This is the map I used to describe our intended China itinerary in my brief “Phase III: China” post in early April. What I didn’t mention at the time was how nervous I was about visiting Western China. Pick a concern (food, language, hygiene, transport, possible ethnic violence) and I’m sure I wound myself up in knots worrying about it – without even once considering changing our itinerary. The adrenalin rush that comes from such stresses is why I am a travel junkie.
Point J on the map is Jiayuguan, point K is Turpan, Dunhuang is in between the two. I dithered about whether or not to stop in Dunhuang. The guidebooks raved about beautiful grape arbors in Turpan while Dunhuang seemed to be getting a travel-writer brush-off with descriptions of a “boring, modern city” even as the nearby Mogao Caves were cited as a must-see stop on any Silk Road itinerary. It was all very confusing really. In the end the physical distance facilitated our decision: we could get a daily bus from Jiayuguan to Dunhuang (5hrs) and then continue on with an overnight train journey from Dunhuang to Turpan. Perfect. We made a half-decision to stop in Dunhuang and see if we liked it and if not to continue on.
The desert landscape was mesmerizing, hour after hour of rough, rocky, flat, hot desert. We passed a wind-farm that seemed to go on for miles. A couple of times we passed new toll plazas gating the entrance from small towns with a few unpaved streets to the highway on which our bus was traveling.
We really liked Dunhuang. The streets are paved with wide sidewalks and the market is orderly, clean and covered. There are plazas with cafes and an open-air night market where you can eat pretty cheaply and in comfort since most of the stalls have tables and chairs set out for customers. None of which explains the lackluster description in Rough Guide and Lonely Planet unless it’s not “authentic” enough any more.
We relaxed and wandered the tidy streets. In the heat of the day we played Jenga in a cafe and wrote postcards. In the evening we rented bicycles and went out to the Singing Sand Dunes. The paved, tree-lined roads with a bike path on either side felt odd for a Chinese city but wonderfully safe – even if none of us had helmets.
At Mingsha Shan the reason for the paved roads and un-Chinese infrastructure in Dunhuang become more clear: the city seems to be a very popular destination for Chinese tourists, and you have to pay a hefty 150yuan just to enter the Sand Dunes area. Inside, you can rent bright orange sand boots, ride a camel, ride a dune-buggy, or even take a private plane ride – all for additional fees. No wonder the city has money to put up street lights and keep the streets and sidewalks clean and paved. There were park fees for pretty much every attraction we visited in the Dunhuang area over the next few days. I’m not complaining, none of the individual fees were exorbitant and the improved infrastructure did make our visit more pleasant – it was just different for China.
So, strangely, we started our two weeks in the Western-most part of China, the part of our visit to China that I’d been most concerned about, by stopping and enjoying western-style tourism with a Chinese twist in Dunhuang. You just never know how things will work out when you’re on the road
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Information on traveling to China with Children.