We reached Dunhuang a couple of hours later than expected the next day and made our way to the Dune Guesthouse to arrange our adventures for the next couple of days. Since we arrived late, we didn’t really have time to do much before embarking on an overnight camel trek. This meant we had to figure out a way to do everything we wanted to do in one day instead of two. In the end we figured it all out and had a great experience in Dunhuang.
Dunhuang is an oasis town in the northern end of Gansu province at the edge of the Gobi Desert. It was a stop on the ancient Silk Road and has since developed into a little city built around tourism. Bordered by sand dunes, remnants of ancient great walls and the crown jewel of Buddhist grottoes, this area is a fantastic time capsule and definitely worth a visit.
Our first night in Dunhuang was spent out on the dunes. We arranged with Charley of Charley Johng’s cafe and the Dune Guesthouse to go out on an overnight camel trip with Mr. Li. I had read about this from the moment I began researching our trip and wanted to do it. Only positive reviews can be found since the positives completely outweigh the negatives.
We started out about 5:30 p.m. from Li’s home. There were four of us in total with Li, Aaron, myself and Brad, another Texan traveling around China. Li walked and the camels followed with us on their backs. The couple hour journey, which is longer than you think, took us out to the desert across the dunes. Along the way we passed by desert graves, similar yet different from graves all around China.
When we found our campsite, Li told us to climb a nearby dune to watch the sunset. We fumbled up with the soft sand giving way and made it to the top of a grand Gobi dune only to be sand-blasted. We quickly went down to get out of the wind. The sun wasn’t setting for a while, so we didn’t miss anything. As it got later, we each lost our shoes to the soft sand and climbed another less daunting dune for the sunset, which in the end wasn’t that spectacular, but the surroundings were.
The sun set at 9:30 and we got down to camp with dinner ready by 10:00. It was a simple meal of ramen soup and rolls that in the desert was delicious and filling. After dinner we all found a place to lay on the sand and gaze at the stars. I couldn’t help but ponder the meaning of the Biblical phrase “as the stars of the heaven, and as the sand which is upon the sea shore.” It was easy to ponder just about anything at that moment because of the tranquility of the night.
In China, a land of one fifth of the world’s population, it is hard to be in a place of complete silence and peace. In the cities there is always noise like car horns or fireworks and everywhere you go you are bound to find people, but out there, under the stars, you can find that moment. This has only happened twice for me in China — in Dunhuang out on the dunes camping and on the Li River in Guangxi when we turned off our boat motor and floated surrounded by majesty for a few moments.
Our reverie of the sound of silence ended after a couple of hours by some rain that came from one of the little white clouds floating by. We scurried into our tents and tried to sleep on the lumpy warm sand. It would have been more comfortable where we sat star gazing but not with the rain. Later I stepped out for a minute and witnessed an even more brilliant site with no wispy clouds and the brightest I remember ever seeing the Milky Way, which was helped by a new moon. It was breathtaking.
Mr. Li woke us up just before sunrise to go up and watch it. We climbed a nearby dune to see the sun peaking up on the horizon. We also found evidence of desert creatures by means of tracks from little lizards and mice and hares. We even saw some of the lizards. They run with their bodies high above the sand and flick their tails to distract would-be predators from their well camouflaged bodies.
Soon after we got back on the camels, whose names I never learned (I decided to name mine Nile after my student who loves the desert and Dunhuang), and rode back to town. It was a wonderful experience that I would highly recommend.