The train slowly ground to a halt some 30 minutes before we were set to arrive at Dunhuang Railway Station. Outside, the horizon had become obscured by sand kicked up in the howling wind, which was now shaking the entire train car. Every few minutes, the conductor would steel himself and push the train another few meters forward, carving its way through the dunes that had come to bury the track. Local passengers prepared their face masks and hair covers, laughing to each other as they set to enter the storm.
I showed my ticket to another guy and he confirmed that the station we were coming into was indeed Dunhuang, my destination, so I took my bandana from my bag and tied it around my face as well. Eventually, the train lurched its way into the station and the doors were slid open, immediately filling the end rooms of each cabin with sand. We each pushed ourselves out only to be knocked back by heavy wind, fighting our way into the overhang of the station for a small amount of shelter.
What few trees there were swayed and bent at precarious angles in the windstorm, painted brown by the sandblast. I set off into the parking lot to negotiate my fare on a shuttle into town — a daunting task in the billowing sand — and got inside. A few others joined me and one took my photo as we drove through the desert towards Dunhuang.
Once we arrived in the city, I paid my 40 RMB fare and set off into the storm once again to find my hostel. Thankfully, I had shown the driver the right location and only had about a hundred meters to walk down the street. There were a few Chinese cyclists who were traversing the country (which is insanely cool) pinned down at my hostel as well, and the day consisted of sleeping off and on while we waited on the storm to die down. Once the wind subsided enough to make walking outside tolerable, I went out to take some photos.
Dunhuang is, to say the least, an interesting city. After Jiayuguan, I was expecting another lonely, half-empty shell but Dunhuang is none of those things. In China’s history, it’s actually a very important place. A major Silk Road stop 2,000 years ago, Dunhuang was basically the entrance and exit to Chinese civilization — the outpost at the edge of the world. It’s said that the city’s famous Singing Dunes were named by Marco Polo himself after he observed the whistling sound the rolling sand made when displaced by wind and footsteps.
But the weird thing is that there’s no visible heritage of such an ancient city. It’s been on the map for over 2,000 years, yet the buildings look no older than 20 years. It’s quite a nice city, but has the same brand-new shopping mall quality Beijing has. Nonetheless, it’s clearly been designed with its Silk Road desert culture in mind. Despite the relative youngness of the buildings, it looks as if it belongs in the desert.
The sandstorm hadn’t quite died down when I set out, so many of the wider streets were like wind tunnels. Sand collected in small dunes in every corner, nook, and cranny. People coming to their motorcycles and scooters dusted them off before hitting the gas, leaving a billowing cloud behind them as they motored down the street. In the narrower streets, people began to come outside and return their laundry to their drying lines. The more the storm died and the sand settled, the more Dunhuang came to life once again. Over the course of an hour, the streets refilled and I was suddenly in a lively place. Throughout my following time in Dunhuang, I was amazed at how vibrant and interesting the city really was.
“How Hard Can It Be To Sneak Into the Gobi Desert?”
Apparently, quite hard.
On my second day in Dunhuang, I wanted to actually get out into the desert. There’s a national park there, so access is limited and expensive, and ends at 7:30 PM. But I wanted to take star photos so I was looking for a way to sneak past the fences and security cameras so I could stay late enough to make that happen. I’ll say now — I was unsuccessful.
On my way in, I met another American and asked him that fateful question. I mean, how hard can it be to sneak into a big desert? I walked several kilometers in both directions, looking for gaps that I had read about in an obscure WikiTravel thread dedicated to sneaking into the desert at Dunhuang. Each proposed method had been revised by someone who attempted and found the hole plugged.
First it was just an open gate, then a farm with a big dog, then a graveyard along the fence line with a gap. I tried them all. I didn’t find any of the gaps or gates, but I did find the big dog on the farm and got chased back to the road. I explored down a second road, where I met a territorial camel. After getting chased by my second large animal in the span of 30 minutes, I decided to be content walking through the camel ranches and stables along the fence.
It was in these places that the older-style Dunhuang desert architecture was still present, housing the hundreds of camels for tourists to ride. But despite my lack of success in getting past the fence, the 2,000m dunes were ever-present, looming above everything. I had never seen any landscape like it, and it’s easily one of the coolest I have ever seen. When walking towards the desert from Dunhuang (which is about 7km from the edge), they just rise up suddenly. On a clear day, you can see them from the city, but it was not a clear day. The sandstorm was still fading and the sky was mostly brown. So when I got close enough to see them and to see the sheer size of them, it was surprising and staggering.
I didn’t end up actually paying the entry fee to join the rest of Dunhuang’s visitors inside the dunes, but I’m not convinced that I missed much. I spent most of my time exploring the narrow side streets and markets squeezed into alleys. I accidentally bought several kilos of pistachios from a vendor for a price I’m convinced was too high. But at least I have my road snacks that will last me the next few months until I return to the US.
I’ve noticed that the further west you go into China, the more local culture permeates the manicured city that China’s planners want you to see. Dunhuang is already very close to Mongolia and Kazakhstan, and might be physically closer to Kathmandu than it is to Beijing. Dunhuang is, after all, the place that has historically been the very edge of China; the frontier. The local culture is different from anything I’ve seen in China thus far. The landscape, the climate, everything rolls into the identity of this place. It’s one of the few cities I’ve visited that feels truly unique.
Now that my time in Dunhuang is finished, my next stops mark my entrance to Xinjiang, the Wild West of China. The better name, though, is East Turkestan, but I’ll get into that later. Dunhuang was a good place to rest and prepare for the next steps, but I ended up leaving a day early because there was nothing left for me to do, and I reconnected with a friend I met in Jiayuguan who was headed further west. Furthermore, I was just alone at my hostel. Another day would have been too much. But the next week-and-a-half should be much more interesting as I move through Xinjiang and onto Kyrgyzstan.
Next stop: Turpan.