One of the biggest perks of this job has to be research trips, traveling to new places without having to take a holiday is something I’m glad I can do. (thaks internet) At the moment Shan and I are researching the China part for our planned Silk Road tour. One of the highlights so far has been Dunhuang. I’m not going to lie, I knew very little about it before arriving, only that it used tobe a pretty important trading post on the silk road and a very important military outpost after it was absorbed into “Han China”. Understandably the local tribespeople (Xiongnu) wanted it back so numerous battles were fought in the region.
Now, unfortunately, it’s no longer the prosperous place of times past, being a small town in China’s poorest province. It has however a rich cultural heritage and perhaps because it’s so dependent on tourism the local people tend to be incredibly friendly. I’ve never had so many compliments on my ability to use chopsticks in my life.
We’ve been staying at the Dunhuang International Zephyr Hostel, which has a really nice atmosphere, it really feels different from your usual place in China. Asides from sleeping on a Kang, they have a really cool area where the rooms face out into a shared courtyard, which is definitely what we’ll be booking for the tour. Beers under the stars? Why not? It’s also right next to a national park with mountainous sand dunes and loads of Camels. At the park you can ride camels over the dunes to the famous Crescent lake and ride in those little plane things (the name escapes me right now, but they are like hang gliders with engines and seats).
The museum here is also pretty cool (and free), and a great place to go for a crash course in the history of the place. The night market has the best kao rou I’ve had in all my time in China (though not cheap), although Shan tells me Xinjiang’s is even better, so we’ll see whether that’s changed by next week!
We also went of course to the Mogukao caves, the best preserved of the myriad of Chinese Buddhist cave complexes, despite looting by pretty much every country that ever sent archaeologists here. It’s a pretty awesome place but tourism there is not well thought out- as I was the only Johnny Foreigner around I had to join a group of 25 Chinese (all tourists are led around by a guide, all the caves are locked off otherwise) with a guide who decided to go into incredible depth about each painting/sculpture. Had I been a Theologist it would have been very enjoyable, but as a layman, I just found it to be far too much information and only really remember that one of the Buddha sculptures there is the world’s largest indoor clay Buddha. Anyway I think with a group or English speakers, and an English speaking guide who doesn’t mind giving the abridged version, it would be much more fun.
There is also a great circus/dance performance which apparently even performs in other countries(my source on that so far is a taxi driver, so I’ll have to independently confirm that). It is a good show though for a reasonable price. Lastly you can do a big tour of famous local sites including the old Han Great wall, Dunhuang film studio/ rebuilt old city, Yumen Pass and He Cang ancient city and the dissapointingly lame Yadan Landforms aka: Ghost city.
Perhaps it was my own fault for expecting too much, but when I heard “ghost city” I was imagining some abandoned city from long ago famous for ghost sightings and was ridiculously excited. Sadly, upon arrival I realised it was nothing of the sort- it was… rocks. Apparently in ancient times the unusual rock shapes and the way the wind howls at night led to the locals deciding it was where a bunch of ghosts lived and no doubt promptly declaring it as the place you had to spend the night to win the girl/ inherit you great-aunts fortune/ join the cool fraternity. To be honest I can understand how ancient people with no understanding of geological or weathering processes might come to this conclusion, but as a New Zealander, I was unimpressed, after all we have lots of rocks, and unlike Yadan I can look at them for free. Needless to say we’ll not include Yadan on the tour.
All up though I’ve really enjoyed my time here in Dunhuang and look forward to our next destination- Xinjiang- China’s wild west. Taking up one sixth of China’s total area, I have a feeling I’ll be there for a while.