Surviving Dunhuang Sandstorms

The Silk Road Adventure, Part III

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April 27-28

Dunhuang–As soon as we stepped off our overnight train, we were accosted with cab drivers and hostel employees promising transportation and accommodation. We climbed aboard a van with other Chinese tourists and soon we arrived at a hostel. Although we entertained ourselves by reading advice describing how to sneak into the Dunhuang Desert written in the hostel’s journal, we soon realized how inattentive the hostel was (we waited a half an hour before they even greeted us) and we wandered down the road poking our heads into several other boarding options.

Several of the other alternatives were unofficial lodging and appeared to be large apartments that the renters opened to the public to generate revenue. One woman had a bakery (that smelled amazing) in the front entrance of her “hotel,” which I though was a wonderful enticement tactic. We found her undergarments that were hanging haphazardly around the common areas and the dingy bathroom a bit unwelcoming and continued on to finally settled on a place that was shiny and new during its very first week open to the public. After negotiating a price (¥40/$6.50 USD a night) we took much needed showers and headed off to the desert.

Many attractions in the cities along the Silk Road have been modified into tourist sites and require travelers to purchase an expensive ticket for admittance. We saw the steep fee for entering the desert (yes, they charged to enter a desert) and opted to be adventurous and thrifty by sneaking in according to the instructions we saw read the hostel. After passing camels, barking dogs, and a few employees on four-wheelers, who we were sure would yell at us, we arrived at a fence. We then did what the instructions indicated: we crawled under the fence. We popped into the desert, covered in sand and lacking the neon orange shoe covers that most paying customers opted to buy, but ready to trek across the vast desert sands to reach the main concession area.

After about an hour of stumbling clumsily through the sand, we reached shelter from the mid-afternoon sun. A couple employees made snide comments in Chinese hinting at our sneaking in, but nothing more. Success for some broke, young traveling kids! We did, however, pay to slide down the sand hills and ride camels, which was definitely worth the money.

After waiting near the oasis of the desert till the stars sprinkled the blackened sky, we went to a lively night market to chow on what the northwest of China is best known for; lamb kebabs.

An employee giving Ivy a hand with her scarf

An employee giving Ivy a hand with her scarf





The sunset over the oasis

The sunset over the oasis

We woke up the next day to see the Mogao Caves, which contain some of most detailed Buddhist art spanning a period of 1,000 years. It was interesting to see the elaborate depictions and learn how thousands of artists labored over the restoration of the caves, but the site was overall a bit museum-y. As we were leaving the city and onto the next, we scurried into our cab after realizing a sandstorm had begun. This was something that is common in Dunhuang, but none of us had ever experienced before. Our shock and awe (and snapping toursit-y pictures) continued from our cab and onto our train. Little did we know, the air in our train would be filled with sand leaking through the windows. Everyone around us, even the locals were coughing and covering their faces with masks. We began worrying about breathing in so much sand, but we calmed our concerns with card games and several rounds of beer to make the most what could’ve been an agonizing five hours.

After hours of loud, inappropriate comments (part of the card game rules, I swear) the girl next to us revealed she could speak English and we realized we had just perpetuated the stereotype of loud, annoying foreigners. We ashamedly began to speak with her and after revealing that we didn’t know where we were staying once we arrived in Jiayuguan, she and her boyfriend suggested a great hotel for us to stay in. They even escorted us to the hotel once we exited the train which was so thoughtful, especially considering our previous crass behavior. After a day of breathing in sand, I was exhausted and crashed immediately upon hitting my hard hotel mattress.