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Crescent Lake
Crescent Lake

Dunhuang is a county-level city (pop. 187,578 (2000)) in northwestern Gansu province, Western China. It was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road. It was also known at times as Shazhou, or 'City of Sands', "or Dukhan as the Turkis call it." It is best known for the nearby Dunhuang Caves.

Dunhuang until the early Qing Dynasty, is a city in Jiuquan, Gansu province, China. It was a major stop on the ancient Silk Road. It was also known at times as Shachou, or 'City of Sands'. It is situated in a rich oasis containing Crescent Lake and Mingsha Shan, "Echoing-Sand Mountain". Mingsha Shan is so named for the sound of the wind whipping off the dunes, the singing sand phenomenon.It commands a very strategic position at the crossroads of the ancient Southern Silk Route and the main road leading from India via Lhasa to Mongolia and Southern Siberia, as well as controlling the entrance to the narrow Gansu Corridor which led straight to the heart of the north Chinese plains and the ancient capitals of Chang'an and Luoyang.

The Mogao Grottoes
The Mogao Grottoes

Top Attractions in Dunhuang

The Mogao Grottoes near the city of Dunhuang represent the preeminent Buddhist grotto site in China, surpassing both the Yungang Grottoes site and the Longmen Grottoes site in cultural-historical significance. In addition to Buddhist art, the Mogao Grottoes include works belonging to Taoism, Confucianism and Nestorian Christianity, as well as to Zoroastrianism. In addition, Mogao includes the so-called Scripture Cave that was hidden behind a wall until it was discovered early in the 20th century. Even though many of the original manuscripts, referred to as the Dunhuang Manuscripts, belonging to the Scripture Cave "library" were carted off by foreigners - such as the Hungarian-born British archeologist, Sir Marc Aurel Stein - many remain, while the missing originals have been duplicated.

Echoing-Sand Mountain: Five kilometers south of Dunhuang City, Echoing-Sand Mountain is the accumulation of years of sand in the size of rice. Each time the wind blows, there is a sound from the mountain and when there is a breeze, the sound is like musical instruments, hence the name. The most marvelous experience is when after climbing to the top, although quite strenuous, one can slide down to the foot of the mountain, a wonderfully amusing experience!

The Yangguan Pass of Great Wall
The Yangguan Pass of Great Wall

Crescent Lake: Five kilometers southwest of Dunhuang, the Crescent Lake lies in the arms of Echoing-Sand Mountain, appearing clear and beautiful. The lake is crescent-shaped, hence the name. It's surrounded by quicksand. Although it's quite windy sometimes, the lake has never been covered by the sand. It's really a marvelous spectacle in the desert.

The Western Thousand Buddhas Caves, also a Buddhist grotto site located near Dunhuang, has been subjected to extensive restoration, since repeated flooding of the Dang River washed away the front section of many of the caves, while other caves are believed to have been washed away entirely. Since the caves and art work of the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves appear more primitive than that of the Mogao Grottoes, experts believe that the former cave complex predates the latter, i.e., that the lessons learned in creating the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves was put to good use when the Dunhuang area's community of monks and artisan-monks decided to create the Mogao Grottoes. If this is true, then a true appreciation of the Mogao Grottoes can only be obtained by first viewing the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves

The Echoing Sands Mountain
The Echoing Sands Mountain

Yanmen Pass: Situated 90 kilometers (about 55.9 miles) northwest of Dunhuang City, the Yumen Pass was an important gateway to the western region in ancient times. Yumen Pass, Hecang Town and Han Great Wall (Han Dynasty), are the major sights in this area. Since the Yangguan Pass and the Yumen Pass are a distance from Dunhuang, one can have a feel for the desolation of western China. Yangguan Pass is relatively closer to the city and a comparatively smoother ride. Taxis can be hired for the hour drive and it is wise to stay away from minibuses, as the fare is greater.

The Yulin Grottoes: While the Mogao Grottoes and the Western Thousand Buddhas Caves are situated in the vicinity of the city of Dunhuang, the Yulin Grottoes are situated farther afield, namely, about 100 kilometers east and slightly south of Dunhuang, or about 75 kilometers south and slightly east of the city of Anxi. The construction of the Yulin Grottoes is believed to have begun roughly during the same broad time frame as the other two grotto complexes, namely, during the Northern Wei (CE 386-533) Dynasty, one of the five states of the Northern Dynasties (386-588) Period. The Yulin Grottoes' claim to fame, as it were, is the fact that some of its grotto art stems from the Tangut period, or the period of rule of the Western Xia (CE 1038-1227) Dynasty. The Tangut take on Buddhism, if you will, is based on a mix of both Chinese and Tibetan Buddhism, sprinkled with elements of the ancient, pre-Buddhist, pre-Confucian, pre-Taoist animism, or the belief that all things in nature, animate or inanimate, possess a spirit

Yangguan Pass: Located 70 kilometers (about 43.5 miles) southwest of Dunhuang, the Yangguan Pass is the gateway to the south western region on the way to the Silk Road. The beacon tower is all that remains of the Pass. Near the Yangguan Pass is Nanhu, a local grape producing area and Grape Gallery. Tourists can sit on the stone benches, sample the sweet grapes and wander through the gallery to learn about local folk-customs.

Climate of Dunhuang

Dunhuang, being surrounded by high mountains, has an arid, continental climate. The annual average temperature is 9.3oC (48.7oF), but ranges from 24.7oC (76.5oF) in July to 9.3oC (15oF) in January. Dunhuang is extremely hot in summer and bitterly cold in winter. Precipitation occurs only in trace amounts and quickly evaporates.

How to get Dunhuang

By Plane: Dunhuang Airport (IATA: DNH) is 13km east of town center. Flights are available to Beijing, Lanzhou, Urumqi, and Xian.

By Train: Dunhuang Train Station is about 12km outside the town to the northeast. There is also a ticket agent in town, across the street from Dunhuang Hotel, which sells tickets for most trains. Travel times and train numbers for departures from Dunhuang:
Jiayuguan - #7528, departing at 16:10, arriving at 21:49
Lanzhou - #N858, dep. 19:25, arr. 09:14
Urumqi - #T216, dep. 20:44, arr. 10:48 (as of September 2009 no trains were running on the branch line to Dunhuang)
Xian - #K592, dep. 09:39, arr. 09:26
Yinchuan - #N854, dep. 14:30, arr. 08:27

By Bus: Dunhuang has two bus stations diagonally across from each other. Most frequent buses leave from the main bus station and not the long distance bus station.