Painted Buddhas and Singing Dunes
Our driver is lost in the dark. We are trying to find the railway station to catch the night train from Turpan to Dunhuang. However, there is no railway station in Turpan – or in Dunhuang, for that matter. The station is in a one-horse town called Daheyan, about an hour’s drive into the Gobi Desert. Clearly, its location is on a strictly need-to-know basis and may even be classified, because there are no signs. The normally unflappable Mr Peng stops the car at a cross roads in the middle of nowhere and flags down a passing car to ask directions. Much to our relief, he returns with a new sense of where we are and we reach the station in good time.
Daheyan station is undergoing some fairly major refurbishment and we are told that there is no proper waiting room. Since no one is allowed onto the platform until just before their train arrives, there is a chaotic melee of people in the temporary waiting room that is shared by ‘hard-class’ and ‘soft-class’ passengers. A tense-looking policeman wielding a large wooden baton tries to prevent a stampede when a train is announced. Anyone trying to jump the queue receives a sharp blow. The ‘softies’ peer nervously at the scene from behind a screen. Brief attempts at fraternisation between the classes (the ‘softies’ are mostly European tourists and the hard-classers are local – predominantly Uighur) are discouraged.
By the time our train is announced, most of the hard-classers have already departed, so embarkation is an orderly affair. Our carriage is occupied by a us and a group of Scandinavian tourists, so there is no pushing and shoving. The train is comfortable and we are soon lulled to sleep by the rhythmic movement.
We reach ‘Dunhuang’ station shortly after daybreak. It is in a small town called Liuyuan, a two-hour drive from Dunhuang. We watch the Scandinavian group depart in their coach and experience a moment of nervousness before our new guide, Vicky, and driver, Mr. Liu, declare themselves. With relief, we are ushered into our vehicle and driven in comfort to Dunhuang.
Dunhuang is an important oasis town on the southern side of the Gobi Desert. It has been a crucial Silk Road city for centuries because of its position at the western end of the narrow Gansi corridor, lined by the mountains leading to the Tibetan plateau to the south and by the Gobi desert to the north. Going west from Dunhuang, the Silk Road splits into southern and northern routes to avoid the Taklamakan Desert. We have arrived by the northern route. The southern route skirts the foot of the Tibetan plateau until the routes reunite at Kashgar.
We have come to Dunhuang to experience the Mogao Caves and to ride camels in the sand dunes. We have had a minor preview of Mogao at the Bezeklik Thousand Buddha Caves in Turpan. The Mogao Caves are much more extensive and better preserved. The frescoes were painted by Buddhist monks over period of 1,000 years from the 3rd to the 14th centuries and represent an extraordinary collection of Indian-influenced Buddhist art. Many of the originals were removed by foreign collectors in the early 20th century, including a collection of 13,000 manuscripts which now form the basis of the British Museum’s collection. But the caves are now well cared for and access is strictly controlled. Our English-speaking guide, Michael, is passionate about them and by the end of our tour we are exhausted and much the wiser.
What we are passionate about is riding camels in the dunes. Corny it may be, but we are suckers for camel rides! The wonderful dunes behind our hotel are not singing today, as they do when the wind blows, but they look the part as do our camels, who are very well-mannered beasts in comparison with some dromedaries we have known. Honour is satisfied.
We have really enjoyed Dunhuang. The caves were amazing (truly), the hotel was good and we had our camel ride!