From Kashgar, the Silk Road splits in two routes that border the impenetrable Taklamakan desert: the Northern route and the Southern route. I took the Northern (easiest one) through Ürumqi and Turpan. Both routes merge again in the famous oasis town of Dunhuang. Getting there involved endless train journeys in crowded wagons: people on every open space. Two years ago I could book a cheap sleeper berth for longer journeys even 1-2 days before, but they are so popular now that it’s impossible to get one unless you book long in advance; even securing a seat isn’t that easy.
I left amazing Xinjiang and entered into not-less-interesting Gansu, a province that extends along the Hexi corridor, the only pass merchants could use to avoid the high mountains on both sides.
Dunhuang is the Silk Road town in China par excellence. It is a very nice, smallish, laid-back town. It is quite touristy though, although of course 98% of the tourists here are Chinese.
From a historical perspective, the most interesting site in Dunhuang are the Mogao Buddhist caves. Buddhism arrived here from India also following trade routes. Merchants would finance the building of these caves thankful for crossing the dreaded Taklamakhan. Monks inhabited the caves. Inside, there are beautiful painted Buddha statues, some small, some huge, as well as paintings in the walls and ceilings with religious motifs. This enormous complex that contains 735 caves is recognized as one of the masterpieces of Buddhist art in the world. No pictures allowed inside (so you need to go! :)).
The other big draw here, other than the town itself, is to explore the desert in an area with big dunes near the town, called Crescent Lake. The Crescent Lake itself is just a small lake in the desert which is supposed to look like a crescent moon. It is really popular with Chinese tourists, perhaps even more than the Mogao caves. Surely, Chinese and Westerners have very different tastes. The entrance ticket to this area is really expensive, completely overpriced. The problem is that all the desert area is fenced and you cannot just wander through the amazing sand dunes without paying the hefty ticket.
But a group of university students at my hostel had a plan. They wanted to get up before dawn, jump the fence far from the gate while still dark, and sneak into the complex. They invited me to join them. A Chinese guy who had studied in the US and spoke great English also joined (useful for translating the rest of them), as well a younger Chinese student who came separately. And so we did. It took us a long time to find a spot where we could possibly jump the fence and also quite a lot of difficulty to move up and down the sand dunes, but we finally arrived to the main area at the time the first tourists got there. Inside the complex, all kinds of touristy stuff like taking pictures with camels, etc., that Chinese tourists enjoy so much. This group of students were really nice to me while I was in Dunhuang, always offering me food or something, even though I couldn’t speak with them in Chinese.