July 11, 2011 (Monday)
Forty-sixth day in China, first day in Dunhuang: 敦煌 Dunhuang, 鸣沙山 Mingshashan
We arrived early in the morning at Dunhuang’s shiny new beige stone station, and bought return sleeper tickets from Jiayuguan to Lanzhou. We met a Korean traveler on his way to 乌鲁木齐 Urumqi. At the cab stand we made friends with a fellow traveler named Ye, and rode together to Charley Johng’s Dune Guesthouse, a hostel south of Dunhuang, near the sand dunes.
We got a private cabin in an apricot orchard. Apricots dried on tables all over the garden, and the dunes towered right behind the hostel, which comprised a four-sided courtyard. We ate lunch and headed into Dunhuang proper with our friend Ye, but found nothing to be seen. The weather was bone dry and unbearably hot. The streets were deserted. Rather than the Silk Road trading post of my foolish imagination, Dunhuang was a small town in modern Han style. A mosque in square, contemporary style sat at the city center. We stopped for milk tea at 三毛 Sanmao cafe, and were pleasantly surprised to be seated on legless benches suspended from the cieling.
We took the bus down to the colossal dunes at 鸣沙山 Mingshashan, or maybe “Singing Sand Mountain”. We saw camels climbing around the side, rented orange gaiters to cover our shoes, and walked right up the middle on a narrow path. Truly mountainous, the dune was many times taller than anything I had seen in Morocco. The smooth slopes curved gracefully. The center path was hard to climb. Only by stepping in the footprints of those climbing ahead could you avoid slipping in the sand. We reached the top and saw 月牙泉 Yueyaquan, or “Crescent Moon Lake”, and got a great photo taken at the golden hour, as the sun set over the opposite dune. By chance, we met our friend Ye, on his way down, and together watched the sun go down over the lake.
In darkness we whipped off our gaiters and shoes and–forsaking the path–walked right down the slope. The dune sloped at a gentle gradient. I jumped as far as I could. For a moment, I flew off the mountain, only to touch down in forgiving sand a few meters below.