Yardangs and Buddhist temples at Dunhuang
20 October 2009 - The windscreen was frozen up in the morning and we were glad to have our cold-weather gear; we crossed the main street to have breakfast in a cafe opposite. There was a solid-fuel stove inside which kept us warm and kept the rice soup boiling. Menu highlights were the crispy-fried doughnuts accompanied by boiled eggs, all eaten with chopsticks.
Our route took us northwest through the mountains. We reached 3,670 m altitude. The desert area of Lop Nor and the Wild Camel reserve lay to our east and the snow-clad 20,000ft Altun mountains lay to our south. It was a rewarding drive with fine-ridged dunes telling tales of whispering winds... We saw camels, ptarmigan (the Chinese call them 'snow chickens') and several mounted nomads herding large flocks of sheep across brown, barren upland valleys.
We reached Dunhuang, a great historic trading post on the Silk Road where traders were faced with two risky decisions - to proceed north around the Taklamakan Desert, a route described by Ghengis Khan as 'hostile and ghostly', or the southerly route from where we had just travelled. Both were full of dangers, not to mention bandits, and many traders and their beasts perished to the unkown demands of this hostile desert. Dunhuang is now a well presented and colourful town, sunny and warm after our mountain journey. We had a spicy Sichuan dinner to celebrate our arrrival.
21 October 2009 - We travelled to the Mogao Caves nearby to visit one of the great centres of early Buddhism. Nothing prepares us for the size, variety and quality of the 800 - 1,000 year old temples. They are all hewn out of solid rock and most are high up on the cliff-face where we need to ascend steps to reach them. Sculpture and paintings reside on a backdrop of carefully worked design in an endless series of symmetrically configured caves. We saw big Buddhas and giant Buddhas, some with their bodhisattva attendants and all defended by fearsome demons. The whole cliff-face is hollowed out into caves, some huge. It is an amazing site and was so important to the old silk traders making their offerings before venturing out into the desert beyond.
22 October 2009 - We visited Charley Jhong's Cafe in the town and were served a welcome fried-egg breakfast and toast. Then we drove to the historic 'Jade Gate', and important 1,700 year old fort on the silk road where traders would be charged a fee in return for safe conduct. We examined the ancient section of the Great Wall which marked territorial boundaries while giving protection against invaders. We visited the garrison storehouse too, and great building on the river which provided for the needs of the fort.
A short way beyond we arrive at the 'desert yardangs', a curious and enticing geological formation. Neat rows of rock march abreast across the sands.They are the result of age-old erosion leaving corridors of sand separated by walls of hard bed-rock. Some fomations have developed into rock islands, but all rmain firmy aligned with their rocky neigbours.
24th Octoer 2009 - Some of the bigest dunes in China occur in the Gashun Gobi at Dunhuang, and we drove a few miles to this awesome formation. Philippa, Suzi and I hired a camel each and were led up to the crest of a 600ft dune. From here we looked down on a rolling sand-sea stretching off across the desert, a formidable barrier to both man and beast.
Afterwards we walked to a dune-locked lake nearby with a small island on it, a Llama's retreat from times past. Emotive, timeless and beautiful.
24th Octoer 2009 - We drove all morning to a long forgotten gorge on the Yulin river. Here we came suddenly upon a honeycomb of Buddhist temples, all carved high into the canyon walls. A small entrance led into a narrow passage which connected the caves together. Each cave is big, spacious and filled with modelled and polychromed sculptures and carvings. The walls are richly decorated too and most date from around 1000AD. We are the only visitors.The site matches the Mogao caves for general style and quality, and exceeds them for the greater variety of images. In one central cavern stands an immense Buddha nearly 80ft tall, and we looked in awe at the might and majesty of this engaging image.