An important trading town on the ancient Silk Route, Dunhuang is nestled deep in the eastern reaches of the Taklamakan Desert, west of the Gobi Desert, and north of the Mingsha Sand Dunes. For this reason, it was a strategic rest point for traders travelling from all directions. It is also known to be one of the first Chinese trading towns that European merchants encountered after their long and tiresome overland journeys.
In the far west of Gansu Province, bordering Xinjiang Province, Dunhuang today is by Chinese standards a very small city of around 190,000 people. It’s a pleasant city with vibrant markets and a fascinating culture. But it is what surrounds the city that is the main draw.
Approximately 25 kilometres from Dunhuang, the Mogao Grottoes are a series of caves that contain a treasure trove of ancient Buddhist art, dating back to the 4th century. It is said to be one of the most impressive collections of Buddhist art in the world, with over 2,000 painted sculptures and 45,000 square metres of murals, throughout a total of 492 caves over five levels. Reported to be one of the most impressive collection of ancient manuscripts ever discovered, what has become known as the Library Cave, housed many hundreds of scrolls, dating from the fifth to eleventh centuries.
Travel a little outside the city and the landscape becomes beautifully dramatic. Urban scenes are replaced by the towering golden sand-dunes of Mingsha. Named after the noise they apparently make in the wind, even Marco Polo commented on "the rumbling sands" as he spent time in Dunhuang on his time travelling the Silk Route. The dunes are spectacular and well worth spending time exploring, and taking in the vastness of the landscape.
Dunhuang remains a remote Chinese city, but is connected by air and rail to several major Chinese cities such as Xi’an, meaning modern travellers need not endure the hardship of weeks on the road to reach this wonderful city. A visit to Dunhuang is a must for those interested in the Silk Route and ancient Buddhist culture. It can easily be combined with other Chinese cities on a tailormade tour of China.
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