Founded two millennia ago as a garrison town on the edge of the Gobi Desert, Dunhuang is rich in Silk Road history, culturally diverse, and home to some of antiquityâ€™s finest Buddhist art. Add a camel trek across sand dunes to the mix, and youâ€™ve got one of the most beguiling destinations in western China
Photographs by Philip Lee Harvey
Though Iâ€™d lived in China for years, work and inclination had rarely taken me far beyond the populous, pulsing east coast. And not once had I considered venturing into the countryâ€™s desolate northern desert regions, the Gobi and the Taklimakanâ€”the latterâ€™s Turkic name, popularly translated as â€śyou can go in, but you wonâ€™t come out,â€ť wasnâ€™t exactly the stuff of tourism slogans.
So when my friend Harvey Thomlinson, a Hong Kongâ€“based translator and history-buff, suggested we team up for a visit to an ancient frontier city situated between both deserts, I needed some convincing. â€śDunhuang is extraordinary!â€ť he insisted. Harvey had visited Dunhuang a decade previously and was planning a valedictory tour before he returned to the United Kingdom. But Iâ€™d met my fair share of old China hands besotted with some obscure place theyâ€™d visited in the heady days of puerile Sinophilia. What could we possibly find in an arid corner of one of Chinaâ€™s poorest provinces, Gansu?
All I knew of Dunhuang were the Tang Dynasty poems I had read in university. They described it as the end of the world. â€śI water my horse and cross the autumn river, the water is frigid, the wind piercing. Beyond the flat desert a weak sun sags,â€ť lamented the eighth-century scribe Wang Changling. â€śLet us finish another cup of wine, my dear sir, youâ€™ll have no chance to meet a friend beyond the Yangguan Pass,â€ť warned his contemporary Wang Wei.
Ultimately rationalizing that all travel, even the most arduous, has its rewards, I committed to enduring several hours of torment on a connecting flight through Xiâ€™an. It was during the closing minutes of our final approach to Dunhuang, when I caught my first glimpse of a green atoll lost in a spellbindingly grand sea of yellow, that I felt my reservations dissipating like the planeâ€™s vapor trail.
In the days that followed, it wasnâ€™t just the beauty of the desert that enchanted me. It was discovering the role that Dunhuang, founded in antiquity as a small garrison town at the gateway to the Silk Road, had played in shaping China itselfâ€”and in the remnants of this illustrious past still visible in cave murals or softly fading from view along the sand-soaked imperial frontier.
It was a long drive through flat, barren terrain before we came upon a series of earthen mounds. Ninety kilometers northwest of Dunhuang, the 20 sand-scoured watchtowers that protrude from the wilderness are all thatâ€™s left of this section of the Great Wall, built by Han emperors two millennia ago.
â€śYou can see why it inspired such poetry,â€ť Harvey said, looking out across a dusty plateau to the rugged mountains beyond. â€śFor the Chinese, civilization literally ended here.â€ť Indeed, it was easy to picture the Xiongnuâ€”the first of many â€śbarbarianâ€ť people to menace Chinaâ€”rushing into view across this savage landscape.
A rammed-earth fort still stands at the Jade Gate, an ancient pass that once guarded the eastern end of the Hexi Corridor. Known as the Small Fangpan Castle, the roofless, thick-walled building is testament to the reach and sophistication of Chinaâ€™s early bureaucracy. â€śDuring the Han dynasty, traders, envoys, and soldiers entering or leaving the kingdom would have their documentation processed here, just like in a modern customs offices,â€ť a chirpy guide explained.
One notable individual to depart China by way of Dunhuang was Zhang Qian. At Yangguan (Sun Gate) Passâ€”another Han border crossing a few kilometersâ€™ drive to the southwestâ€”a museum tells the story of Zhangâ€™s exploits. In the second century B.C., the expansion-minded emperor Wudi dispatched Zhang into the Western Regions (as the Chinese once called the lands beyond their realm) to try and establish trade links with kingdoms beyond the nomad-plagued wilderness. Zhang returned with the first reliable information the Chinese ever had about Central Asia, in essence opening up China to global trade. To give you a sense of what it would have been like to exit China via these ancient passes, a re-created fortress next to the Sun Gateâ€™s crumbling remains issues bamboo scroll passports to visitors, each inscribed with their name, or its Chinese equivalent. Sure, itâ€™s touristy, but it does make for a nifty souvenir.