travel to dunhuang

The splendid cave temples of Dunhuang, a treasure house of Buddhist art in the high desert of northwestern Gansu province, were once so remote it took several days by train and bus to arrive from coastal China. No longer.

In high season daily nonstop flights link Beijing and Dunhuang in three hours. Other flights from Xi’an, Lanzhou and Chengdu make travel to this Silk Road oasis comfortable and practical from all over China. The Gobi is giving up its best-kept secret, to the delight of travelers seeking adventure, mystery and solitude.

The term Dunhuang is used somewhat loosely. It refers to the city of Dunhuang (population 156,000) and the surrounding area, and also to the caves themselves, which are more properly called Mogaoku (pronounced Maw-gow-koo, literally “peerless caves”). It can also mean all the cave temples in the greater Dunhuang area, not only Mogao but the Yulin Caves and other ancient sites managed by the Dunhuang Academy.

Mogao’s cave temples rise three levels along a 1.6 kilometer escarpment near the Daquan River. Even veteran travelers to Dunhuang are overpowered by their rich complexity and astonishing detail. The 492 decorated caves, hand hewn from the cliff face over a millennium, are numbered for reference but few visitors have seen them all.

Dunhuang has boasted a railway station since 2006, but the trip from Beijing or Shanghai is arduous and requires a train change at Lanzhou or Jiayuguan. Plane travel is generally the preferred mode of transport.

New hotels are appearing to service burgeoning tourism from Chinese as well as international visitors. Hotels are located in Dunhuang city, not at the Mogao site. An up-to-date listing can be found here. The Dunhuang Silk Road Hotel, a “culture hotel” facing the Singing Sand Dunes, provides some of the most comfortable and atmospheric accommodation in all of China.

Once in Dunhuang, taxi or bus transport is easily arranged to Mogaoku, about 25 kilometers southeast across a bleak and barren desert. Be sure to ask the taxi driver to wait for your return, especially if traveling during the slow winter season. In high season simply hail a minibus or cab back to town from the car park, last ones leave about 4 pm.

High season runs May 1 to October 31. The ideal times to visit are late spring and mid autumn, when the weather is most pleasant. Winters can be bitterly cold and summers scorching, though the cave interiors remain cool. Golden Weeks, when seemingly all of China travels, are to be avoided! The three Golden Week holidays have proven so disruptive that the government revised the official holiday schedule for 2008, eliminating the Golden Week around China’s Labor Day, May 1. Labor Day is now a one-day holiday.

The autumn Golden Week remains in place, beginning October 1 (National Day), as does the one in early spring around the Lunar New Year. Buddha’s birthday is not an official holiday in China but many come to Dunhuang to show their devotion, and banners festoon the desert cliff. Traditionally celebrated on the 8th day of the 4th month in the Chinese lunar calendar (typically in May), Buddha’s next birthdays are May 21, 2010, and May 10, 2011.

Individuals and small groups do not need a reservation to tour Mogaoku, but all visitors must be accompanied by a guide provided by the Dunhuang Academy. High season tickets are about US $25 for the day, including the two-hour guide service available in most major languages. Photography is not permitted. The standard admission provides access to about a dozen cave temples, including Cave 96, the iconic nine-story pagoda with the colossal 35.5m tall Buddha, the third largest in the world.

Most visitors take the standard tour and continue their travels on the Silk Road, but it’s well worth planning at least two visits to the caves. Mogao is richly endowed and there is much to absorb. About 30 caves are open to the public at any one time. Murals and sculptures bring to life ten centuries of culture at the crossroads of East and West, revealing the splendors of Chinese and Tibetan civilizations as well as influences from Persia, India, Central Asia and even Rome. The grounds have benches and tall shade trees, and nearby are a small restaurant and gift shop.

Though not well advertised, visitors can pay a surcharge to see some normally closed caves. Different caves have different fees depending on their importance and fragility. Be sure to experience these less frequented treasures. Cave 158, accessed through a narrow, twisting passageway, rewards visitors with a recumbent Buddha that epitomizes the sublime beauty of the High Tang.

Please feel free to contact Friends of Dunhuang for more information in advance of your trip. We welcome you to join our annual tour to Dunhuang and the Silk Road.

Travel tips
  1. Don’t forget your flashlight! The caves are dimly lit. While guides have flashlights, and you can rent one for a nominal cost, they are not very bright.
  2. In summer, the brilliant light of Gansu’s high desert can overwhelm. Bring sunglasses and consider a pocket umbrella to block the sun.
  3. A visit to Mogao entails climbing stairs and traversing walkways – safe but sometimes strenuous. Comfortable walking shoes are a must.

The Dunhuang area beyond Mogao holds many secrets worth exploring. Plan to spend a half day at fabled Crescent Moon Lake in Singing Sands Mountain, and consider a day trip to Yulin Grottoes, two hours east of Dunhuang along a dramatic gorge, where 41 caves preserve exquisite ancient murals in a pristine setting.

Reading List

There is a wealth of material about the Silk Road, starting with the 2nd century BC account of Han emissary Zhang Qian, the tales of Buddhist monk Xuan Zang, whose 7th century travels were the basis for the classic novel Journey to the West, and the chronicles of Aurel Stein, who was demonized by the Chinese for looting Dunhuang and lionized by the British as a legendary explorer.

Contemporary readers can consult these favorites:
  1. For a guidebook we recommend the beautifully photographed and well researched The Silk Road: Xi’an to Kashgar (Odyssey Guides, 8th edition).
  2. The Getty Conservation Institute’s Cave Temples of Mogao: Art and History on the Silk Road, by Whitfield, Whitfield and Agnew, is an informative and accessible overview of Dunhuang’s place at the desert gateway to China.
  3. Susan Whitfield’s Life Along the Silk Road relates the fascinating tales of 10th century Silk Road inhabitants – the Merchant, the Soldier, the Monk, the Courtesan, and more – bringing the region’s dramatic history down to a human scale.