China 11 – Silk Road 08 – Circus in the Desert

Full photo set @ flickr

Lesson #2 in not holding romanticised ideals of places I’d read about and seen in old photos …

The Crescent Moon lake was an important stopping off point on the Silk Road and the principle reason for the existence of Dunhuang back in the day. Crescent Moon lake … because it’s the shape of a crescent moon … Singing Sands mountains, because the sand makes a long mournful moaning sand when the wind shifts it, said to be the cries of the souls of those who perished trying to cross the desert. Not that you’d hear today as the place is abuzz with camel ride touts, quad bikes, micro-lites and helicopter joy rides.

I wanted to go up mid afternoon, in the 45 degree sun, which the locals told me I was mad to consider. “Go at sunset, that’s when everyone goes there”. That was about all the encouragement I needed to go there and then. It was busy but comparitively quiet compared with what was to come, but with a bit of effort I could still get relatively away from it all. By “bit of effort”, I mean climb a 300 metre high dune during the hottest part of the desert afternoon. Nothing a few litres of water couldn’t put right …

From the top is a view back to the dusty city of Dunhuan and the tourist mecca below. In the opposite direction, endless tracts of massive dunes stretching off beyond the distance. I stayed long enough to watch the shadows lengthen and the colours become deeper, which was about the time the wave hit below and thousands started to pour in. Exit stage left. Time to head into town and try out the lamb’s penis kebabs.

China 10 – Silk Road 07 – Ancient Grottoes #2

Full photo set @ flickr

Near to Dunhuang is the UNESCO protected Mogao Caves. Started by a Buddhist monk some 1000 years ago after he came across the oasis here, it grew to over 700 intensely painted and carved shrines hacked into the cliff face.

The level of detail and scale of it is mind boggling, particularly when you think of the crude implements and technology they had at their hands to create this. Amongst this is the now second largest Buddha in the world (promoted after the Taliban blew up the Bamiyan giant Buddha’s in Afghanistan). There’s a powerful sense of history and timelessness inside the caves, hard to put into words.

The miracle of this place is that it survives at all – not from the elements (the bone dry climate here is perfect for preservation). Muslim travellers and local rulers took offence at images of deities and portrayal of human and animal forms (prohibited in the Koran) and promptly gouged the eyes out of everything they could reach. In the early 1920’s, White Russians fleeing the Bolsheviks came down into this region and, having no food or money, began ransacking everything they could lay their hands on – modern day Hun. The newly formed Republican guard rounded them up and, in their infinite wisdom, decided to use the caves as a prison. The White Russians being orthodox also took offence at the portrayal of heretical images of worship and began to destroy the images, also largely motivated by the extensive use of gold leaf throughout. Once they had been dealt with, the first academics moved in and found a hidden cave containing ancient scrolls dating back to the origins of the caves themselves. Lacking any funds to preserve and study the cave, the local commissar promptly sold them off to anyone who would have them at bargain basement prices only to appear in later years in private collections and museums across the world.

An unexpected bonus of Mogao Caves (and something I’m in full support of being spread across the rest of China) are that the ubiquitous tour leader loud hailers are banned here, tour groups have closed system headsets to listen to their commentaries on. The result, a blissful hush everywhere. Fortunately, I was the only honky in town that day so got my own private English speaking guide to show me around.

Photography inside is forbidden, but here are some photos plagiarised from Google to get some sense of the interior (which don’t come anywhere close to the sense of wonder you get walking through these caves but it’s the best I can do considering …).

China 09 – Silk Road 06 – Into the Desert

Full photo set @ flickr

The bus continues out into the far desert along a rough road. We arrive at the Yan Dan desert area not long before sunset and as a series of thunderclouds roll through.

The low glowing sun makes for some amazing shapes and colours under the dark clouds. There’s a selfie-fest going on with the other members of the bus, but it’s easy to wander a short distance and enjoy the scene unfold in some peace and solitude. The vastness of the desert out here is incredible.

China 08 – Silk Road 05 -The Outer Limits

Full photo set @ flickr

I’ve arrived in Dunhuang, remote outpost of the ancient Chinese empire beyond the wall (ignore that city of several hundred thousand just over there). Frontier country in the old Silk Road days. The Han Dynasty built part of the Great Wall out here sometime back in the 6th Century or thereabout, subsequent emperors retreated due to the fierceness of the climate and the local Hun.

I’ve taken a tour to get to some of the more remote and interesting sites out of town. The heat is on, it’s somewhere in the mid 40’s and things are starting to shimmer.

First stop is to “Old Dunhuang”, the original old walled city. Well, it was until half of it was demolished to make room for a movie studio and the rest completely rebuilt so that anything original is buried deep underneath. Still a good place for a wander, get some sort of idea of life back in the day I guess.

Not-so-old Dunhuang

We move out to Yanguang Pass, an old garrison and lookout post (looking out over some of the most unforgiving and relentless desert stretching out into the horizon … leaves me wondering who was insane enough to be riding out across that), and guarding a nearby strategic oasis. There’s still the remains of an old sentry building on top of the hill nearby with commanding views across the sea of rocky sand spreading beyond the eye’s reach. There’s the option of an electric cart to whick you up to the top and back, I opt to just walk up which the other tourists take to mean I’m verging on insane. I want to ge an appreciation for the conditions people endured out here or something … or maybe I just don’t like being herded into sardine can compression under blaring speakers. One of the two.


Beyond that we find an odd pyramidal shaped outpost building overlooking a sizeable oasis in the middle of nowhere, and the final remains of the original Han Dynasty Great Wall poking out like nub ends in the endless sand. Impressive that this was an earth mound wall built 1600 years ago. Wait … wasn’t Jaiyaguan, 600km to the east, touted as the “end of the Great Wall”?

China 07 – Silk Road 04 – The End of the Line

Full photo set @ Flickr

Jiayaguan sits out in the desert or Western Gansu and was either greeted with jubilation or tredidation by the Silk Road caravans. This was the furthest reach of the Ming era Great Wall. Coming from the West it meant at last they were out of bandit territory in the untamed barbarian lands stretching thousands of kilometres to Persia and were now in the relative security of Imperial China, along with all the luxuries of life that an established local trade route brings. Leaving Imperial China, there was a fair chance that this was to be the last bit of civilisation you might see.

The huge Jiayaguan Fort was the garrison where Chinese armies would ride out to more remote outposts and to quell incursions by marauding hordes. I’d seen plenty of photos of the fort, seemingly in a far flung forgotten corner, slowly being reclaimed by the shifting sands and had romanticised having to travel through some wild country on precarious transport to reach there and have the run of the place more or less to myself.

First lesson in not romaticising historic places in China: a bullet train brought me into town at a leisurely 200kmh where I could hop straight into a taxi to whisk me off to the Great Wall and fort where several thousand Chinese tourists had had the same intentions, arriving by the busload with flag waving tour guides and loud-hailers. It’s possible there were more selfie-sticks in operation than there were guards in the Ming Imperial Army. The fort is completely rebuilt, as is the “last stretch of Wall”, the only remnants of the original in view stretched away from the fort towards the mountains, where it’s been bisected by high speed rail links and motorways.

Jiayaguan itself is no dusty village – 300,000 people and a lot of heavy industry. Kind of killed that romanticised ideal as I turned from the top of the Great Wall to gaze out on the lonely desert …

I’m still working on learning that lesson …

China 06 – Silk Road 03 – Rainbow Rocks

Full photo set @ flickr

Not far from Zhangye is an area of desert known as the Danxia Rainbow Rocks. No prizes for guessing the origin of that name … take hundreds of metres deep of tightly packed rock layers, paint each a different colour, then bend, shape and sculpt it all into a fantastical landscape. The finshed product is Danxia.

For some added zest, throw in some mighty electrical storms with nowhere to shelter and you make for an afternoon well spent.