Dunhuang Travel Guide
From caves filled with Buddha images to the remains of the western perimeter of the Great Wall, there is plenty to see, do, and experience here.
Come check out our Dunhuang travel guide as we cover the best things to do in Dunhuang, China.
Make the Mogao Caves a priority of any visit to Dunhuang. Dating back to the Tang Dynasty, the network of caverns which are also known as the Cave of a Thousand Buddhas was started by a monk who after having a dream where he envisioned thousands of Buddhas enveloped by a golden light, felt compelled to carve out what he had witnessed.
The works are spread out over 750 individual caves and were carried out over ten successive dynasties from the time they were started. During your day trip here, you’ll get to see countless iterations of the Buddha, from colourful murals to reliefs and even full-size statues.
Want to experience the best of the Mogao Caves, but time is a precious commodity to you and your travel party? Check out the Dunhuang Grotto Art Centre. Located across from the caves, this centre was built into a hillside to preserve eight of the original caves viewed as some of the most valuable of the lot.
In addition to the artworks protected within, it also houses relics recovered from all the other caves, showing them off to visitors in a secure but clean setting. Even if you have time on your side, make sure you include this excellent museum in your travel itinerary while you explore the Mogao Caves.
Dunhuang is located in the midst of the vast Gobi Desert – as a result of this, there are lots of dune fields within easy reach of this Western Chinese city. Of them, the ones in Mingsha Shan Park are the best of the lot, as they tower over the surrounding landscape.
Stretching for 40 kilometres in length and 20 kilometres wide, and with a peak elevation of 250 metres, this protected range of sand dunes are among the Four Singing Sands of China. When you aren’t busy climbing these hulking masses of sand, there is also an oasis known as Crescent Lake.
A small spring fed lake in the shape of a crescent moon, there is a cute temple which sits at its shore – the perfect place to chill out after spending hours scrambling and taking camel rides through the dunes.
The Gobi Desert offers more than just towering mountains of sand – there are rock formations which have been sculpted by millions of years of sand and wind erosion. You’ll find plenty of these within the bounds of Yadan National Geological Park.
While it is a fair distance from town – 180 kilometres to be exact – the time it takes to get there will be well worth the time spent in the back of your tour guide’s van. While many formations are referred to by how closely they resemble man-made monuments, rest assured that they have been sculpted by natural forces, not by human hands (even if some have had Chinese characters carved into them).
It can get really hot out here during peak season, so remember to take plenty of water, and protect yourself from the sun by donning a hat and sunscreen.
Get caught up on the past history of the region by spending an hour or two exploring the Dunhuang Museum. Here, you’ll find additional artifacts taken from the Mogao Caves, relics recovered or donated by local families which comprise thousands of years of local history, and exhibits which explain the role of Dunhuang as a waypoint on the Silk Road.
There are models of what it used to look like at the height of its glory, but there are still remnants of the Great Wall of Dunhuang which can be visited while you are in the region. Unlike other parts of the Great Wall, the portions near Dunhuang were not made of stone, but of rammed earth and sand.
While strong enough to keep out unwanted incursions, it fell to assaults and earthquakes over the 2,000 years which have passed since it was completed. Now, you’ll find fragments of the former barrier, standing alone in pieces throughout the Gobi Desert, their edges slowly getting rounded off by the grit of sand and force of the wind.
While the Dunhuang Great Wall is currently a shadow of its former self, major pieces like the Yumen Pass will appeal to those who are looking for something just a bit more substantial. A manned fort which acted as a checkpoint for the Silk Road where it passed through the Great Wall, its beefy defences still stand strong even in the present day.
Situated a fair distance from town, it is best seen as part of a comprehensive Great Wall tour rather than as a stand-alone attraction.
End your time in Dunhuang by indulging in local food and drink at the Shazhou Night Market. The fare here is filling and heavy on meat and wheat noodles. There are options for vegetarians, but they are not as prolific as what you’ll find on the coast.