Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Day 9 - Dunhuang

After a night a relaxing and hoping for some good weather, we found our way up to the rooftop restaurant for the breakfast buffet. The weather was a little cool, but it looked to be a fairly clear day.

Hotel rooftop restaurant looking towards the sand dunes.

About a 90 minute drive out of Dunhuang is the westernmost section of China's Great Wall, so we called an audible and added this to our itinerary. We drive out into the desert to look at the old Han Dynasty's version of the wall, built from 206 BCE to 220 CE (This is Before Current Era and Current Era - as over here they aren't big on the whole Jesus as the basis of a calendar thing...).
It is well worn, but I suppose that 2200 years could do that, and it was interesting to see the old structures built up with dirt, stones, and weeds (one site I read classified them as - layers of packed earth, separated by reed mats or tamarisk branches). You could still see the layers that had be stacked up as the wind does it best to return it to the desert floor.
There were also remnants of the huge beacon towers that were located every 4-5 Km along the wall.

From the area of the wall that we looked at it was only a short drive over to the former Jade Gate Pass which was the main customs entrance/exit to the Han empire back in the day. Apparently this had been covered with jade tiles, but for some reason over the years those were removed and all that was left was a gigantic earthen square building.
On the side that was outside the wall there was a river and an area of green that stood out from the rest of the desert surroundings, this is where the silk road led everyone - what better location to place a large government run toll-booth.

Once we finished with viewing these old ruins we headed towards the Mogao Caves, these are the caves that our friends told us to visit when the read about them in Conde Naste.

When we pulled up our guide told us that no photos were allowed inside, but that the color was amazing and worth it to see. She also explained that she wouldn't come in with us since the entry fee includes local knowledgeable guides. We bought our ticket, somewhat disappointed, and set out to take photos of the front that we could see before we went through the main gate.
The outside view of some of the caves, the front structure covers a 36m Buddha, which is one of the oldest and largest in the world. Further down is a 24m one and then a 17m lying statue. I think other then those three main caves the other rotate throughout the year so that none get too much traffic.
From the outside it just looks lie some sort of fancy cave-side resort complex. They have done a lot of work to protect the caves, so most of the southern caves have been built up and protected. Our guide took us to 11 caves, some different then the other guides were going to, and all amazing with the amount of color that was still inside of them. The rooms are tight to move around it, especially when full with people, and you need a flashlight to really be able to see. The old colors that most of the people are painted with has oxidized leaving the photos an eerie black...
This is a replica room set up in the museum (remember no photos), but it shows how they looked.
Cave entrances on the north side of the site.

When we finished we were duly impressed, and understood how it would have been a nightmare if people were trying to take photos, it's too dark, and the floor space is too small for the number of people. So at least this way they don't have people being disappointed that their photos didn't come out. I would suggest plexiglass doors on the cave entrances so people could look into them, shine their light in, as they passed just to see something more. Actually, what I think would really help everyone would be for them to offer photo tours at an elevated ticket price - only 4 groups of 4 people (or less) an hour and going to caves other then the main ones on the tour. I know that Tina and I would have gladly paid a lot more to have the time to set up the tripod and take some proper photos, it really is that impressive inside.

Done with the caves we headed back to see the sand dunes...
Nice, it's a sand dune. We decided not to pay the 220RMB entrance fee to climb up or take a camel ride, seeing as we didn't care that much and didn't want to worry about getting all that nice sand up in our cameras. But it was a loss as we didn't get to wear the nice "sand-proof your shoes" boots.
So back to the city center for dinner, Dunhuang has quite the setup for food vendors. Apparently the city flooded in '79 and destroyed pretty much everything so they had a chance to do things right, and now there is a new mayor who is really making changes and organizing the city so that the residents are happy and it caters well to all of the tourists that they rely on.

We wandered the small packed food stalls for a while and then sat down on some seats that were being set up out in the courtyard, where for a 10RMB sitting fee they will run to any of the restaurants you want and get food. We ate an excellent "Marco Polo" style burger of a spicy shredded beef packed into pita style bread, actually we ate two.
Mom & son setting up their seats for the night.
A finished seating area.

After dinner we wandered a little, then stopped to buy a pomello and some beers before heading back to the hotel.

The next day was our final day, we slept in and left Dunhuang by 09:00, enjoyed a quick layover in Xi'an which I'll write about later when we run low on post material, and were back home in Xiamen around nightfall.

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