The Beautiful and Beguiling Dunhuang

  • Toursits saddled up on two-hump Bactrian camels for a trek across the singing dunes of Mingsha.

    Toursits saddled up on two-hump Bactrian camels for a trek across the singing dunes of Mingsha.

  • Pedaling down a qauiet Dunhuang road.

    Pedaling down a qauiet Dunhuang road.

  • A farmer collecting hay in the countryside surrounding Dunhuang.

    A farmer collecting hay in the countryside surrounding Dunhuang.

  • A local encounter.

    A local encounter.

  • A young buddhist monk outside a temple in Dunhuang.

    A young buddhist monk outside a temple in Dunhuang.

  • One of the town's Hui residents.

    One of the town's Hui residents.

  • The relative bustle of downtown, where a street market unfolds against a backdrop of towering sand dunes.

    The relative bustle of downtown, where a street market unfolds against a backdrop of towering sand dunes.

  • A detail of a Buddhist temple doorway.

    A detail of a Buddhist temple doorway.

  • A freight train crossing the desert from Jiuquan, following the route of the old Silk Road.

    A freight train crossing the desert from Jiuquan, following the route of the old Silk Road.

  • Incense sticks burning at a local temple.

    Incense sticks burning at a local temple.

  • The teahouse complex at Yueyaquan, or Crescent Spring, a scenic oasis in the shadow of the Mingsha sand dunes south of town.

    The teahouse complex at Yueyaquan, or Crescent Spring, a scenic oasis in the shadow of the Mingsha sand dunes south of town.

  • Part of the Mogao Caves site, where hundreds of rock-cut Buddhist grottoes are filled with frescoes and hand-molded clay sculptures.

    Part of the Mogao Caves site, where hundreds of rock-cut Buddhist grottoes are filled with frescoes and hand-molded clay sculptures.

  • An ornate gate at the Mogao Caves.

    An ornate gate at the Mogao Caves.

  • A rocky desert landscape flanks the road into Dunhuang in northwestern Gansu province.

    A rocky desert landscape flanks the road into Dunhuang in northwestern Gansu province.

  • A temple facade at Mogao Caves is set directly into the sandstone cliff face.

    A temple facade at Mogao Caves is set directly into the sandstone cliff face.

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After a day admiring the ruins of imperial China’s first great epoch, Harvey and I were weary and famished. A few minutes later we were seated beneath a grape arbor sipping the local red wine and gorging on hearty bowls of noodles. The Han bureaucrats knew where to build their frontier fortifications—next to reliable water sources. The desert spring adjacent to the Sun Gate feeds Longle village, a.k.a. Grape Valley, a verdant settlement of farms, vineyards, and guesthouses. Seated amid such lushness beside streams of crystalline water, the scrubland hidden behind the leafy vines, we couldn’t have felt farther from the desert.

The fabled caravans of the Silk Road navigated from oasis to oasis through some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth. We’d already gotten an idea of what life might have been like for a soldier posted on the empire’s edge. But what about the caravan drivers whose business it was to stray far beyond civilization’s gaze? After a day spent walking around Dunhuang—a relatively low-rise and uncongested city by Chinese standards, set around the life-giving Dang River—we headed out to Dunhuang Yardang National Geopark before sunset to get a taste of the desert in its most pristine state.

“We call it the Ghost Town,” our sun-bronzed driver said after a half-hour of sliding and jerking our jeep across black sands. Exhibiting the wide-eyed excitement of a first-time tourist, he sprung from his seat to catch the sun setting behind a particularly bizarre collection of rock formations. A Dunhuang local, he told me he had worked in the park for several years. “I left Gansu to find work, but came back. I can’t give up all of this.”

“All of this” is 400 square kilometers of pure wilderness. Its only inhabitants are gigantic slabs of bedrock—relics of an ancient ocean floor that more than 700,000 years of wind and sand erosion had crafted into strange and enchanting shapes. Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who surveyed the Gobi in 1927, first reported on the phenomenon. It was Hedin who coined the name yardang, taken from the Turkic word for “steep bank.” Notable outcroppings have been named for their fanciful shapes—Peacock, Stone Bird, the Golden Lion Welcoming His Guests. The Uighur people native to neighboring Xinjiang province called this outlandish landscape Aisikexiaer, meaning “old city.” It was perhaps an ironic name, as many great cities of antiquity have been lost to the mercilessly shifting Gobi sands.

“If I spent too long out here I’d return to civilization having dreamed up a new religion,” remarked Harvey from one of the brittle mounds onto which he’d climbed. The sentiment was not lost on me. To feel alone in the most populous nation on earth is a rare sensation. Except for our small entourage, there was not a soul in sight.

The spectacle of the stars in the desert sky only enhanced the existential pondering that the yardang formations had provoked. Staring at such a firmament, it’s hard not to dwell on the cosmos and man’s relationship to it. No wonder the Judaeo-Christian faiths had came out of a desert to conquer the hearts and minds of Western civilization, I thought. For it was from here too, the gentle Indian religion Buddhism and later, sword-wielding Islam marched into China, leaving their indelible imprint on the Celestial Kingdom.

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