After traveling for hours towards Dunhuang, the flat, barren desert landscape suddenly gives way to lush, green cultivated fields with mountainous rolling sand dunes as a backdrop. The area has a certain haunting beauty, especially at night under a star-studded sky. It’s not so much the desert duties and romantic nights that at tract so many tourists to Dunhuang, but the superb Buddhist art at the nearby Mogao Caves.
During the Halt and Tang dynastic, Danhuang was a major point of interchange, between China and the outside world – a stopping-off post for both incoming and outgoing trading caravans. Despite a surge in tourism-related development, the town still has a fairly relaxed feel to it and it’, easy to kick back here for a few days.
A small branch of the Bank of China, on Yanaguan Zhonalu, is open daily and can change cash and travellers cheques. The larger bank opposite doesn’t close for lunch, but is closed on weekends.
Post & Communications
The post and telephone office is on the north-western side of the main traffic circle. There is an Internet cafe just north-east of the post office. It charges Y4 per hour. A number of others are found throughout downtown and should all charge the same.
CITS (Tel: 882 3012) has a branch inside Dunhuang Binguan. There are other travel agents scattered about town, sequestered in various hotels. Most can book train and air tickets, as well as tours to surrounding sights such as the South Pass and the Jade Gate Pass.
The PSB foreign affairs office is in the main PSB building on Yangguan Zhonglu, near the Bank of China. As of 2001 no visa extensions were being given here.
Xian BowuguanThis museum (Tel: 882 3981, Yangguan Donglu: admission Y10: open 8am-12pm & 2.30pm-6pm daily) makes for a pleasant browse.Exhibits include some of the Tibetan and Chinese scriptures unearthed from Cave No 17 at Mogao, sacrificial objects from the Hall to Tang dynasties, and relics such as silks, brocades and reed torches for the beacons from the South Pass and the Jade Gate Pass.
Places to Stay
Most hotels in Dunhuang vary the rates by season. The tourist season is from June to September and hotel rates rise by about 50% or more at that time. The rates quoted in this section are for the low season.
Places to Stay – Budget
Feitian Binguan (Tel: 882 2337, Mingshan Lu) Dorm beds/twins from Y30/320. This two-star hotel offers a good location. Beds are in clean, multi-bed dorms and the twins are comfortable.
Wuhukn Zhaodaisuo (Five Rings Olympic Hotel: Tel: 882 2620, Mingshan Lu) Dorm beds Y12-25, twins with bath Y80. This place has dicey shared facilities but it’s dirt heap and the rooms are clean. The staff is fairly friendly. To top things off, it has 24hour hot water.
Youhao Binguan (Tel: 882 2678, Mingshan Lu) Dorm beds Y20, twins/triples with bath Y80/200. The rooms with a private bathroom are surprisingly good here, some with new renovations.
Mingshan Binguan (Tel: 882 2122, Mingshan Lu) Quads from Y20 per bed, twins with bath Y80-220. This old-style place has comfortable twins, some of which have been recently spruced up. For the money it’s not a bad deal and it’s conveniently located.
There are two places in town calling themselves the ‘Dunhuang Hotel’ in English, but they have different Chinese names.
Dunhuang Fandian (Tel: 882 2413, fax 882 2785, 16 Mingshan Lu) Quads/triples with shared bath Y20/25 per bed, twins with private bath Y160 per person, suites with air-con Y360. This place is the budget alternative, near the bus station.
Places to Stay – Mid-Range
Dunhuang Binguan (Tel: 882 2415, fax 882 2309, 14 Yangguan Donglu) Twins with breakfast Y580-650. This larger hotel is a three-star place aimed at tour groups and visiting cadres. The staff is friendly and the gardens here are quite pleasant, but the catch is the overpriced rooms. The rooms are comfortable and come with a fridge. Although rates are negotiable, it still isn’t really worth the money.
Places to Stay – Top End
Dunhuang Shanzhuang (Silk Road Dunhuang Hotel; Tel: 888 2088, fax 888 2086) Twins US$100, stylish suites from USS 150. The twins here are nicely decorated and the suites are stylish. A 15% service charge is added to all rates. During the low season, prices drop by 50% to 80% and there is no service charge. Although expensive, this is a tastefully designed place and, being only a kilometer from the Mingsha Shan sand dunes, it enjoys great sunrise and sunset views. It is 4km south of town.
Places to Eat
Charlie Johng’s Cafe (Mingshan Lu) Dishes from Y4. This place has good Western and Chinese food at cheap prices, plus an English menu and nice background music (you can bring your own tapes if you wish).
Shirley’s Cafe (Mingshan Lu) Dishes from Y4. This cafe is also pretty good. Shirley is Charlie Johng’s sister.
John’s Information Cafe Dishes from Y4. This place inside the grounds of Feitian Binguan has a nice outdoor location (for those evening beers) and friendly staff who can also help with travel arrangements and information.
On this same block there are numerous Chinese restaurants – most have English menus, reasonable prices and are worth trying. A popular local dish speciality is dapanji, a whole chicken cut up and stir-fried with potatoes, herbs and vegetables, and served on a bed of noodles. It usually costs between Y35 to Y50, but you’ll need three people at the very least to finish the thing, so it’s not that pricey and certainly worth a try.
Dunhuang’s night market is an extremely lively scene and worth a visit. Mostly contained within a large courtyard off Yan-guan Donglu. it houses scores of restaurants and small tables surrounded by lawn chairs and a drinking hostess. The tables are rented out by entrepreneurs who charge fairly steep prices for beer, soft drinks, tea and the pourer. Instead, you might prefer a tasty roujiamo, delicious noodle-and-vegie baozi (large fried dumpling), and yoghurt from one of the nearby barbecue vendors.
Getting There & Away
In the summer high season from June to September there are regular flights to Lanzhou (Y940), Xi’an (Y1340), Beijing (Y1650) and Urumqi (Y650). Flights to Jiayuguan (Y420) only operate from July to September. Flight frequency is cut during the winter months to just Lanzhou and Xi’an. Seats can be booked at the CAAC office (Tel: 882 2389) on Yangguan Donglu, which is open from 8.30am to 11.30am and 3pm to 6pm. China Northwest Airlines has a ticket office (Tel: 882 9710) along Mingshan Lu.
Minibuses to Liuyuan depart from the bus station when full. The last bus usually leaves around 8pm. The fare is Y 10 to Y21. The trip usually takes 2 1/2 hours, but can take up to four hours if there’s a sand storm blowing.
There are three or four buses to Jiaynguan leaving between 6.30am and 1pm (Y45, up to seven hours). There is also a more comfortable air-con bus that departs at 2.30pm (Y66, five hours).
Departures to Lanzhou are at 10.30am and 2.30pm each day. Regular buses cost Y135; sleepers Y214. The 1148km trip takes at least 22 hours.
The regular bus to Golmud (Y45) leaves at 8am, and takes 12 hours via a rugged but scenic route that crosses the snow-capped Altun Shan. There is also a sleeper bus (Y80) at 5.30pm. Arrive early enough to store your luggage on the roof. It’s chilly up in the mountains, so keep some warm clothing handy regardless of how hot it may be in Dunhuang itself.
The closest station is at Liuyuan, on he Lanzhou-Uriimqi railway line.
Dunhuaug’s airport is 13km east of town. Aside from the CAAC bus (Y6), you can hire a minibus to the airport for about Y30.
Dunhuang is small enough that you can easily cover it on foot, but taxis and minivans can be chartered for trips to sights outside town. The minibus stop near Dunhuang Fandian is the place to go to start the negotiations.
Feitian Binguan has modern and well-maintained bikes for a reasonable Y2 per hour. Otherwise, just across the street there are a number of stalls that rent bikes for Y1 per hour. A bit of exploratory pedalling round the oasis is fine, and getting to some outlying sights is also possible, although maybe not such a great idea during the height of summer.