The train trip from Lanzhou to Dunhuang took a lengthy 16 hours. Given that it left in late afternoon and arrived in mid-morning, this meant that it was a journey we actually got to “experience” rather than simply falling asleep in one city and waking up in another.
In this case, “experience,” meant a couple of things. First, that meant snacks. One of the great joys of long distance train travel in China (and elsewhere) is the wonderful array of yummy or at least interesting snacks everyone brings aboard. True, fruit, drinks, sundry small munchables and even full meals are available from carts that are constantly being pushed through the aisles, but they’re rather pricey and, in any case, the real experience lies in bringing your own. Whether it’s the ubiquitous 2 minute noodles with hot water from the boiler at the end of each carriage, the almost as common sunflower seeds forming an ever growing pile of shells, or something more exotic like preserved chicken feet, there’s nothing more fun than nibbling away the miles, sharing treats with your seatmates as you go.
I must admit, in an entry full of some pretty awesome pictures it’s a bit disappointing to have the headline photo be a pile of snack food. But it fits into the narrative at this point and nowhere else. Plus, as I say, it’s a big part of the Chinese train travel experience
The second part of the rail experience was checking out the landscapes that the train passed through. They started out dry in the evening, with more of the not over-large, but impressively rugged hills we’d seen on the bus trip from Linxia back to Lanzhou. The next morning dry had changed to positively desert. There were huge swathes of land that were entirely empty as far as the eye could see. Not a tree, not a bush. Nothing but gravel as far as they eye could see, interrupted every few hundred metres only by ragged looking clumps of vegetation so small and mean that they couldn’t even be called shrubs. In some places low hills, no more hospitable looking, marked the horizon. In others you could just make out the towering, snow clad Altai range far, far off to the south.
A lot of nothing, seen out the train window
Then all of a sudden a couple of hours out of Dunhuang the monotony was broken. Not by any change in the geography. That remained more or less the same. But it was now filled with dozens, nay, hundreds of wind turbines. Counting the ones we saw on our way out of Dunhuang, I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that there were more wind turbines within 100km of the city than in all of New Zealand combined (and NZ is a place that’s relatively rich in wind power resources!)
The train station in Dunhuang was a flashy new one, as it had been constructed as the terminus of a new tourist oriented spur line less than five years previously. We disembarked and were pleased to see that there was someone waiting for us! The hotel we’d booked was offering free pickup, which was handy as the train station was about 10km from the city centre (not to mention luxurious. Travelling on our own, Sarah and I would never dream of such a thing!)
Wind turbines in the desert outside of Dunhuang
Shiny new Dunhuang railway station
The hotel was every bit as luxurious as the pickup from the station by a shiny new SUV might lead you to suspect (booked at a big discount via the excellent ctrip.com Chinese hotel site) . Our rooms were in the old wing so they weren’t as grand as the lobby and common areas, but it was still by far the fanciest place we’d yest stayed in China (which also meant that I lived in constant fear of having people open doors or carrying my bags and expecting a tip that I was disinclined to give.)
By the time we were ready to go and have a look around it was still barely lunchtime, so we ducked down an alley away from the tourist strip and had some absolutely stupendous noodles. Spicy with a tangy peanut and coriander sauce, shredded carrot and sliced cucumber, they were probably the best noodles we’d had in China. We ended up having these noodles a total of three times in a 32 hour stay in the city!
The lobby of our fancy-pants hotel
Top noodle shop! If you’re looking for it, take the first right to the north of the main roundabout. Ask for Liang Huang Mien (or something like that.)
Dunhuang was a susprising place. Way out in the middle of the desert, you might expect it to be dusty and bleak, or at least kind of rough around the edges. But its status as a major tourist attraction (as well as a fairly well watered oasis) meant that it was clean, bright and really very pleasant.
I’ve now alluded to Dunhuang’s tourist town status a couple of times without explaining the reason behind it. That was all well and good in Xi’an with its famous terracotta warriors, but I suppose I really ought to enlighten you now:
The Mogao Caves
The Mogao Caves are a complex of man made chambers dug into a sandstone cliffside about 30km from Dunhuang. There are over 1000 caves in total, ranging in age from about 1000 to 1700 years old. Especially being out in the desert where many more vulnerable materials are naturally preserved the caves are an archaeological treasure trove. But that’s not what’s made them famous. About half of the caves are filled with brilliantly illuminated (in the medieval manuscript sense) frescoes and sculptures, making it probably the greatest repository of ancient Buddhist art in the world. There are three other similar complexes in China, and a few more elsewhere in the world, but in terms of quantity and preservation, Mogao is probably the king of them all.
Fortunately things had simplified in Dunhuang since our guidebook was written and there were city buses out to the site every half hour. We caught one of these and after speeding off through the desert for 30 minutes or so, were dropped off at the shiny, well maintained visitor centre.
We took a look inside the free site museum while waiting for the English tour to depart. The museum was one of the best organized and presented we’d seen in the country. Or anywhere really! As dissussed many times over in this ‘blog, most of China’s museums have generally similar collections plus usually a little something special of their own. The Mogao museum broke this rule by being almost completely unique. Part of this was due to the contents of the caves, with the reconstructions of several of them being a highlight (especially as photos aren’t allowed in the caves themselves, making this the only place to take pictures of what they look like inside.)
The museum was full of cool exhibits like this one illustrating how the statuary was constructed. Another cool one explained the incredibly painstaking process involved in cleaning, repairing and preserving the frescoes
The rest of the uniqueness of the Mogao museum stemmed from the desert environment. Wood, leather and, incredibly, paper had survived here for far, far longer than they could have anywhere else we’d yet visited. There were many examples of burial lists, sutras and other texts from the Tang dynasty and earlier, making some of them an astonishing 1500 years old. TO try to give some context to how ancient these documents are, consider that When they were written, it was still over seven centuries before the first humans arrived in New Zealand! Not only were they ancient, they were cosmopolitan. Texts were found in Chinese, Tibetan, Mongol, Sanskrit and even Hebrew!
The caves themselves were splendid. For once I found myself not balking at, even approving of, the very high entrance fee (it probably helped that they’d actually implemented my thoughts about the terracotta warriors site in Xi’an… The only way to visit the caves was with a tour, included in the price of the ticket and available (with a surcharge) in any one of about a half dozen major languages.)
The art was beautiful and it was fascinating to see how the caves had aged. Some had been restored or painted over (it was very entertaining to hear things along the lines of “no, these aren’t original paintings. They’re only 900 years old.) Many paintings were still brilliant, with lapis blues and scarlet reds shining out in almost all of their original glory. In others, the pigments had changed over time. Sometimes previously white pigments had been oxidized to black, leading to the interesting situation where paintings had been re-painted in the wrong colours by well-meaning artists who didn’t realize they were the wrong colours.) There were thousands of Buddhas (I roughly estimated about 3000 in one cave meaning that there might well be over a MILLION in the complex), apsaras (Buddhist “angels,” similar to those at the contemporary Angkor temples), allegorical paintings, and illustrated stories. It was interesting to consider the parallels with the cave churches of Cappadocia in Turkey. The colours, techniques and even many of the styles of painting were similar.
One of the replica caves in the museum (but they’re very good replicas, aren’t they?)
In addition to the paintings, there were many Buddha statues including two massive ones that we saw, 37 and 45m high (and rather more elegantly done than the Leshan Grand Buddha, I must say. Though I really should stop dissing that poor guy…)
Our guide was knowledgeable and displayed a clear passion for the caves. She claimed that her (atheist) father worried that her fascination with them might lead her to become a Buddhist! It was also pleasing to learn that, while there were a set of specific itineraries that guides were supposed to follow while taking visitors to a selection of 12 of the over 1000 caves, most of them, especially the foreign language guides, tended to just take their groups to those that they thought would interest the particular group and/or those that were less busy at the moment.
Before leaving we took a bit of a walk out into the desert around the caves. It was no less empty than what we’d seen from the train, but being close to it brought out details that hadn’t been visible before. Valleys and ridges that had blended into a flat sameness became obvious. The formerly hazy mountains were now clear in all their rugged, crinkled glory. Life came into focus as well. A big black darkling beetle. A small lizard with bright red patches on its chest where I imagined its heart to be. Turn your back on the visitors centre and all of a sudden you were alone with the vast, silent majesty of the place.
A lizard out in the desert. To tell the truth there are better photos of this guy from further away, but it’s just so cool that he let me get this close (probably 30mm away) that I have to include this one
Me out in the desert near the Mogao caves. Note my classy new sliced-smoky quartz sunglasses from Xiahe!
In direct contrast to a Friday night in Dunhuang. As a major tourist centre the main streets were lined with lit and ornamented trees. A pedestrian mall was packed full of potential customers eying up dates, desert stone, camel wool artifacts and various other souvenirs from the carts and shops that lined the way. And at every turn one was met with one courtyard or square after another that had been converted in to beer gardens for the night, filled with low slung lounge chairs and surrounded by establishments offering snacks or meals to go with the drinks.
We checked one of these out and, after a great deal of paranoia on my part about the possibility of being overcharged for our meal in a tourist town, selected four mini-hot pots at (nearly) random from the menu. They were okay, not great, but the beer was cold and refreshing (beer in China is generally drunk at room temperature, so this was something of a luxury) and even the radler (shandy) beverage we’d ordered without realizing was excellent. As I’ve so often said, so much of one’s enjoyment of a beer comes from the circumstances, the moment.
The pollution reducing market (I’m not exactly sure what this means. Maybe because it’s pedestrianized?)
Individual mini hot pots being brought to boil on a gas stove. The ones we ate included such desert delicacies as fish balls and tofu
Probably the largest of the beer gardens in Dunhuang. At 6RMB (NZ$1.20) for a 600ml bottle, the drinks weren’t even overly expensive
The next day we went to check out the huge sand dunes that butt up against the oasis to its south. We took a bus out and made our way to the entrance. We had a quick look around the gates, but were disinclined to pay 120RMB each for the opportunity to visit the developed section of the dunes and pay still more for camel rides, sand surfing or microlight aircraft rides.
Instead we followed a road off to the left away from the tourist area, which turned out to be a wonderful decision. It was a hot, dry and sunny (desert-like!) afternoon, so passing by trellises of grapes was nice and slightly cooling. Even better were the camel pens, where the animals not busy giving rides to tourists were lazing in the shade. Some of them still had the woolly necks and majestic countenances of the classic Bactrian camel, though most of them had shed much of their wool for the summer, making them look rather shaggy and scruffy. They didn’t seem to mind us there at all, and some even posed for photos, or let us get a closer look at their calves (I had to double check that that was the right word.) In visiting up close with these guys, I came to the conclusion that I much prefer Bactrian camels to dromedaries. They’re nicer looking and seem to have a more agreeable temperament.
Past the camel pens we came to what seemed to be a cut/fill site for construction projects around the city. Soil and gravel was being variously picked up or dumped there. It wasn’t too busy, however, so though my parents preferred to head back to town, Sarah and I wandered through the site and out into the dunes beyond.
We passed within a few hundred metres of the tourist area fence on one side (and not much further from the microlight runway) and the town cemetery on the other. We headed into the dunes, and though we were never far from (certainly never out of sight of) the town or the tourist area, it was still a gloriously solitary place to visit. Sarah sat down near the base of the dunes, while I went off for a climb. It was surprisingly easy walking. The windward side of the dunes, even right up near the sharp ridge on top, was firmly packed, so as long as you took most of your steps on that you didn’t slide backwards much. When one stepped on the more loosely packed leeward side mini-landslides started down the slopes producing a clearly audible hiss, something like water running out of an aerated household tap, but louder.
Up at the summit of “my” dune I sat and enjoyed the silence and the magnificent views for twenty minutes or so. I headed back down and discovered that in my absence Sarah had climbed almost as high as I had in a different direction. She said she’d had great fun running, slipping and “skiing” down the face of a dune on her way back down.
Patterns of wind and sand not far from the base of the dunes
As often happens with particularly photogenic locations, I’m probably going to run out of captions for photos of the Dunhuang dunes
Dunhuang cemetery. Each tomb consisted of an earthen mound headed by an upright stele (I’m not sure if I mentioned this before, but my family and I were discussing how to pronounce that word earlier in our trip. I finally got around to looking it up. Historically it was pronounced “steel” but now “steely” is the accepted pronunciation
Mini-landslides on the side of the dunes started by each footstep
Very content with our sand dune experience we headed back to the bus stop (pausing only to pick up a cowboy had that had presumably blown off the head of someone in the tourist area. I’d needed a hat!)
We met my parents back at our hotel. We arranged a taxi ride out to the train station (a different one, further afield) and went out for one final walk around town.
The ride to Liuyuan station was fun. It started out through the green Dunhuang oasis, but then pitched us out into the desert which, as on the way into town was alternately filled with wind turbines or nothingness. Especially entertaining were the sections where the road was under repair and detours had been created by the simple expedient of just directing traffic off into flat portions of the desert for a few km at a time.
Odd bits of English are common in China. Sometimes they’re due to differing culture or political/economic systems (e.g. The Dunhaung Salt Administration) but other times they’re far more cryptic such as at this restaurant in Dunhuang
Driving through the desert
Liuyuan town was an interesting place. It owed its existence as a city to the coal mines and related industry nearby. And also to the fact that, until the spur line was built, its station was the closest one to Mogao (and was still the closest station where westbound trains stop… Dunhuang station is only served by trains running to and from the more populous east.) The station itself was quite pretty, with a beautiful mural outside. But the rest of the town was pretty grim. At one point in Dunhuang, my dad had wondered aloud what Chinese cities looked like abandoned and decaying Detroit. Here we’d found one. The main east-west street was lined with bleak uniform apartment blocks, many of which had broken or bricked up windows and doors. The industry on the way into town had looked pretty grim as well.
We entered the station (with the first really thorough check we’d yet had to ensure that we were actually the people whose passport numbers appeared on the tickets) and sat down to wait for our train.
During our five hour wait we took turns going out for dinner in pairs and found, to our surprise, that opposite the decaying apartment blocks were a long string of clean, well run restaurants. I’m still unclear if these were meant for the tour groups that used to pass through town before Dunhuang station was opened, the smaller number of tourists who still visited, or the workers in the town’s industries who might have cause for the odd celebration (or at least not much of anything better to do.)
Some of the bleak 1950s-60s apartment blocks in Liuyuan
The waiting room in Liuyuan station. On the walls were posted warnings about things not to do around the overhead electric power for the track in order to avoid electricution, some of which (e.g. peeing off a bridge onto them) sent my mom into gales of laughter
In any case, we all had good stuff to eat and, with the help of the forty-something lady who watched over the waiting rooms, got on our train when it pulled into the station at 22:30 for its brief stop before heading on further west (finally) leaving Gansu province.
A snooty looking camel with a snooty looking me at a government building in Dunhuang
A more cheerful looking camel
The Apsara statue in the centre of Dunhuang’s main roundabout
Tags: China, Dunes, Dunhuang, Gansu, Llew Bardecki, Mogao, Travel