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.