Dunhuang, our last stop in Gansu before we cross over into Xinjiang, is a desert oasis. A former Silk Road stop, it was also a sort of competition site for which wealthy Buddhist family could commission the best cave temple. The result was a spectacular array of caves As the Silk Road later shifted north a bit, traders on camels took a hot week’s detour to come here to this pilgrimage site. We came on the fast train, and we came for the milkshakes and coffee. Oh, and those stunning Buddhist carvings at the Mogao caves.
Our digs here were the best of the trip thus far: for $15 a night, we rented our own hut in a fruit-tree-filled garden, smack next to the famous sand dunes of Singing Sand Mountain. This meant that, while Nick and I drank a warm beer on our porch, Owen gleefully collected fruit and sticks and brought them to us. Surely the traders of yore would have given a camel’s left leg to sit in this sort of luxury. Shoot, a German Swiss family made it clear, when they couldn’t get a room, that their whole vacation had been ruined (to the unconcerned staff). But I guess they’d come from even farther away than those Sogdians, Uighers, Turks, Persians, Arabs, or even those Polo boys ever did. All for those dunes.
Our first afternoon, we set out to see the hugely-hyped, steeply-priced, and rarely-photographed Mogao caves. Of the nearly 800 total caves, supposedly fewer than half contain carvings; the rest are empty and were used for meditation only. We saw ten altogether over two hours, and while all those hundreds of locked doors irked me deeply, we left satisfied: the art, some more than 1700 years old, is mostly well-preserved, with the most recent trashy retouching actually conducted in the late Qing–old enough for us Westerners to still like. By any measure, the caves were lovely.
Still, all those locked doors, all those secrets. When I asked our guide if there were some caves that were simply never opened, she nodded vigorously. “But,” I continued, needling now, “since you guides work here, youcan all go in and see them, right?” “No!” she responded forcefully. And now we know where the Mogao Caves Christmas party goes down.
But about those milkshakes. On our second day, we endeavored to rest all day and hike the sand dunes in the cool of the evening. So we trucked into town and sought out the Lonely Planet recommendation, a “cafe” supposedly run by an Oklahoman–okay, so potentially a really lousy cafe. But we’d heard tell of all sort of Western goodies, and after so much damn cow meat pulled noodles, perhaps a nice ground cow meat beef patty or two was in order. But when we finally swaggered up to its locked doors (closed Mondays!), all hope of bottomless cups of coffee and ketchupy hamburgers wafted away, like a camel’s fart atop a high hill of sand.
So we nursed our wounds the only way one can out here: with fresh-baked bread and drinkable yogurt. Sitting under a market tent across from a man selling six kinds of dates and five kinds of raisins, we did our good resting and watched the ever-present action taking place under the scorching sun: ladies traipsed by with umbrellas overhead, wearing pants and long-sleeved shirts, hats, scarves, face masks, sunglasses and gloves. Men in shower shoes and shorts, their tshirts pulled up to reveal bulging bellies, sauntered by. Everyone with a bread snack, everyone chucking Owen’s chin.
That evening, as the sun sank low in the sky and the day turned blessedly cool…wait, scratch that; those things don’t happen until about 10PM out here. (Such is the result of placing a ridiculous amount of longitude on a single time zone, based in Beijing.) Revision: as the sun moved past directly overhead and the temperature plummetted one whole degree, we re-applied our sunscreen and set out to find us a dune to hike. Easy enough, but it’ll set you back $20 each. We swallowed hard, gawked at the sharp-ridged peaks of sand just beyond the ticket gate, and forked over the cash. Then we all donned the requisite fluorescent orange shoe protectors (think Lara Croft meets a troll doll), said no thank you to all the modes of transportation offered (camel, dune buggy, 4-wheeler, flying lawnmower) and walked into the desert wasteland. We made it to the first dune peak before Owen realized hey, we’re trudging through the world’s biggest sandbox! and demanded to be put down immediately. So Nick pressed on (to see what more sand looked like from atop more sand) while I stayed to supervise the very important digging and sifting job. We sat there, gazing out over dune upon dune, yelling at the camels below (Owen) and fending off a hundred Anne Geddes wannabes. (Me: no, it’s not cool if you sneak up behind me and then yell, “Cute!!!! I hold your baby, ok!!” and take twenty pictures of my startled child at extremely close range. Let the kid play, you sun-fearing crazies.) And then we ran down and met up with Nick, who had rented a sled and raced down the sand behemoth at top speed, hands in the air, against the cautionary instructions of the sled renter–and to the horror, then bemusement (“oh, those crazy foreigners”), of the crowd. We took a few minutes to watch the antics of Chinese people posing dramatically in their desert best, then dragged our sandy diapers back to the fruit tree hut. We then fell asleep to the sweet sounds of mosquitos singing lullabies in our hair, ears and noses.
In sum, no direct camel contact yet, but we sure did feel lucky to spend some time (and admission fees) in Dunhuang, and so we are not so different from those ol’ silk traders, are we?