May 12-13, 2009

With our visas extended, we left Golmud and headed north to Dunhuang.

The road we took is technically off-limits to tourists.  No problem, though, there’s an easy workaround – before getting our bus tickets we first had to purchase a 1-day “resident” card; we picked it up at the same police station.

Sand Dunes

Dunhuang sits in the middle of desert – the Gobi desert.  If you walk to the edge of town you run into huge sand dunes.  Pnina and I didn’t expect to find sand dunes here in China, but hey, it’s a big country, they have a little of everything here.

It took about an hour to walk to the dunes, and as much as possible we tried to stay off the main road.  We found some interesting small patches of farm and village homes along the way.

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Notice the use of plastic below; we think it’s used to trap more of the water in the soil; it’s amazing they’re able to grow anything from sand:

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A few of the sand dunes are fenced off into a park, and to enter this park you need to pay about $15 admission.  Pnina thought it was stupid to pay to see these sand dunes when there are so many others all around.  So, at first we tried to walk around the perimeter, looking for a way around the fence.  But you gotta hand it to the Chinese, they made it difficult for freeloaders like us to enter.  After following the fence for at least 500 meters we decided to drop the idea.

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Looking at some of the dunes through the fence:

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Shaking sand out of our shoes after aborting “operation cheapskate”:

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Then I made the call that it’s equally stupid to spend so much money getting to China only to go cheap when it comes to paying a $15 ticket.  So we forked over the money and entered.  And in the end it turned out to be good fun.  Local tourists come here in bus-fulls.  They all pay extra for orange booties to keep the sand out of their shoes.  Some also pay for camel rides.  The focal point in this park is a moon-shaped pond that sits in the nook between several sand dunes.  It’s a very strange sight – shouldn’t the sand soak up all that water??  Anyhow, Pnina and I wandered around the temple by the crescent pool, and then we huffed and puffed our way up the huge sand dune.  The way down was a blast.

Chinese tourists in their orange booties:

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A group of tourists making their way up one of the larger dunes:

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Camels for hire; they were double-humped and much shorter than the single-hump camels we saw in Egypt:

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The crescent pond and its temple:

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For a small fee you could slide down the sand dune in a small bamboo sled:

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And the workers do the hard work of hauling the sleds back up.  Notice this guy is going  up a set of stairs, which at least makes the climb a little easier.  Tourists have to pay extra to use these stairs:

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Pnina and I stayed cheap and climbed up the old fashioned way.  Here we are finally at the top:

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And much more fun – running downhill (and trying to protect my camera):

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Shops in the City

In the evening we wandered around central Dunhuang.  There were a bunch of shops and street-stands, some of them selling tourist junk, and some of them selling interesting arts/crafts.

Popular Dunhuang tourist junk – stuffed camels:

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An interesting statue in one of the artist shops.  The peanut-looking thing is made of stone.  The branch is metal and the base is wood:

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Lots and lots of beautiful rocks for sale.  Too bad rocks are about the worst kind of gift to pick up when you’re trying to keep your backpack light!

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Intricate drawings on hollowed “pumpkin” shells.  We loved this stuff:

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These pictures are actually hand-made silk embroidery:

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Mogao Caves

The biggest attraction near Dunhuang are the Mogao Caves.  They’re a series of rooms carved into the side of a cliff, each of which decorated with Buddhist frescos.  Some of the rooms contain statues of various sizes.  There are several sites like this in China, but from what we hear this one is the biggest and best-preserved.

A bit of history from our Rough Guide book to put some context around this…

In the 2nd century BC China was completely cut off from the rest of the world.  In 139 BC the emperor sent out a delegation westward to investigate other lands and to try to find allies in his fight against marauders to the north.  The delegation returned 13 years later with no alliances.  But the stories they told of lands beyond (including Persia  and the Mediterranean) sparked the court’s interest.  Soon the emperor sent out more delegations to purchase horses for military purposes, and from these beginnings trade soon developed.  The west provided cucumbers, figs, chives, sesame, walnuts, grapes (and winemaking), wool, linen and  ivory.  In return China traded jade, porcelain, oranges, peaches, roses, chrysanthemum, cast iron, gunpowder, the crossbow, paper and printing, and most importantly – silk.  The Chinese managed to keep the secret of domesticated silkworms for many centuries, and this monopoly provided huge fortunes from the silk-crazed societies to the west, including the Romans.  The silk road, as it came to be known, served as a passage not just for goods but also for ideas, of which the most influential was Buddhism.  The spread of Buddhism began in the 1st century; by the 4th century it was the official religion of much of northern China, and by the 8th century it was accepted throughout the empire.

So what does that have to do with Dunhuang?  Well, if you look at the map of China you’ll notice that Dunhuang sits in the western edge of Gansu province, a province that has a very funny bone-shape.  The reason Gansu is shaped like this is that it sits between two mountain ranges.  This path, called the Hexi corridor, marked the start of the silk road heading westward.  Or, to be fair there were actually many silk road routes, with some routes going further south through India and some routes heading further north (one way or another you want to avoid the Tibetan plateau).  So the Hexi corridor marked the start of the northern route.  Anyhow, the point is that many people passed through Dunhuang and carried their Buddhist ideas, which is why it’s not surprising to find a big Buddhist cave complex here.

The caves were developed over many centuries, which is what makes them interesting to art historians – you can see the evolution of architecture and painting styles.  The caves were deserted for a long time until a wandering monk decided to undertake restoration in 1900.  In 1907 a British scout came upon the spot and negotiated to purchase 7000 ancient manuscripts for 130 pounds.  Later that year a French scout picked up another six thousand manuscripts and paintings which he shipped back to the Louvre.  So, before the Chinese government knew what was going on, all this treasure was out of the country.  Today the Chinese are pressing for the return of cultural items, including all these manuscripts.  Their claim may be legitimate, though it’s interesting to note that if these manuscripts stayed in China, they may have been destroyed in one of the several revolutions that China experienced in the 20th century.

OK, enough history…

There’s no way to wander through the caves on your own.  The only way to go is to join a tour, where the tourguide selects about 10 of the several hundred caves to view.  But 10 caves is plenty, and at least in our case the guide chose some good ones.  The biggest cave (#96) has a pagoda-like scaffold in the front and houses a really enormous Buddha statue.  Another good one is #148, which has a smaller but more detailed lying Buddha.

A small diorama showing the Mogao Cave complex.  You can see the cave 96 “pagoda” top center:

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A recreation of one of the caves, in the museum next-door.  Photography was not allowed in the actual caves, so I photographed this one to give you an idea of how they looked inside (and after taking this photo I realized that photography is not allowed in the museum either, oops):

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Me standing in front of the scaffolding for cave #96, the cave with the huge Buddha statue:

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A picture of the huge Buddha from that cave (this picture was on the cover of a book in the gift shop):

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This photo shows the area just outside the Mogao Cave site, where you can see more caves in their natural state (without doors/scaffolding):

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Bonus Shots

Lots of bonus shots for you this time…

While traveling in China we found a bunch of really strange mannequins, so I started a collection.  More to come…

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We decided it would be a good idea to get more passport photos, and China was a cheap place to do it (I think it cost $2 for 16 photos, or something like that).  We found it interesting that they always use a red background.  But I guess it makes sense – red flag, red passport photos, red everything.

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And finally, spelling mistakes.  We saw *lots* of spelling mistakes while traveling around China, but we still found it surprising to see mistakes engraved in stone.  Isn’t it worthwhile to pay some English speaker to spell-check the text before you spend lots of money for a fancy sign??

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BTW, we loved this one in particular because “pooc” in Hebrew means “fart”.


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