Dunhuang's Hotspots 

Written by Oct 5, 2004 12:10
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The Singing Sand Dunes

After about a two-hour bus ride from Jiayuguan, we finally arrived in Dunhuang. Going to Dunhuang is like sailing thru a vast desert. Along the way there is nothing to see, but an endless sea of sand. It's amazing how the roads are well-paved! Anyways, arriving there at 7pm doesn't seem late as the sun was still far from touching the horizon. With that in mind, after checking-in, I immediately set out to see the city sites. I got into a shopping frenzy ;buying books and batiks and other stuff I can get my hands on. The items were relatively cheap and I, quite familiar with haggling, found it easy to lower the price. I finished my shopping spree sometime about 11pm, shortly when the sun went down. The things I purchased were easy to squeeze in my already bulgy backpack. I wanted to make sure that when I'm traveling, my hands are free.

OK, so what's with Dunhuang; well, it's actually the key station on the Silk Road serving as a hub of cultural interchange between China and the west during ancient times. It is located at the west end part of Gansu Province. There are so many places here to go to, but we only got to go to the two-most famous ones.

We actually had to get up at around 4:30am. At that time, I didn't know the reason why, I just followed orders. We boarded the bus shortly before 5am right after we ate our breakfast. The bus took us to a castle-like hotel and we all gathered around a campfire behind it. We were arranged into groups, and after some announcements (I couldn't make out what was being said) we marched our way thru what seemed to be a thick forest. Shortly before the break of dawn, we were able to come to a clearing; our objective, as it was beginning to be clear to me, was to reach the top of the sand dunes a few meters ahead of us. I thought it would be a piece of cake, but was I wrong! The sand dunes were only about 200m. high, but for every forward step you make, you always seem to take a step back. It took me almost an hour to reach the top crawling with both my hands and feet. It was a great morning exercise and I was able to view the sun slowly making its way up while I was resting at the top. No amount of words can describe the feeling!

Tidbits on the Mingsha Shan

At the top, you can hear various extraordinary sounds. I guess it is why the place is called Mingsha Shan (Whistling Sand Dunes). There are several explanations for the sounds. One story goes that an army was defeated here and their corpses formed a huge pile; during the night a strong wind blew and their bodies were buried instantly; however, their drums and horns are still audible. Another story says that when two armies were fighting, a great wind arose and all the soldiers were buried alive by the shifting sand. The whistling is the sound of their continued fighting. Still, another legend has it that a village here was buried by the drifting sand during a Spring Festival (much like our New Year) when all the people were celebrating the new lunar year; so the whistling sound is said to be the music of their beating drums. Of course, these stories are purely fiction, but it sure adds a lot of flavor when visiting the place. Before I decided to go down, I made sure I got some sand for souvenir. Lucky for me, I brought along an extra film case where I could put the sand in. You never know when these little things might be of use.

Going down was amazing! You can't actually slide down unless you have a smooth surfaced flat board, but you can run down and that's exactly what I did. A teacher who saw me sprint down said it was like one of those kungfu scenes where one of the characters seems to be hovering over the ground while running. It actually took me less than a minute to get down.

Another spectacular place is the Cresent-Moon Spring just a few meters from the foot of the sand dune we just climbed. It's a never-drying spring in the shape of a half-moon, hence the name. It has very clear waters and the people even made a pagoda next to it along with a small restaurant for weary climbers to put something into their stomach. As we trudged further on, we can see a series of steps placed on some of the sand dunes where other tourists can easily ascend and then slide their way back down using a wooden board; it's something you don't do or see everyday! There are also hundreds of camels with their owners waiting for customers to have a humped ride! I found some camel hair on the ground and thought they might be good souvenir aside from the sand I got. Well, for one thing, it's free and another, it's a unique souvenir!

The Mogao Grottoes

The afternoon's itinerary was what I was looking forward to. We were going to see the Mogao Grottoes also known as the Thousand Buddha Cave. It is hewn out of a steep cliff 25 km southeast of the city. It is the largest one of its kind in China being the site of one of the most priceless troves of Buddhist art the world has ever known. According to a Tang inscription, the carvings began in 366 AD by a monk named Le Zun who was traveling thru the area and saw a vision of a thousand golden Buddhas. He collected money from all around and was able to carve out the first grotto. The news spread fast and passing merchants and travelers all donated money for the construction of grottoes in hope of a safe journey. Over the next 1000 years, hundreds of caves were carved out of the steep sandstone cliff in a layered honeycomb pattern and connected together by wooden walkways and ladders. Having been included in the World Heritage List, the government made sure they were well protected. Each cave now has an identifying mark with number, date, and dynasty. The interiors of all the caves have been severely damaged by wind and water erosion and today only 492 grottoes are still standing.

Of the 492 caves, there were like only 20 open to the public when we went there. What's worse, a terrible sand storm swept over the place blowing sand everywhere. Much as I wanted to visit all the available caves, the sand entering my ears, eyes, and nose forbid me to walk further. I got to only visit about 4 or 5 of them. The first cave I went to didn't look much like anything except polished stone. As I came closer and looked up, I was dumbstruck at the magnificence of the carving. It was a Buddha statue 45 m high. From the outside, I guess all I saw was his huge belly. What's more amazing about these carvings is that on the ceiling are murals each with a story to tell. I just bought a book on the story behind some of the well-known murals and read thru it while licking a popsicle to cool me off.

I almost forgot to tell you; Dunhuang is also known for its luminous cups or Moonlight Cups. These are cups made from a kind of jade like-rock bearing beautiful patterns of green and black shading. They are paper-thin and almost transparent. What's so amazing about them is that they can be magnetized and they make a glass-like sound if you gently hit two of them together. Don't ask about the price!

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