Traveling to Dunhuang – Index
Dunhuang (敦煌, Dūnhuáng) is a town located in the western province of Gansu and is particularly famous for the Mogao Caves, for the Singing Mountain and for the Lake of the Crescent Moon, an oasis in the middle of the desert.
When to go to Dunhuang
It might seem paradoxical to recommend visiting the desert in the summer, but the best time to visit Dunhuang is actually between May and October. The changes in temperature between night and day are not inconsiderable.
Even though the days are hot, at night you can sleep thanks to cooler temperatures. Precipitation at this time is rather scarce and rare.
It’s a dry, continental climate, and while the summers are rather hot without being sultry, winters are cold with the chance of rain or snow. The temperatures begin to rise around April, then get cold again in October.
In winter the temperatures can reach even 15 degrees below, while in August the thermometer swings between about 15 and 35 degrees.
How to get to Dunhuang
Dunhuang’s airport is located in the city and several domestic flights arrive here. in fact the city can be reached from Beijing, Xi’an, Lanzhou, Hangzhou and other Chinese cities. A flight from Beijing to Dunhuang lasts about three hours.
Considering the size of the country, traveling by air is without a doubt the best option if you don’t have much time. Travel times are very short, even if the average costs are higher compared to other routes.
Pay attention though: flights are not available on all dates, and you need to search somewhat in advance, both for prices and itinerary.
The advantage of traveling by train is the chance to adapt your itinerary to your own needs, even stopping in different places and planning your own stops.
If slow trains are still dilapidated and uncomfortable, fast trains are comfortable and punctual. Unfortunately, not all stations are connected to the rapid train system.
If you want to use them you should plan for more stops to combine fast and slow trains. Checking the various routes is simple both on the official site and on others, as you can read in our article about trains in China.
Among the various options available you can consider a trip to Lanzhou and then travel by train to other towns that interest you and then on to Dunhuang. The fast train from Beijing takes about 7 hours to get to Lanzhou.
Where to stay in Dunhuang
Booking a hotel in China could present several pitfalls, the first being that not all hotels are licensed to host foreigners.
In our article dedicated to hotels in China you can find lots of advice on how to book a hotel in China.
I’ve personally always used the App Meituan to book my stays because the prices are definitely competitive. This app is however meant for Chinese consumers so the navigation is entirely in Chinese.
Another considerable obstacle is that even in local apps, they don’t mention if various hotels do or do not accept foreigners. After choosing your hotel you’ll need to be patient and contact the owner to check.
Another practical option for us tourists is to use Booking.com or Agoda. Generally, you’ll find hotels equipped to welcome us waiguoren. In the opposite case, it’s usually noted.
I do have to admit that just one time, I showed my reservation for a room booked on Booking.com and once I arrived, I was welcomed with a question mark that Booking didn’t even know what it was.
During my trip to Dunhuang, I booked my reservations like this, even though the experience wasn’t the best…
So as not to have a bad surprise, the best option is to stay at an international hotel where foreigners are generally accepted and even though they’re 4 star, they have competitive rates.
Depending on the area of Dunhuang where you prefer to stay, there are many accommodations to choose from that are good quality at good prices.
What to see and do in Dunhuang
After the practical information, finally here’s a list of not to miss destinations for anyone traveling to Dunhuang!
The Mogao Caves – 莫高窟
The Mogao Caves (莫高窟, Mògāokū), registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1987 for their inestimable historical and artistic value, are made up of 492 caves carved into the rock arranged on five levels.
About twenty caves can be visited, but the entrance ticket only allows for a visit to just eight caves (which rotate), that vary on the basis of the group you’re assigned and any restoration work that result in the closing of a few single centers.
Inside each cave, there are various masterpieces that span a thousand years of Buddhist history, between frescoes and sculptures.
What takes your breath away is the perception of finding yourself launched back in time, in the exact place where this started in the year 366 A.D: the site’s authenticity remains despite the crowds of tourists that descend on it each day.
To help our imagination go back in time, there are frescoes representing scenes of life during that time: business taking place along the Silk Road, pictures of valiant warriors and workers in the fields are just some of the scenes that you’ll see.
How to get there
It’s about 25 kilometers between Dunhuang and the Mogao Caves, which can be reached in 30 minutes by car. In China it’s easy to get around by taxi: the route between the city center and the caves should cost less than 100 yuan.
If you prefer to do things on your own, you’ll want bus number 12: for 8 yuan it will bring you to the entrance of the attraction. The bus stops both at the train station and in front of the entrance of the Silk Road Hotel.
Alternatively, many hotels organize visits to the main attractions for tourists.
Tons of people from all over China and beyond come to these caves every day. To avoid surprises I recommend that you go to one of the various tourist agencies spread out around the city, or at the official resale point in the middle of town, where you can buy your entrance ticket in advance: only then will you have guaranteed entry.
This is due to a daily limit imposed on the number of visitors, which allows entrance to 6000 people a day (enormous illuminated screens indicate the number reached at that moment).
The entire ticket costs 140 yuan for Chinese citizens, including a visit to the caves, digital exhibition center (a 40-minute video is played while waiting at the entrance) and transportation from the city center to the caves.
For foreign guests there’s a 20 yuan surcharge for the explanation in English. In high season prices could vary.
Mingsha Shan and the Lake of the Crescent Moon – 鸣沙山 and 月牙泉
It might seem a paradox that behind you there’s the confusion of the city and in front of you there’s an expanse of dunes and fine sand.
The city of Dunhuang is located at the borders of the Gobi desert and from here there are views of the Singing Mountain（鸣沙山, Míngshā shān), a name that derives from the sweet sound that is made by the sand being caressed by the wind or rapidly sliding down from the dunes.
The legend says that in this area in the foothills of the mountain there once lived a lively village surrounded by sacred temples. One year, during a celebration at one of the temples, the songs of the opera and the noise of the celebration was so deafening that it bothered the Yellow Dragon Prince that slept in a nearby desert.
The Prince, furious for having been disturbed, used all his power to move the sand of the desert to bury the village along with its inhabitants who, to this day, cry and complain in the song that gives the mountain its name.
At the dunes you can enter the city: after passing your ticket through the scanner and passing through the turnstiles, you’ll be inside (or outside depending on your point of view!). Equipped with big, flashy orange neon boots, you can start the trip from the first dune, which is the only one visible from the city.
Arriving at the top, a breathtaking view will open up that extends to other dunes, and the further you go into the dunes, the more wide and free the view of the desert will become. The climb is quick but the view is absolutely worth this little effort.
Surrounded by the Singing Mountain is the Lake of the Crescent Moon (月牙泉, Yuèyáquán), an emerald-colored natural oasis of water, which in ancient times was a resting place for travelers on the Silk Road.
Another legend says that during the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C. – 8 A. D.), the General Li Guang along with his troops arrived at the Singing Mountain without finding water for a long time.
He inserted his sword into the side of the mountain, a blue slate rock from which crystal clear water began coming out, forming the Lake of the Crescent Moon.
How to get there
Just 5 kilometers from the middle of Dunhuang you’ll find the entrance to the desert, which can be reached in ten minutes by car or with bus number 3 for the price of 2 yuan. If you take a taxi from the city center, it’s about 10 minutes by car.
An entrance ticket costs 120 yuan and should cover entry for two consecutive days. With this ticket, you can get to the entire area which includes both the Singing Mountain and the Lake of the Crescent Moon. The price may vary according to the season.
No activities are included in the entrance ticket but you can purchase them separately once you enter. Among the options: a camel ride to the Lake of the Crescent Moon, sliding down the dunes, quad, and dune buggy rental, and bus tours to the lake.
Yadan National Geological Park- 雅丹国家地质公园
Yadan (雅丹国家地质公园, Yǎdān guójiā dìzhì gōngyuán) is a national park located in Gansu Province, about 180 kilometers northwest of the center of Dunhuang. The entire region covers an area of about 400 square kilometers.
The park is famous for its geological formations, which consist of rocky ridges created by erosion from wind and rain in this desert environment: the yardang.
The formations have a long history going back about 700,000 years and each have a different shape, some of which have the appearance of different types of animals (camels, lions, birds …), a Mongolian tent, Beijing’s Temple of Heaven and much more.
The legend often associates the area with the names Ghost City or City of the Devil, for the sinister sounds you can hear when the wind blows, whistling through the fine sand.
In this area you are obligated to get around with organized bus tours, which will bring you to see four different primary points to observe close-up the rocky formations. The time of the visit is limited and rigid depending on the organization.
A good choice would be to plan your visit in conjunction with the sunset: arrange things in advance to know the times of operation and make sure you’re first in line to see the sun disappear behind the Gobi Desert.
How to get there
By car it takes about two and a half hours to reach the site. The bus from the city coasts about 76 yuan (online I read that it’s not the recommended choice because of the long travel times and times of departure, but you could ask at the hotel where you’re staying).
For about 500 yuan you could negotiate a price with a taxi that will bring you and wait for the end of your tour to then bring you back to the city.
The entire ticket costs 120 yuan, including entrance to the geological park and transportation to the most panoramic points inside the park.
Great Wall of the Han dynasty – 敦煌汉长城)
The Great Wall that we all know goes back to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644). What perhaps not everyone knows, is that the concept of a defensive wall was already very common much earlier.
What you can see near Dunhuang is in fact an even earlier example, going back to the Han Dynasty: more than a thousand years before the Great Wall.
Very little remains of the original walls, but to go back to that far-off time, you can come here to see what remains: about 400 meters of the original wall can be admired here, along with about 80 guard towers that were once spread along the perimeter.
Protected by at least one soldier at a time, they were used to send information through smoke signals about enemy troops.
It seems that the wall from the Han Dynasty (汉长城, Hàn Chángchéng) was entirely made without the use of stones and bricks, but only using branches as the basis of construction, on which layers of soil and worked sand were alternated.
How to get there
The Great Wall of the Han Dynasty is found about 100 kilometers from the middle of Dunhuang. I recommend that you negotiate a price with a local taxi driver.
The whole entrance ticket costs 40 yuan.
The Yangguan Pass – 阳关遗址
Yangguan (the pass of Yang Mountain – 阳关遗址, Yángguān yízhǐ) is one of the most important Western passes along the Great Wall during the time of the Han Dynasty.
Built in 120 B.C. by the Emperor Wu, it protected the city of Dunhuang from invasion besides being a commercial artery along the Silk Road: a glimpse of the past thanks to the artifacts preserved within the museum.
If you’re interested in Chinese history and this type of attraction, I recommend that you also make a diversion to visit the Jade Pass (玉门关, Yùmén Guān). Along with Yangguan, it is the most important Western Chinese pass, and as with the former, it served the purpose of defending and providing passage for the merchants.
How to get there
The Yang Pass is 60 kilometers from the middle of Dunhuang and takes a little more than an hour to reach by car. I suggest that you negotiate a price with a local taxi driver to get there (about 300 yuan round trip).
An entrance ticket costs 50 yuan.
Dunhuang Museum – 敦煌博物馆
Moving on to the Dunhuang Museum (敦煌博物馆 – Dūnhuáng bówùguǎn) you can relive history by looking at the artifacts found in the area from the prehistoric era and the Qing Dynasty (1644 to 1911).
How to get there
Bus number 3 will leave you near the museum for 2 yuan a ride. The stop you need to get off at is actually designated as the museum: 博物馆站. As always, a taxi is a viable alternative.
Entrance to the museum is free.
Night market – 敦煌沙洲夜市
A must-see in Dunhuang is the Shazhou night market (沙洲夜市, Shāzhōu yèshì): an evening stroll through the intricate and crowded alleys of the market lit up for the evening is a taste of the city’s culture.
The best time to come here is around dinnertime, so that you can enjoy a pleasant walk and taste some of the local delicacies. Some suggestions on what to eat in Dunhuang can be found under the Food and Typical Products heading: keep reading on to discover what to try at the night market!
Besides street food and typical restaurants, you can find all sorts of souvenirs: from costume jewelry to small bottles filled with desert sand, to local handicrafts and stones in bizarre shapes.
To taste the spirit of the place, sit on a stool and try a mutton skewer along with a refreshing glass of apricot juice.
How to get there
Depending on where you’re saying, it may be convenient to get to the market on foot or getting around by other means. The public transport system’s bus leaves from the station and one of the stops is about ten minutes from Dunhuang’s night market. A taxi is also quick and cheap.
Here’s the market’s address to show to the driver: 敦煌沙洲夜市，阳关东路 (The Shazhou night market of Dunhuang, Yangguan East Street).
Entrance is free but the temptation to buy some souvenirs will be irresistible!
Food and typical products
Among the typical products of the region are wheat grain noodles as well as mutton, lamb, chicken and donkey. Among the specialties you’ll read about is camel’s hump, but really locals will tell you that it’s only for tourists and are really hard to find.
I also expected to find more dairy products, but this wasn’t the case. So what can you expect to eat in Dunhuang?
Dunhuang Rang Pi – 敦煌酿皮
Rang Pizi (酿皮, niàngpí, more commonly known as rangpi) is a dish based on wheat noodles and peas. It’s white or bright yellow and slippery when using chopsticks. They’re usually seasoned with garlic sauce, spicy peppers, soy and vinegar. Dunhuang rangpi are generally served cold.
Dunhuang Yellow Noodles – 敦煌黄面
In one of the Mogao Caves we find that one of the frescos proves that yellow noodles (黄面，Huángmiàn) have an ancient history.
Boiled and seasoned with different types of sauces, these noodles are usually served cold and accompanied by other dishes. For a different flavor, try them seasoned with donkey meat (驴肉黄面, lǘròu huángmiàn)!
It’s impossible to leave the city without having tried the sweet and succulent fruit: grapes, dates, and jujubes grow so delicious thanks to the weather and long hours of light.
If you’re in this area you can’t not taste the xiangshui pear (香水梨 – xiāngshuǐ lí): these pears are preserved until the winter when the frozen fruit becomes black. Once thawed, these pears are soft and bittersweet.
Apricot peel water – 杏皮水
The apricots here are so famous that they gave rise to an actual festival.
Perhaps the most typical dish of Dunhuang is the juice made from apricot peels (杏皮水, xìngpíshuǐ), which are fresh and thirst quenching. At the night market you can find them literally on every corner.
Suggestions and cultural aspects
At the majority of tourist attractions, there are various types of discounts, such as those for students. I recommend that you always have handy your valid student ID if you have one.
Some prices could vary compared to those listed in this guide, I always recommend that you check with the ticket office itself. Hotels usually offer guided packages, whose prices are higher than paying directly at the attraction, but could save you time organizing it.
There seems to be a bus service that runs the route from Dunhuang to the two passes Yang and Yumen, but online information is unclear: ask for more information at the hotel where you’ll be staying or at the station.
As with any trip, remember that you are a guest here: respect local traditions and let yourself get swept away by the rich culture of the place.
Then (you must) negotiate prices, but keep in mind that there are agreements among the various merchants that at a certain threshold they won’t go any lower. For example, for camel rides on the dunes, you won’t find anything under 100 yuan.
I hope this guide has been useful to you. Leave a question below to let me know what you think or to give us other suggestions on visiting Dunhuang!
[Photo Credits (Creative Commons CC0): Pixabay.com]