A Backpacker’s Travel Guide to Dunhuang

Dunhuang

White Horse Pagoda

Welcome to Dunhuang

Dunhuang was founded way back in 111 BC by Emperor Wudi of the Han Dynasty.  It lies at the crossroads of two branches of the old Silk Road, and on the entrance to the Hexi corridor.  Though you wouldn’t guess it from it’s small size, it was an important stop in Northwest China.

Dunhuang today is a small city of about 180,000 people.  And, while there are certainly larger and grander stops along your Silk Road journey, Dunhuang is well worth some time.

What to see

The Mogao Caves: There are, of course, the famous Mogao Caves, which can be easily accessed from the city by bus (just take the No. 3).  There are hundreds of caves that are part of the Mogao complex, and they are full of manuscripts, art, sculpture, and other relics reflecting Mogao’s importance in Chinese Buddhist history.

Mogao Caves

Part of the Mogao Caves, an amazing example of Buddhist art and history

The Mingsha Shan and Yueyaquan:  Also easily reached from Dunhuang are the great singing sands of Mingsha Shan and the crescent lake of Yueyaquan.  Mingsha Shan is an impressive sight, and the sands will sing if the winds are right.  The crescent lake right near Minsha Shan is beautiful, though it is shrinking.

Cresent Lake - Dunhuang

The Desert Oasis known as the Crescent Lake (Wikimedia Commons)

Dunhuang also offers a number of nature-oriented activities, and it’s possible to work through your hostel to organize camel-riding expeditions into the desert.  You can also put together desert camping excisions and dune buggy and quad rides out on the desert sands.

And, while Dunhuang may not be the largest city around, there are some incredible sites to see.  I’d recommend spending anywhere from 4-5 days here.  Give yourself a day to see Mogao, another to go to Mingsha Shan and Yueyaquan, take some time to wander the city and see the White Horse Pagoda, and anothe day or two to take some desert trips and enjoy the natural beauty of the countryside.

Getting In/Out of town:

Buses and trains connect frequently to nearby cities, and Lanzhou’s airport has connecting flights to major cities in China.  Finding transportation should not be a problem.

Next up:

If you’re heading east: the city of Lanzhou

If you’re heading west: the stopover city of Hami

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Dunhuang Travel Guide

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Dunhuang Airport : 40.166117, 94.805049
Dunhuang Train Station: 40.168537, 94.784594
Dunhuang Bus Station: 40.136136, 94.662023
Mogao Caves: 40.041476, 94.809133
Mingsha Shan & Yueya Quan : 40.094094, 94.676056
White Horse Pagoda: 40.132484, 94.649589
New Dragon Gate Inn: 40.139023, 94.667784
Sha Zhou Yi International Youth Hostel : 40.146052, 94.660832
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Dunhuang Airport

Dunhuang Airport


Dunhuang's airport is small, though there are flights available to Beijing,Lanzhou, Urumqi, and Xian. There is a taxi stand at the airport, but the taxis are unmetered and the far for transport into the city is about 50 yuan. There are occasionally shuttle busses but service is inconsistent and can mean long waits for a bus.  The train station isn't far from the airport - about a ten minute walk - so you do have the option to walk from the airport to the train station and catching a bus there..


中国甘肃省酒泉敦煌市敦煌机场
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Dunhuang Train Station
Dunhuang Railway Station

Rail connects Dunhuang with the Liugou Station on the Lanzhou-Xinjiang Railway (in Guazhou County). There is regular passenger service on the line, with overnight trains from Dunhuang to Lanzhou and Xi'an.
中国甘肃省酒泉敦煌市217省道敦煌火车站
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Dunhuang Bus Station
Dunhuang Bus Station

From the Dunhuang Bus Station, you can catch buses to several different destinations, including: Golmud, Hami, Jiayuguan, Lanzhou, Liuyuan, Xining, and Zhangye.
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Mogao Caves
Mogao Caves

The Mogao Caves are about 25 km from town and you can get here in several ways: through pre-arranged tour group, taxi, or by bus. The green city bus runs to Mogao for 8 yuan each way. The bus also stops at the train station and stops in front of the Silk Road hotel in Dunhuang.

The Mogao Caves are a UNESCO world heritage site and are a large complex of caves, filled with Buddhist artwork, sculpture, frescoes, and other relics.  All together, there are 492 temples here that were built/carved over a period of 1,000 years.  It truly is a sight worth seeing.
中国甘肃省敦煌市莫高窟
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Mingsha Shan & Yueya Quan
Mingsha Shan & Yueyaquan

You can get here by taking Bus #3 from Dunhuang.  Mingsha Shan means 'Echoing Sand Mountain' and it is basically a giant sand mountain, more than 40km long and 20km in width, with the highest point being some 250 meters tall.  It's one of the four great singing sands of China, and when the wind is strong, the mountain will make an almost musical noise as the sands rustle and blow across each other.

Yueyaquan

Yueyaquan means 'Crescent Lake' and it is a beautiful, small, crescent lake in an oasis.  It is surrounded by the  Mingsha Shan, and is a lovely place for quiet reflection.  Or, for enjoying sandsurfing on the dunes.
中国甘肃省酒泉敦煌市月牙泉镇鸣沙山月牙泉
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White Horse Pagoda
The White Horse Pagoda was built to honor the trusty steed Tianliu, who was the beloved horse of the Buddhist monk Kumārajīva. Kumārajīva, riding upon Tianliu, brough with him many Buddhist writings from abroad into China, afterwards translating them.  The Pagoda is nearly 40 feet tall, twelve feet wide, and built of adobe bricks.  The pagoda was constructed beginning in 384 AD.
中国甘肃省酒泉敦煌市白马塔
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New Dragon Gate Inn
New Dragon Gate Inn aka "Charley Johng's Hostel"

Rooms at the New Dragon Gate Inn are dorm style, 8 bed rooms.  Prices tend to be about $8-$9 per night.  It's located very near the city center and the street outside the hostel has many different late-night street food vendors (the hostel itself doesn't serve any food).

Click here to book at the New Dragon Gate Inn on Hostelworld.
Dunhuang, Jiuquan, Gansu, China
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Sha Zhou Yi International Youth Hostel
Sha Zhou Yi International Youth Hostel 

The Sha Zhou Yi International Youth Hostel is located in the city center of Dunhuang.  It's just a 10 minute walk to the Sha Zhou Yi night market from the hostel.  Additionally, there's a No. 3 bus stop right in front of the hostel, which allows for easy access to Ming Sha and Yueyaquan spring.

Click here to book at the Sha Zhou Yi International Youth Hostel
Dunhuang, Jiuquan, Gansu, China
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