Discover the best of Dunhuang with our guide to this ancient Silk Road trading city. Here are our picks for must-see attractions, best things to eat, as well as some WildChina flourishes to make your journey even more memorable.
For monks, merchants, and artists traveling along the legendary Silk Road, the sight of the small and unimposing city of Dunhuang in northern Gansu, hailed a significant crossroads. For those traveling from the East, Dunhuang was their last rest-stop before venturing into the vast and inhospitable Taklaman desert. For those who had already made the treacherous journey, the city marked a return (for the time being) to safer paths. The traditions, temples and Buddhist art that these travelers left behind make Dunhuang one of China’s most culturally rich travel destinations. Here are our tips for getting the most out of your trip:
Must Visit Sites
The Mogao Grottoes
Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987
The tens of thousands of paintings and carvings that fill these caves document hundreds of years of life along the Silk Road. You can trace the development of artistic style over the course of time as you move through the caves, and follow the changing forms of Buddhism practiced in the region. The Mogao Grottoes are home to some of the best preserved cave murals in China along with endless intricately detailed frescoes, sculptures and terracotta statues that date back as early as 400AD.
Why visit with WildChina? Enjoy private access to caves normally closed to the public accompanied by WildChina Expert Director Wang, the director of the Dunhuang Academy.
The Taklaman Desert and the Mingsha Dunes
Marco Polo made the trip so, so should you
Taklamakan translates literally as “Once you go in, you won’t come out!” and for the Silk Road traders, the path they took through the desert was one the most hazardous parts of their journey. Stand upon the 300m sand dunes that Polo dubbed as the ‘Rumbling sands’ and listen to them ‘roar’ as the wind blows.
Barter with one of the local camel herders for a ride to the Crescent Moon Lake, a small oasis amid the sand. Known to locals as the ‘First Lake under heaven’ the natural fresh water lake is believed the have existed for over 2,000 years.
Why travel with WildChina? Watch the sun go down over Marco Polo’s ‘Rumbling sands’ with a glass of champagne in your hand as your WildChina hosts prepare a delicious private BBQ dinner for you in the desert.
The Yumenguan pass (The Jade Gate)
The ancient gateway to Dunhuang
The Yumenguan Pass was located in the westernmost extension of the Great Wall. The wall was built as an ancient stronghold during the Han Dynasty to protect against Hun invasion but the gate came into its own as an important trading post. Every caravan, merchant, trader and their horses traveling to Dunhuang were required to pass through. Today only the small square fortress remains but remnants of the Great Wall can be spotted far into the distance.
Why travel with WildChina? Learn more about the area with WildChina Expert William Lindesay, author of “Alone on the Great Wall” and a leader in efforts to preserve the Great Wall.
Must Eat Food
Langzhou Lamian (Hand-pulled noodles)
The province’s most famous cuisine
You can slurp a bowl full at Dunhuang’s night market which serves them up alongside an engaging slice of local life. Get an insider’s look at Dunhuang culture and breathe in the thick aroma of barbecued lamb kebabs before picking up some local wares – many of which will be hand-made right in front of your eyes.
More time in Gansu?
- • Head south to the Danxia Landform in Zhangye where tectonic activity has created a unique, multi-colored topography
- • Get off the beaten track and visit the Horse’s hoof temple 马蹄寺. These Tibetan style hanging grottoes offer fewer murals than Mogao Caves but also fewer tourists.
- • Make your way down to the south of Gansu province, where you can spend a weekend at the luxury camping site, Norden Camps, for a taste of nomadic life on the plains.