Journey to the West (of China): Dunhuang Edition

Article by Jin and Francis

For the first time in 6 months, it was wheels up and we were in the air! After quarantine, work from home, and living behind a mask, travel seemed like a dream come true.

Dunhuang, located in the northwestern part of Gansu province, is a desert oasis. While the word “oasis” might conjure romanticized images of lakes or palm trees, the “desert” is simply not a place people usually go on vacation. So why did we go to Dunhuang? We had never been, and selected it for its relatively low cost, it’s suitability to visit during the summer, and its rich history and culture (also, Gansu had largely been spared by the pandemic). Awaiting us would be Buddhist cave art, sand dunes, rainbow-colored rock formations, picturesque salt lakes and, of course, all the tastiest, freshest lamb we could stuff our faces with. We visited a long list of sites, including The Crescent Lake (yueyaquan) and Mingshashan (a mountain of sand named after the sound of wind blowing across the dunes), Yumen Pass (the gate through which the Silk Road connected China to Central Asia), Western Thousand Buddha Caves (xiqianfodong), Yardang National Geopark, an entertaining (but kind of kitschy) performance called Youjian Dunhuang and, interestingly enough, the world’s largest molten salt solar power plant.

The highlight was, of course, the Mogao Grottoes (mogaoku) and its accompanying museums. Hundreds of caves with Buddhist art spanning 1000+ years exist at the site, although due to visitor restrictions, you can usually only see 4 or 8 caves depending on your ticket type. We were fortunate enough to know a researcher at the Dunhuang Academy, Neil Schmid, who accompanied us through the caves and helped to contextualize their cultural significance: they contain many of the best-preserved original examples of ancient Chinese Buddhist artwork over the longest period of time, anywhere in the world. Additionally, each cave has its own unique design features and, therefore, a unique story to tell depending on its patrons, artists, and the protagonists depicted in the artwork itself.

Getting there was easy enough – our direct flight from Xi’an was only a few hours (there are also overnight trains from Xi’an). We chose a hotel close to “downtown Dunhuang” right next to the city government building, walking distance from the night market, the Thunder Temple (leiyinsi), The Dunhuang Museum, and lamb restaurant called Jingyuan Galiu Meiwei Yanggaorou that was just absolutely divine (we went 3 times for the shouzhuarou, freshly boiled lamb chops). Cabs were always readily available, drivers were friendly and knowledgeable and, as we learned, even received special training on receiving tourists and introducing them to Dunhuang’s many attractions.

After three days in Dunhuang, we then drove a loop south through Qinghai province and then back to Dunhuang. Moreover, we planned it ourselves without organizing our trip through a travel agency. Despite making the decision to travel two days before we left, there were a couple important things we did before departure that made our trip possible:

  1. Nucleic Acid Test (within the last 5-7 days) – since we travelled to Dunhuang, the situation across China has generally improved for foreign passport holders. However, many tourist sites and hotels still require a nucleic acid test from foreigners. Additionally, a nucleic acid test can accelerate your entry to various sites and help you avoid unnecessary mafan (trouble).
  2. Reserve Tickets for the Mogao Grottoes (for Chinese travelers) – Because the daily number of visitors is restricted, Chinese tourists must reserve tickets online ahead of their visit. The “A-Level Tickets” which are the best and allow you to tour the greatest number of caves sell out quickly. Foreign passport holders lack a Chinese ID and, as of this writing, are unable to reserve online. Simply show your foreign passport at the window to pick up an A-Level Ticket when you visit. Each foreign passport holder may also pick up an additional A-Level Ticket for a friend.
  3. Check Hotel Accommodation – Dunhuang is a tourism center, but other parts of Gansu, Qinghai, and far western China generally don’t have the same kind of infrastructure or familiarity with hosting foreigners. We recommend calling hotels and hostels before you book to confirm that they can host foreign passport holders.
  4. Car Rental – If you want to travel around Gansu and Qinghai by yourself, driving is the only way, so either get a license, find a friend with a license, or simply hire a taxi (which is actually highly popular). Also, be prepared to drive 400-700km per day. Most big cities have rental services – Jin used an app to rent a small SUV from Shenzhou Zuche (think Hertz in China), which ended up being around 300RMB per day including insurance and other fees.
  5. Speak Chinese – outside of Dunhuang, Lanzhou, and Xining, it is rare to find staff who speak fluent English.

As for our itinerary, it roughly followed the map below, starting and ending in Dunhuang (top left corner).

Jin and Francis are both teachers in Xi’an, and love exploring food. They can be contacted at and