The Deepest Blues Are Black in Dunhuang

Dunhuang, located in the Hexi corridor, greeted Thomas and me with a beautiful sunrise upon arriving at the train station. This railway line is actually very new and not in any of the guidebooks. It is one of the many infrastructure improvements I have encountered so far in China. The station building is located about 4km from the town center, a minibus runs irregularly to downtown Dunhuang for about 3 Yuan. Nevertheless, we opted to share a taxi which dropped us in front of a hotel. A twin room (“standard room”) was advertised for about 280 Yuan and we managed to bring that price down to 80 Yuan. This is quite amazing, since the per person cost was the same as the price for a bed in a dormitory room in a major city.

White Horse Pagoda

Later that day, we went to visit the White Horse Pagoda, a nice stroll for about three kilometers. Since Thomas also has a GPS device – a real “Garmin”, I had to challenge him with my Nokia E61, plus Bluetooth-GPS. We both marked the way point for the start of our journey. But here’s the catch: None of our guidebooks (Thomas uses a German translation of the “Rough guide”, while I am using the Lonely Planet one) features GPS coordinates for sights. This actually might be very useful for smaller towns – like Dunhuang – where the small scribbly map doesn’t cover the places to go.

So we set off for the Pagoda, knowing only that we had to walk 3km to the West. After about 6km, we decided to start asking people for the exact way. Not too bad thinking that men usually never bother asking for directions. Unfortunately, none of our guidebooks would give the name of the sight in Chinese and I finished by downloading a picture – using the GPRS connection of my Nokia E61 – asking directions by showing the image to people. To our surprise this worked very well with the Chinese who pointed us then into the right direction. From that place back, we tried to use the way points taken before the stroll to make out the winner of the GPS devices. Mine won. (Don’t read Thomas’ blog as he might not agree with my view of the winning).

The entrance fees, however, are a mixed bag of experience in Dunhuang. Aside of the Pagoda, the main attractions are the Mogao Caves and the Sand Mountain. All of these attractions charge entrance fees that are not short of any major Chinese attraction, such as the Terracotta Warriors in Xi’an. Moreover, the sand dunes are overexploited by the tourism business – even for my standards (and I am usually not really picky about touristic places).

Mogao Caves

The complete area of the Dunes is separated by a fence to make sure you’d have to pay to go to the Dunes. Once you enter, you’d have a choice to walk up a well-prepared path (with stairs) or get carried up by a golf cart. We opted to take some pictures from in front the fence and save the entrance fee for the next day’s big attraction: The Mogao Caves.

We set out to these caves on the second day where I paid the most expensive entrance fee so far for any of tourist places visited on my journey. There are about 500 caves featuring Buddhist art of the last 1000 years. There are only a small number (20 caves or so) which are open at a given time. Even this small number of caves already contains quite an astonishing sampling of ancient history and the entrance fee was definitely well spent. However, to get access to the caves, you’d have to go with a tour (where the guide unlocks the cave doors and gives some explanations). We still managed to save some money: We decided to go with the Chinese tour for 160 Yuan – instead of paying an extra 20 Yuan to have the foreign language guided tour.

View from the Mogao Caves over the Desert

Unfortunately, it is absolutely and strictly forbidden to take any pictures inside the caves, which was a bit of a put off. Google Image Search provides quite a lot of photographs of tourists having sneaked cameras into the caves. We didn’t manage to find an unattended moment there to take pictures. Therefore, posting black pictures of the caves’ content would have been an appropriate illustration of our disappointment about the photography rules. But I chose blue skies instead – because overall, the Mogao Caves are worth the visit and the money. And after all – we were allowed to keep this fascinating place in our minds’ memories.