For more than a millenium, Dunhuang on the ancient Silk Road was one of the ancient world’s most important meeting places of East and West. This unique history is reflected in today’s city which is again hosting a growing number of Silk Road explorers attracted by a cultural legacy of global significance.
Modern pilgrims to Dunhuang are drawn above all by the incomparable art treasures of the Mogao Caves. In the fourth century, wandering monks began carving caves in a river cliff. Originally intended as prayer cells these grottos would come to accommodate the artistic efforts of a thousand nameless artists, over a thousand years. It is these UNESCO protected heritage sites, the murals and statues housed in the Western Thousand Buddha Caves, Yulin Caves and most famously, the Mogao Caves, that underpinned Dunhuang’s emergence as a world class tourist destination.
Visitors can also roam the crumbling frontier of the Han empire of 2000 years ago. The Han, like many of China’s great dynasties, were bent on defending their empire from the marauding hoards of the “Western Regions” (Xiyu,) as the western world beyond China was known. The original Great Wall, begun during Qin Shihuang’s reign, was extended to Dunhuang. Passes like the Jade Gate and Sun Gate were established as early border gates and their names were full of romantic resonance for centuries of Chinese poets. The remnants of the Han Great Wall, including 20 beacons, a military granary and customs office, have been preserved by the dry climate and are now major sightseeing draws.
If its historical legacy enough to get you booking your ticket, Dunhuang offers plenty more for travellers in the surrounding desert. Whether you seek silence in the eerie rock formations of the Dunhuang Yadan National Geopark, camel trekking across the dunes of Mingsha Hill, or fine wine in the surreal oasis village of Grape Valley, it is the diversity of the environment that strokes awe in visitors. Indeed, it reasonable to say that the otherworldliness of the landscape, and the incorporeal art it has inspired, are inseparable – they made each other. And it is the combination of geography and heritage that make this ancient border land a truly special and unique place to visit, one that can only truly be experienced first-hand.