A video of the trip.
A Timeless Quality 超越時空
Dunhuang’s charm and importance seems to last through the ages. The city has been an important strategic outpost of ancient China, located at the entrance of the narrow Gansu corridor leading to the heart of the Han Chinese dynasties and empires, and an important Silk Road stop, which introduced the spiritual traditions of Buddhism and Islam along with trade merchandise. Today it’s a major travel destination and a grape-producing region.
Dunhuang’s strategic importance for warfare is much less today but it’s former glory is still very much visible and enchanting to the visiting traveler.
The hostel of choice for my first night in Dunhuang is right next to the sand dunes in the images below, an idyllic location. The major drawback is the distance from downtown Dunhuang and therefore inconvenience and difficult access to the night market.
I first became acquainted with Hannah on Couchsurfing.org and met her in person for the first time in Hangzhou. Then I met her again in Kashgar, another time purely by chance in Ürümqi, and this fourth time (also by chance) here in Dunhuang.
China CCTV and the Third Grape Festival of China Dunhuang (International)
The adventure in Dunhuang started immediately on arrival, being incredibly fortunate to be in town with the annual grape festival and potentially appearing on China’s TV. Getting out of the Dunhuang airport with only one taxi in sight, the driver asking for 80 RMBs for a ride to the downtown, and no shuttle bus service; I forfeited the over-priced taxi ride and waited outside the airport for the good part of one hour before getting a ride. Then, upon arriving at the hostel in Dunhuang, I met by chance a couple from Hong Kong which I had first met in Ürümqi. They had been approached by CCTV journalists and asked if I would participate with them in a CCTV (China Central Television) news production about Dunhuang’s vineyards and grapes, taking place the following day. Wow! I will be on TV in China! I happily participated.
Miss Friendship International and the Grape Fest
The organizers of the Grape Festival definitely offered a great show, with Miss Friendship International participating. On the run to downtown Dunhuang for purchasing departing train ticket before heading off to the vineyards, we witnessed the grape festival parade in town.
The car and driver to the shooting location were provided by CCTV; as can be seen in the video, the unpaved roads leading to the vineyards really calls for an off-road capable SUV.
We were provided nothing short of a rare, most non-touristy experience at the remote vineyard at which the CCTV crew recorded the needed footage and interviews. Lunching with the town’s mayor and Communist Party Secretary, we dined on locally raised rainbow trout among the rest of a table-full of sumptuous western China cuisine. The grapes, freshly cut from the vines were sweet, juicy with a distinctive tang. According to the grape farmers, the grapes grown in Dunhuang are shipped to other provinces of China to produce wines along with fresh consumption.
Gateway to the Sun – Yangguan
After completing the CCTV assignment for the day, the journalists and the 3 travelers (including myself) toured the ancient fort of Yangguan 陽關/阳关, literally meaning “gateway to the sun”.
Replica siege weapons, as shown in the images below and a museum displaying genuine local period weapons are testify to the brutal, bloody fighting right here in ancient China.
Travel documents and ancient forms of visas were already in use at Yangguan, an important pass on the Silk Road, functioned as a modern immigration authority would at international borders. Traders, merchants and travelers had to present documents to continue their journeys.
Singing, But Expensive Dunes
A ticket to enter the Singing Dunes and Crescent Lake scenic area is 120 RMBs. I hesitated to spend the money, but having come all the way to Dunhuang and with the finale of the Grape Festival happening behind the gates, I plunked down the cash for a ticket.
Many tourists opted for the orange bright orange coverings to keep sand out of shoes and going up pant legs. I had my Timberland boots that only let in a pinch of sand but really are waterproof and the most durable pair of footwear I own.
Unfortunately it was already too dark to see Crescent Lake.
Shooting the above photograph reminded me of taking underwater photos without proper lighting equipment. Suspended particles, instead of the intended subject are illuminated by the flash, creating the cloudy image. The sandy, particle-filled air was very noticeable and somewhat difficult to breathe with dust filling up my nostrils.
Trip Highlight, The Mogao Grottoes:
A series of caves in a hillside in Dunhuang the Mogao Grottoes contain Tang Dynasty era (dating back at least 1,200 years) Buddhist wall painting art and sculptures statues. All are priceless relics of Dunhuang, the Silk Road, and Buddhism’s past. According to Wikipedia, a Buddhist mantra known as the Great Compassion Mantra (Nīlakantha dhāranī) was discovered at the Mogao Grottoes in Dunhuang. I am listening to a recording of the Great Compassion Mantra as I work on this post; it helps me focus and direct my mental energy to the task at hand.
Photography was not allowed inside the individually numbered caves which numbered from 1 to about 400. Still wanting images of the stunning artwork in the caves, I bought postcards of the Mogao Caves even after having decided at the beginning of the trip to bring home nothing but photographs along the journey.
There is an incredible sense of peace and tranquility that is simply, ineffable and invulnerable to disturbance in the presence of the Mogao artwork that has stood through more than one millennia. Even with the large crowd of tourists visiting the Grottoes, all in the caves at any one moment, there is a soothing quietude beyond the sound inside the caves. I experienced a very soothing calm in the Mogao caves. The only time a similar quietude was experienced was while SCUBA diving in some of nature’s wonders.
Dunhuang is the highlight of my entire trip; the Mogao Grottoes are the highlight of my visit to Dunhuang, and lastly the ultimate highlight are 2 statues of the Buddha and a secret room where ancient Buddhist texts were hidden.
The largest statue at the Mogao Grottoes is 30-meters (about 90 feet) tall, but had been repainted during the Qing Dynasty and is housed in a pagoda built into the side of the caves. A second statue of the Buddha, smaller than the 30-meter work but retains its original colors, took a single artisan’s solo effort 30 years to complete. The artist’s sheer dedication is incredible and standing at the toe-level height of the great Buddha is simply indescribably inspiring.
My words do not do justice to the wonder of the relics of humankind’s past at Dunhuang!
2 nights was all I could stay in Dunhuang, but the days and nights there were so adventure filled, enough to last until the next.