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Dunhuang, China

I headed to the train station in Xi'an for my 22 hour train ride to Dunhuang. According to Lonely Planet, "the fertile Dunhuang oasis has long been a welcome sight for weary Silk Road travellers. Most visitors only stayed long enough to swap camels and have a feed; others settled down and built the forts, towers and cave temples that are now scattered over the surrounding area. These sites, along with some impressive sand dunes and desertscapes, make Dunhuang well worth the effort, despite its remoteness."

The train ride was my first experience in a Hard Sleeper (3-tier bunk beds, 2 per open compartment, 9 compartments per car. READ: no doors). My bunk mates were a group of middle age women from Hunan province heading to Dunhuang for sightseeing. 6 days had passed since I left LAX and the heat/humidity had caught up with me, so I was looking forward to a full day/night of resting my aching shoulders.

Traveling northwestly, the first 3 hours took us through mountain ranges with tunnels every 5 minutes. This train stopped in the bigger stations and I stole a glance at the train on the adjacent track to check out the Hard Seat. Giant smoking sardine can would be an apt description.

It took no time for the passengers on the train to began chatting like they were old friends. In fact, it was like a temporary family; for the entire trip this would be our home, so why not make the most of it by being neighborly. I peppered my fellow passengers with questions about the area. Knowing that I'm a foreign visitor, they were like proud parents showing off their kids (but in this case, their hometowns). I learned quite a bit from Master Chang (the title bestowed on men, akin to Mister, but more respectful), who grew up in the area. No one has called me 'Master' yet (I guess it doesn't apply to foreigners). Instead, I'm being called 'Swai-ge', which literally means 'handsome brother', a common term for anyone under 30. Not bad for someone who turns 36 in two weeks!

After 3 hours the train descended from the mountains to the flat lands that suddenly

opened up. The landscape consisted of 2 colors - light brown & sparse green to the north. The geography was mostly barren rocks/harden sand, which the locals use to produce bricks and/or cement. To the south the scenery was distinctly different with tiny villages (I'm talking 7-8 homes at most) dotting the landscape and creative use of the land for farming by ways of terraces, a perfect example of the indomitable spirit of human surviving nature.

People here also dig caves into the hillside and have been using them as homes for eons. Each goes about 3-6 meters deep and connects from within as well. I was told these caves are back in vogue because they stay cool in summer heat and shield bitter cold in the winter. I hope to be able to visit one on this trip.

Dunhuang is located in the western end of the Hexi Corridor in Gansu province, and the area is dry with very little rainfall. Farming is dependent on the melting snow from the nearby mountains, and warm winter usually means no crop the following year. Surprisingly, the area produces excellent grapes with high fructose(?) level, which is then used to make excellent wine. Therefore, people here are known to handle their liquor like no others. Gov't also subsidizes farmers to plant trees to reduce sand storm and help replenish the soil.

I had lunch in the dining car and boxed dinner purchased from the service person pushing carts like on the airplanes. Lights out at 10pm and nothing to do but go to sleep. I welcomed the rest and woke up at 6:30 feeling replenished (refresh would not be a good

description, as I desperately wanted a shower). The landscape outside had changed dramatically. Gone were the mountains, replaced by dry sand as far as eyes can see. Occasionally a stream emerged surrounded by green pasture, where sheeps grazed.

Arriving in Dunhuang it reminded me a little of the area east of Las Vegas on the way to Zion, bright sun and vast open flat desert, and even though the temperature was about 105, it had more in common with California, so I was much more comfortable than when I was in Beijing and Xi'an. I was immediately drawn by this quaint sleepy little town with two main streets; compare to Xi'an and Beijing, Dunhuang is clean (unpolluted), relaxed, and friendly. It took me about two hours to explore majority of the city, and nary a person on the street in high noon, whereas in Xi'an, crossing the streets required absolute conviction and total fearlessness. For a historic town Dunhuang looked remarkably modern due to the flood in 1979 causing the majority of the city to be rebuilt.

I took the advice of waiting until 6pm to head out to the sand dunes to watch the sunset. The sand dunes rise unexpectedly just to the south of the city. I had never seen sand dunes in person and it's really a sight to behold. The landscape seemingly changes as the winds blow, creating the illusion otherwise known as mirage. I came here for the camel ride so I passed the dune buggys and headed straight for the post. My camel was #382, but that seemed rather inpersonal, so I named him Quasideux, on the account of it being double-humped. The ride was smoother going up the sand dune and on sand compared with when we travelled on harder surfaces. It was a good training for the horseback rides in Mongolia, I hope.

I originally wanted to spend the night by the Crescent Moon Lake but changed my mind because I wanted to spend more time in the city. It turned out to be a good decision as I couldn't imagine spending the night in the desert after getting sand everyhwere. I allowed myself plenty of time to make my way up to the tallest and closest sand dune to watch the sunset (too steep for camels), yet still I struggled mightily (admittely it was more like crawling than climbing). I had to stop every few steps and rest; with battery acid coarsing through my veins, the only thing that kept me going was knowing that I will never do this again and I'd hate myself for not finishing this. When I finally made it to the top the total exhaustion overshadowed the sense of accomplishment at first, but soon I was reminded of why I put myself through the pain, and it all seemed worth it.

With sand everywhere on me but hungry after the climb, I headed back into town and found a completely different atmosphere than the one I witnessed several hours ago. It seemed the energy of the town goes up as the hour gets later. At the night market where the whole town seemed to be congregating, I told myself it was time to try local cuisines. Besides, there were no KFCs or McDonalds anywhere here, unlike in Xi'an and Beijing. There were literally 100s of stands selling practically the same thing - kebobs. Several types of meat were on the menu - lamb, beef, pork, squid (where the heck did squid come from? We're thousands of miles from any open waters), and veggies. They tasted great, but the seasoning was very strong (salty and spicy, I woke up in the middle of night dying of thirst). People at the night market eat under the evening stars, and at every table there was one standard item - a beer keg that put the Yard House signature to shame. Food and drinks were but two of many things one could find at the night market; arts and crafts, clothes, dry dates, fruits...there was even live performance on a stage! After sampling assorment of kebobs, I bought some watermelon and headed back to the hotel to clean the sand out of my teeth.

(My camera ran out of battery while I was on top of the sand dunes, so I took some photos with my iPhone which the hotel computer does not recognize.)

Next morning I woke up early to head to the famous Magao Grottoes. It's a World Heritage Site and one of the most important archeological discovery in Buddhist history. For more information, check out http://idp.bl.uk. I decided to rest in the afternoon heat and soak in more of the city later that evening, which I found myself falling in love with; it's such a tranquil, peaceful, friendly, warm (both literally and figuratively)....place, that it's no wonder the people I talked to have no desire to leave for the bigger, more modern places. Why would they! I can totally see myself quitting the rat race and get a job at a local hotel here catering to foreign travelers, and supplementing my income by teaching English, maybe even find a beautiful local girl and settle down...or it's more likely that I'm suffering from heat stroke.

The last day in Dunhuang was packed with sightseeing from 6:30am - 5:30pm to more remote places. The tour guide told me people in Dunhuang work half a year, and rest half (what a wonderful concept, no wonder they looked so happy!). Besides tourism, the other major output from Dunhuang are cotton and grapes, but they can't compare with Xinjiang, my next destination. I also learned that cars here are powered by combination of natural gas and gasoline when the tour van pulled over for a refill. That didn't sit well with me as I was worried the entire trip that a simple collision and I'll be nothing more than a memory. They also make most use of wind turbines and and solar energy. In some ways, China is more advanced than the US.

I visited the western end of the Great Wall (built around 100 BC), which was nothing more than a 50 yard stretch of mud/clay structure now, unlike the eastern end near Beijing, as well as the Jade Gate Pass and South Pass, which marked the end of Chinese territory back in Han Dynasty. I tried to conjur the feeling of weary travellers heading west into what was considered very dangerous territory (controlled by Kazaks, Turks, and other extinct ethnic groups at various times), and was aided by the fact that this vast area we're visiting was closed the day before for military target practice! On the way back we had to drive thru a sand storm (a mild one I was told), and I can't imagine what a severe one would be like. Our driver was hauling ass when visibility was barely 30 meters. Even though I need to get back in town by 7pm, I felt inclined to tell the driver not to hurry, and was met with a chuckle, at the expense of my yellow streak.

Unlike in Xi'an and Beijing, where I felt like a tourist lost in a big city, in Dunhuang I felt like I really got to know the place. I really enjoyed Dunhuang and was sad to leave. I hope this was a good omen for good things to come on my journey. It was time to catch a ride to Liuyuan for my train to Turpan, the hottest place in all of China! Hooray!

Good Writing
permalink written by  Chihyau on June 26, 2010 from Dunhuang, China
from the travel blog: Backpacking in China
tagged China and Dunhuang

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Yay. Your blogs are getting better. it really sounds like an adventure now. lucky dog.

permalink written by  Bianca S on June 30, 2010

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Many of you have heard me wax poetic about the open plains and the nomadic life of Mongolia. Well, I'm finally getting off the couch and trekking to the edge of the world in search of my private Shangri-la.

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