Dunhuang – Three Days on the Silk Road

I was recently able to spend a few days in the Dunhuang area of Gansu Province. It was an amazing whirlwind of an adventure that came together on a whim after a casual remark made by our friend Zach. It didn’t take long to decide that if I could somehow underwrite at least part of the trip, we’d go. After a couple of quick phone calls, we were on our way to the desert. Make no mistake about it, Dunhuang is yet another Chinese tourist trap and everything there is carefully orchestrated to remove money from your pocket. They do it very well but as long as you know that going in it’s manageable. It’s a tourist destination for a reason… it’s a remarkable place.

With an idea to try and pack as much into the trip as possible, we chose to fly out of Guilin so we could first get over to Yangshuo for a day. The next day we stopped in Xi’an for a few hours and saw The Terracotta Warriors during our layover before finally heading on to Dunhuang. Here are some observations and memorable moments…

After a couple of false starts we finally saw and photographed the cormorant fishermen on the Lijiang in Xingping. It was supposed to happen at dawn but didn’t and then magically came together for us at sunset. Magic I tell you.

The next morning we had a stressful pre-dawn mad scramble to get to the Guilin airport from Yangshuo when our reserved taxi didn’t show at 5AM. A very youthful Chinese version of Jeff Gordon got us there at speeds topping 140 KMH over roads that were covered with standing water. White knuckle doesn’t even come close to describing that ride.

The Terracotta Warriors are not as cool the second time around. Cool… just not as cool. There is a Subway at the Terracotta Warriors exit. I’m talking the sandwich shop and that alone is enough of a draw for me to go back a third time. I am two for two at The Subway. Go ahead and scoff if you like. It’s not easy going three or four years between roast beef subs.

Xi’an airport air traffic control stinks. After two connecting flights in and two connecting flights out we amassed a combined total late arrival/departure time of 10 hours and 40 minutes. Each time we were told it was because of congested airspace. On our way home we arrived in Xi’an at 1:30 in the morning (nearly three hours late) and could not get our reserved hotel to answer the phone to come and pick us up. No fewer than 8 taxi drivers claimed to have never heard of said hotel, even though it was supposed to be just 400 meters from Terminal One. Ctrip let us down for the first time. We tried 7 hotels before finally finding a place to sleep at 4 in the morning. Between the fare and the obvious kickback the taxi driver made his week. Our noon flight to Guilin was thankfully non-eventful.

When an editor tells you that you are absolutely pre-approved to shoot The Mogao Grottoes, trust me, you are not. Three contact numbers and not one phone answered the day and night before we went to the caves. Unless you are a high-ranking government official or perhaps being escorted by a high-ranking government official, there are no photos whatsoever inside the Mogao caves. The caves are magnificent and still worth the visit even if you can’t prove you were ever inside the place. More on the caves here.

Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse has a great location on the outskirts of Dunhuang very near the Mingsha Dunes. It’s a family-run operation, average at best, and the place is cheap at 50 kwai a night. Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse is cheap for a reason. Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse has the dirtiest, stankest, vilest toilets of any hostel I have ever stayed at anywhere in the world. That’s a lot of hostels folks. Our three-bed dorm was conveniently located… next to the toilet. The sheets and pillowcases were ripe. We asked for new sheets. One of the kids reluctantly stripped the beds, washed the sheets (only after a second request) and then deposited the sheets in a pile back on our beds later that night. Lily made the beds. Stay at Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse only if your budget requires. Bring your own towel… and a gas mask.

If you walk for many days in fairly new hiking shoes on hot desert sand… you will get blisters.

If you ride a camel for two consecutive days and the last time you were on a horse or anything somewhat similar was over 30 years ago… you will get blistersin a different place.

Flying in an open-air paraplane over the desert is a blast. Very English Patient-y.

Sleeping on sand is not as comfortable as one might imagine. Sleeping in the desert is a zen-like experience. The stars and silence were overwhelming.

When going number 2 in the desert dunes, the ejection point should be directed downhill. Actually the same holds true for number 1. Oh sure… you see it now that I mention it.

Lily climbed to the top of the dunes to see the sunset. Zach, Andrew, Elizabeth and Lynda climbed to the top as well. I did not.

Zach, Andrew, Elizabeth and Lynda all climbed to the top of the dunes the next morning to see the sunrise. Lily and I did not. I managed to get some decent shots of the sunrise regardless.

I had a mellow – goofy looking camel.

Zach’s camel was possessed.

I would do it all again without hesitating. In a heartbeat. The visuals…

Cormorant Fishing on The Li River in Xingping

Warriors in the Sun

Hand of a Warrior

Dune Buggies on Mingsha

The English Patient – Gobi Edition

Dusk at Mingsha Dunes

Dunhuang Night Market Vendor

Dunhuang Night Market

Dunhuang City

Camel Trek into The Gobi

Chasing the Desert Sun

Shifu Li: Camel Whisperer – Fire Starter

 The Big Dipper over Dunhuang

Gobi Sunrise

 Lily at Sunrise

Shifu Li

My Trusty (Goofy) Steed

Airport Bound

It was great seeing Zach again and we made some new friends as well. Zach’s around-the-world adventure continues and you can catch up with him by clicking this link. He is currently somewhere in remote Xinjiang Province traveling with his friend Elizabeth and her brother Andrew while their mom Lynda is now keeping tabs from their Connecticut home.

So… finally home after a summer of being on the road and now I MUST catch up. If you are expecting to hear from me then this is the week. The list includes Jonathan, Ryan, Dave, Oliver & Keiko, Don & Cheryl, Janessa, Yereth and any photographer I’ve spoken to about Postcards from China. If I’ve forgotten anyone else I’ll remember soon enough but If you’d like to prompt me then leave a note here and I’ll get in touch.


13 Responses to “Dunhuang – Three Days on the Silk Road”

  1. EP says:

    I love you but I hate you. Damn you and your excellent images. You do what I want to do. Arghhh.

  2. Joyce says:

    Awesome pics, Mike. I envy you 😉

  3. Excellent work my friend.

  4. gregorylent says:

    The tourist trail and its accompanying scene keep me away from many places in China .. we are all about 15 years too late.

    • I agree with you for the most part Gregory, especially about being 15 years too late. I think it can still have some value IF one goes at the right time of the year. We traveled a lot this summer and while Lijiang was really more crowded than anyplace I could have ever imagined… Shangri-La was pure magic. I’ve been to Yanghsuo many times and the vibe there also changes depending on how crowded it is.

      It can be tough as a photographer trying to catch the essence of a location, the beauty, when everywhere you look all you can you see are tourists mucking about. At the MingSha Dunes I was constantly looking for ways to shoot around the throngs. Admittedly, sometimes the throngs can become the story. I gave up in Xi’an and just started shooting the crowds as they experienced The Terracotta Warriors. I had set up on a tripod next to an exhibit with a wide angle lens and had an old man pick it up and move it to get it out of HIS shot!

      I am supposed to go to Anhui Province during National Day Holiday… and on some levels I find myself hoping it falls through.

      Hope you are well… so odd that just last week I watched a video of you touring you studio and the Shanghai neighborhood around it. Never expected that accent! You can all enjoy looking at Gregory’s wonderful art at http://www.gregorylent.com/.

  5. Jacky CW says:

    Excellent and funny review, my friend.

  6. Vlado says:

    Fascinating story, very well told – in words. The images are out-of-this-world, to your usual standard. Brilliant!

  7. Ian says:

    I am a Canadian currently in Duhuang for a few weeks for business. Visited the dunes and Mingsha shan. This is an interesting area for a guy from the “Wet” (west) coast. Your blog is great. Thanks.

Leave a Reply