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Dun Huang - The Gateway on the Silk Road

Valentina, Valentina's Sister, Me

sunny 40 °C

This is the story of a group of young girls venturing to enjoy the most sumptuous gastronomy and to see the most spectacular desert formations.
Introducing the protagonists:
Unique Traits
- loves to play games on Ipad/Ipod/anything that starts with I
- -never tired during the whole trip – hyper-energetic
- takes sinister pleasure in catching peccadillos in my Chinese and claims to have a large collection that she threatens to share with our mutual friends

Lu Lu
- cousin to Valentina
- Older than us, has already started work, but looks and acts naturally youthful
- Always wins the upper edge in the friendly banter with Valentina, has a whole arsenal of witty comebacks

- honestly, I realized that I have a propensity for uniqueness
- can pull off an adorable appearance to make people accept my small offenses
- adventurous, daring, intrepid except when it comes to eating funny things…

Valentina’s Daddy
- friend to my daddy
Liu Shu Shu
- colleague to Valentina’s Daddy

Day 1 Friday afternoon July 14

I pledged to my team leader and supervisors the day before that I would be working from home on Friday, because I had a flight to catch in the afternoon.

Around 5pm, Valentina and I arrived at the new #3 terminal of the Beijing Airport, checked in speedily, and bought some magazines for the short wait before take-off. We were scared for a second when the status update screen showed every single flight as delayed. But our fear was quickly assuaged by the airline employees, who told us that there were heavy rain in the South causing flight delays. Since we were flying to the West, our flight should be on time.

Little could we foresee that this “should be” would surely and completely turn into a false hypothesis. Beijing had a torrential shower the night before, whose intensity trickled into the next evening. With weather forecasts of shower in Beijing, our flight was met with the same fate as the others. We waited and waited, refusing to eat the comfort meals that the apologetic flight attendants were handing out. Eventually hunger took over and made us submit to the unfortunate situation. At 9:30pm, we finally heard the coveted announcement that our flight commenced boarding. Happily, we embarked on our first leg of the air travel from Beijing to Lanzhou (famous for their handmade noodles). When we laid over in Lanzhou, we sat in the waiting room for another hour until we took off once more, this time to our destination – Dun Huang. At 2:30am, 4 hours behind schedule, we hit the sack in a five-star hotel that Valentina’s Dad had reserved for us.
The deserted airport of Dun Huang

Saturday, July 15
After sleeping for about 5 hours, we felt physically unprepared but psychologically excited for the day's adventurous itinerary. Our tour guide was a mid-thirty, tall and good-humored woman, who has been living in Dun Huang ever since her dad brought her whole family from Xin Jiang to settle here when she was still a child. Valentina, Lulu, and I sat in the spacious Toyota cruiser, dubbed by the locals with the majestic title of "Desert Prince." Valentina's Dad and two other adults rode in another black car, which had trouble catching up to our "Desert Prince" every time we had to cross over some tough terrains.

Dun Huang's most famous for its vast amount of caves filled with elaborate drawings of Buddhas and large Buddha statues, called Mo Gao Ku. The runner-up on the list is Ming Sha Mountain and Yue Ya lake. The tour guide planned for us to visit all of these "top tourist spots" on Sunday, while Saturday was reserved for a ride into the heart of the natural phenomenon - the Ya Dan Landforms.

Though we had been warned of the extreme heat of the deserts in the West, we only began to understand the meaning of "extreme heat" when we stepped out of the air-conditioned car at the entrance of the Ya Dan Landforms. Scorching heat enveloped our entire bodies in an instant. The winds, carrying 40 degrees Celsius of heat, washed over our faces and limbs as if an iron had roved over us. The skin began to burn at the first contact with the blazing sunshine. The short couple of minutes I took to take pictures left me sweating and panting, defenseless against the debilitating heat.

Sun-kissed smile, hair-pulled messy hair, closer to the desert than I've ever dreamed

Entrance rock

The Ya Dan Landforms are the children of a 300,000 years of sculpting by nature's windy blows and corrosive breaths. Now, there are hundreds of thousands of sculptures scattered over 3000 square miles. Most of these formations have irregular shapes, but like the constellations in the sky, people's imaginations have given some of the them an anphropomorphic identity. Generally speaking, they are mounds of earth and sand shaped like unfinished cylindrical vases, with lateral layers circling around its body from bottom to the top. Or they can be compared to heaps of hay, except taller and skinner.

To catch people's fantasy and make the wander into the expanse of sandy wilderness more purposeful, our guide stopped the car and led us to take a closer look only at a few selected sites. The most memorable ones were a peacock, a marine fleet, and a monk called Tang Seng looking towards the West.

The Ya Dan Landforms were the most memorable part of this trip, because they were uncovered, unadulterated, unabridged. We saw, smelled, and felt the awe of such a breathtaking phenomenon. The was little to none human intervention - which meant we were closer to the distinguished ecosystem, the desert, than we had ever been.

To relieve our exhaustion from the morning expedition, we were taken to a nice village restaurant, and ate under an umbrella of lush grape vines that formed a shady arch over the dining area.
Beautiful vines above us as we dine
The most refreshing green

We went back to our hotel for a brief rest before dinner. I took the opportunity to sit the lobby of this five-star hotel in the desert to practice some sketching. I really need to keep practicing or else my pencils will rust soon.

Dinner venue was recommended by the tour guide. We realized that it was clearly and totally a tourist trap the moment we entered the big hall, lined with four-people wooden tables, with two long tables catering buffet-style dishes standing in the back. To the left, we saw a small stage, which would later bring forth the "authentic" Dun Huang dancing. Though dinner was not very delicious, we were not discouraged because the night market was waiting for us.
The "tourist trap"

At the night market saw lots of local produce. The most attractive item in the whole market to me was the locally grown apricots called Li Guang Xing (李广杏).
Warmth and lights
I alone stand still in this busy street

It was a pity that we only saw preserved apricots, not the fresh fruits, or else I would have carried 10kg of those succulent delicacies back to Beijing.

Dun Huang Art

At the end of the market was the food court, with a fountain in the middle surrounded by tables of chattering, drinking, eating groups of tourists and locals. We got a table and ordered the apricot juices, beers, and some skewers. The table was perfect for card games, and the three of us youths began to play a popular card game (斗地主) alongside the three adults. The night crept away in a bewildering mix of sounds, smells, and sights...
杏皮水- Homemade Apricot Juice

Sunday, July 17
4:00am, I got up from bed and marched into a wake-up shower. Lulu snoozed a bit in bed and sprang up from the tempting sheets to wash up after me.

4:30am, our van played a solo racer down the deserted city streets. Everywhere lit by the headlights, we saw only the patch of asphalt ahead. Our goal was to ride the camels to the summit of the sand mountains to watch the sunrise.

4:45am, we arrived at the gate, standing between the city road and pure desert. We could not beat the crowd. The line stretched for at least 200meters from the entrance. Luckily, our tour guide secretively led us to follow a tourist group, a much faster lane.

We all had to wear bright orange shoe covers!

The crowded camel ground in the dark.

We waited for a while in the middle of the camels’ resting ground. Although our sight was shrouded in darkness, we were acutely aware of the presence of thousands of camels kneeling, standing, and ambling around us. I was put in the same “mini caravan” as Valentina and Lulu, while Valentina’s dad and another adult were put into two other separate caravans. The capacity for each caravan was strictly restricted to five. For some administrative reason, we could not be all united but at least I had two companions. No complaints.

first time on a camel back

As our camels trudged on the sand ridges, we came to see the meandering thread of sillouettes slowly moving ahead of us.


The sands were silent. The night before dawn was undisturbed except for the howls of a single camel waiting at the base. Gradually, the undulating sand forms began to emerge as the first rays of the sun, diffused across the sky, lifted the inky veil over the whole desert.


Unfortunately, we did not see the legendary sunrise. But we did have an early start to the day, which allowed us plenty of time to do some other exciting activities, such as sand sledding.

The funny episode of our sand sledding experience happened after we strenuously climbed the ladder to a high point on the sand mountain and found nobody to guide us on how to use the sleds. As resourceful as we were, we decided to push a sled down to test out the path. The result was unexpectedly helpful. The nonchalant owner quickly responded and shouted at the top of her lungs for us to stop pushing down the sleds. Soon enough, under the threat of our passive rebellion, help was on its way.

The other famous attraction, the crescent-shaped naturally formed lake in the middle of the desert – Yue Ya Lake, was quite a disappointment. I don’t know why but there was a large artificial lake just 100 meters next to the crescent lake. I wonder if the mucky waters, in sharp contrast to the emerald-clear water we were expecting to see, had lived past its history.

Picture surpasses the real scenery

The last destination were the caves that housed precious paintings from the Tang Dynasty and Xi Xia Dynasty. One of the most interesting caves was the historical storage of thousands of valuable Buddhist scripts, discovered by a Daoist monk, Wang, who sold off the scripts for cheap foodstuffs along with the government. Now, these scripts are scattered over 10 countries being exhibited at world-famous museums. Perhaps one day they will find a way home, or perhaps as some believe it was this dispersal of the scripts that drew people’s eyes to develop this wild desert.
Nine-level temple - the only symbolic architecture exposed to the outside and open to photography

The motif on many murals – Fei Tian (Goddess Flying to the Heavens)

On our stop in Xi'An, we stopped over at a small local eatery that sells traditional noodles. Each bowl has only one piece of noodle, but it was enough for a small girl's stomach like me.

Home, home, let me go home. Finally heading home.

Posted by Ceci's Cre 21:04 Archived in China

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