The traveler finds the Mogao Caves, a shrine of Buddhist art treasures, 25 km (15.5miles) from downtown Dunhuang on the eastern slope of Echoing-Sand Mountain (Mingsha Shan). A network of plank reinforced roads plying north to south 1600 meters (5, 249 feet) long lead to the cave openings, which are stacked five stories high some reaching up to 50 meters (164 feet). By the way, Mogao means high up in the desert.

The ‘Caves of the Thousand Buddhas’ (Qianfodong), also known as Mogao, are a magnificent treasure trove of Buddhist art. They are located in the desert, about 15 miles south-east of the town of Dunhuang in north western China. By the late fourth century, the area had become a busy desert crossroads on the caravan routes of the Silk Road linking China and the West. Traders, pilgrims and other travellers stopped at the oasis town to secure provisions, pray for the journey ahead or give thanks for their survival. Records state that in 366 monks carved the first caves into the cliff stretching about 1 mile along the Daquan River.

Must Know

Visitors can visit Echoing-Sand Mountain and Crescent Lake many times in three days since they buy the entrance tickets. Visitors who plan to make three-day multiple visits need to record their fingerprints together with their entrance tickets at the ticket barrier before they finish their first visit and leave. More importantly, those who enjoy free entries can’t enjoy this policy.

Best Time to Visit

The best time to visit Dunhuang is between April to September. Avoid the winter season, as winters here are very bitter and dreary. As is common of desert climates, the temperature fluctuates a lot from day to night. Visitors should bring along warm clothes. The air is also extremely dry with strong winds, so there is no harm in packing along extra moisturizers and lip balms.