Ah, Dunhuang! I remember having a relaxing time during the 4 days I spent there, but to tell you the truth, in retrospect I think it may have been more about my hostel’s superb Wi-Fi connection than what the area had to offer.
Dunhuang, a desert oasis town in Western Gansu province, had been on my list of places to visit ever since I saw a picture of the Crescent Moon Lake and Mingsha Sand Dunes on CNN’s article of the 40 most beautiful places in China. Beauty? Heck yeah! Giant sand dunes for me to play on?? I’m there already!
As far as Chinese towns and cities go, Dunhuang itself is quite nice. My hostel was located in a “hutong,” or old-style neighborhood, that had been refashioned into a happening place: mornings featured endless stalls selling fruits and veggies, while evening brought out souvenir vendors and noodle shops galore, their tables and seats spilling out into the alleys. There were more cafes, food stands, and shops than I could fully explore in my time there. Delightful!
My first day in Dunhuang was rainy, but when Day Two dawned bright and hot, I took Public Bus 3 all the way out to the Mingsha Sand Dunes. The area was a bit disappointing at first sight, with Crescent Moon Lake being a manmade spot catering to tourists who were willing to pay the extra money to access that part of the dunes. Furthermore, they had fenced off the dune upon which would give the best photo op of the oasis against a backdrop of dunes: we “plebeians” had to make do with the not-so-aesthetically pleasing shrubbery of the city area.
That being said, I thoroughly enjoyed myself for a good three hours out on the dunes. It wasn’t long before I kicked off my sandals and just barefooted it. Between my shorts, bare feet, and my predilection to charge up dunes while others around me floundered in laughably orange shoe “protectors,” I received a fair number of comments from those I passed. Younger Chinese: “So fit!” Older Chinese: “So crazy! You’ll ruin your skin.” Norwegian dude: “Hey, how’s the view from up top?” One group of young Chinese tourists even asked to take a picture with me to prove that they had met the brave (read: “crazy American”) girl who climbed up the largest sand dune all by herself with no shoes on.
I left right as busloads of tourists began to arrive, each troupe renting en masse dozens of pairs of those orange shoe protectors and dozens of camels. The sight of all those camels, each one carrying a Chinese tourist whose orange-clad feet dangled at the sides like hair accessories from the eighties, snaking off into the dunes like a human Great Wall, nearly killed me.
Instead of going directly back to the hostel afterwards, I decided to walk down the street 1km to a temple that had looked interesting on my way over to the dunes. Lei Yin Temple is a sprawling place, and its renovation work is fast bringing it back to being the largest temple of its type in that part of China.
I always find it exceptionally peaceful to wander around a Buddhist temple, especially when it’s free of tourists, as this one was. The level of detail on the ceiling beams was astounding: full, tiny frescoes were painted in the corners of the ceiling. In the grandest hall, five large, golden statues of the most important Buddhas sat watching, flanked by 24 “lesser” saints. In this room I sat for about an hour with three Buddhist disciples and learned (in Chinese) a myriad of fascinating stories on Buddhism. This is the kind of stuff that you can’t find in the guidebooks, and they’re the best things about travel: the things you don’t–you can’t–plan for.