From the Mogao Caves we hopped in a taxi for the day to visit a few other sites outside of Dunhuang including a 2,000 year old wall and gate and Yadan National Park where Zhang Yimou’s Hero was filmed.
1,000 Buddha Caves
Just outside of Dunhuang is another set of Buddhist grottoes. Today there are only a handful but this site originally had more caves than the Mogao site because it was right on the Silk Road in a ravene with river and shade, according to the tour guide. However, because of that river and desert flash floods only a few remain.
These caves were also carved and decorated nearly 1,500 years ago but because of damage from floods many of them were redecorated in the last few hundred years. The frescoes and statues aren’t nearly as impressive as the Mogao Caves and each cave that we saw was basically the same in layout and size.
If you visit these caves definitely have your own torch or flashlight so you can look at some stuff on the back walls the guide doesn’t point out. My favorite image was of a Buddha lying on his side at the back of one of the cave. If you look closely at his face you’ll see a curly goatee with matching mustache. Usually, Buddha is shown with graceful and soft womanly features so facial hair is a unique motif.
Han Dynasty Wall and Jade Gate Pass
From the caves we drove out to the desert to see a wall and gate still standing from a couple hundred years before Christ during the old Han Dynasty of western China.
The gate is a large square building made of mud and reeds with walls a few meters thick. It was a check post for people entering the region on the Jade Road. It is an imposing structure that once had walls running from it for miles in either direction to other gates on the border.
A bit further up the road is some of the better preserved wall from the same era also made of mud and reeds. We saw wall fragments running along the road but at the designated stop to see it there are some bigger sections giving visitors a better idea of what they may have looked like in their glory day. Also at the wall pullout are remnants of some bastions that once lined the wall.
Yadan National Park
Right at the edge of Gansu province and Xinjiang province is an ancient lake bed with the look of a distant planet that has been used to set the scene for different movies most notably Zhang Yimou’s Hero. In some places there are miles of nothing but pebble flats. In other places there are rock formations caused by centuries of erosion.
Of course, in true Chinese fashion, every rock has a name and looks like something. Some are dead on while others take a real stretch of the imagination to conjure the rock’s namesake. When we got there we waited a bit for the bus to load up that would take us through the barren desert. When it was about time our taxi driver found us and took us to a golf cart.
He had arranged a private golf cart tour for us instead of a crowded bus ride with loud Chinese tour guide. We aren’t sure if the driver just wanted us to get done sooner or if there were some other motivation for us to have this special treatment, but we were happy with it.
We were whisked out through the desert and got to see some beautiful scenery. However, it doesn’t quite compare with the natural sandstone formations in southern Utah.
Our long road trip ended by driving the 200 km back to Dunhuang and getting some delicious street bbq amid the bustling nightlife of this desert oasis with the perfect temperature for hanging out outside. After a night in Charlie Johng’s hostel in downtown Dunhuang we hopped on a train and headed for Beijing.
Dunhuang is a great city with fascinating adventures available for just about anyone. I highly recommend a visit to this desert oasis on the Silk Road.