In antiquity, when the Silk Road ran to China’s doorstep, Dunhuang in Gansu province was a flourishing center for trade. Today, almost 200,000 people live here in an oasis in the Gobi Desert. It’s one of the most magical travel destinations in the country.
The top attraction is the Mogao Caves, a sprawling complex of close to 500 caves. Dating from the fourth century, the caves hold the most stunning cultural collection of its kind, including colorful wall paintings, statues of Buddhas and rolls of manuscripts found in the so-called Library Cave. Sadly, thousands of the 50,000 manuscripts and items were sold and taken outside China, including the Diamond Sutra, one of the world’s oldest printed books. Some 40 of the caves are open to tourists, including the Library Cave and No. 148 with its sleeping Buddha.
Not far away is Crescent Lake, named after its shape. Sandwiched between two huge sand dunes, the lake has survived centuries of winds blowing sand off the dunes. The pagoda on the lake’s southern shore makes for a striking photo when the sun is low.
Climb the dune behind the pagoda to go sand surfing or simply enjoy a great view of the lake and other tourists riding in camel trains. The best view, though, is from an ultralight plane.
Head west into the desert to see windswept rock formations in Yardang National Geopark and the ruins of Yumen Pass, once a part of the Great Wall that the Silk Road ran through.
Back in Dunhuang, visit the night market for spicy noodles and apricot peel water. (T)